Sunday, January 25, 2015

Ban the Shift? Sheesh.

Well, it didn't take MLB Commissioner Bud Selig Rob Manfred long to fire another salvo against teams that use their smarts versus their wallets to win baseball game.

"Things like eliminating shifts, I would be open to those sorts of ideas," Manfred told ESPN."We have really smart people working in the game and they're going to figure out ways to get a competitive advantage. I think it's incumbent upon us in the commissioner's office to look at the advantages produced and say, 'Is this what we want to happen in the game?'"

Huh? Is he saying teams are too smart for their own good? Or is the message that SABR savvy teams are draining the offense out of baseball by their various strategies, killing interest in the game? Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports tweets (here and here) that the idea, as silly as it seems, may gain some serious traction around the league. He wrote:

"This is very telling: I ran Rob Manfred's idea to limit defensive shifts by two sabermetrically inclined GMs - and both said they agree. Both essentially said same thing: The game is better when the casual fans gets the product they want. Big concern baseball isn't delivering."

Hmmm. The last decade produced all 10 of the best-attended seasons in MLB history. The new national TV pact has teams rolling in dough. Sounds like fixing something that isn't broken.

We assume the metric that is Manfred's driver is World series TV ratings. Four of the five series that have put up the poorest TV numbers in history have been played since 2010. Since 2000, three of the five top viewed October Classic have been during Yankee series. So that appears to be where the casual fan and "the product" comes into play. The age of the average fan is trending up, too, and appealing to the younger go-go generation may be a part of the discussion.

Though the shift - three guys on one side of the bag - has gained in popularity in recent years (lookin' at you, Joe Maddon), it dates back to the twenties, and was originally called the "Boudreau" or "Williams" shift because Indian's manager Lou Boudreau used it against the Red Sox's Ted Williams starting in the forties. The Bucs have utilized it at the big-league level since 2011 and have long had it in place throughout their organization.

Well, may not need these much longer (from Brooks Baseball)
The truth be told, shifts affect just pull hitters, especially lead-footed ones and lefties (the SS can't make a play from short left nearly as well as a 2B can from short right because of the distance), with the corollary that a team that commits to the shift also has to commit to either power or ground-ball pitchers to be effective. And the infield shift isn't the only defensive ploy going on.

Middle infielders cheat up the middle in DP situations and move dependent on the pitch, game situation and batter, toward the hole or closer to the line. Outfielders shift left, right, shallow and deep. Catchers frame pitches. Pitchers work up and down, in and out, off and on the plate. LOOGYS are one-and-done. So we're looking at a potentially very slippery slope; there are a lot of moving pieces chipping away at hitters.

Of course, a change won't be all that drastic. The league will float a rule that there can be just two infielders on one side, and teams' smart guys, being smart guys, will come up with a data-driven alignment that's not exactly the same thing, but will serve the same purpose. The small fish learn to adapt if they want to swim in this league.

But the message it sends that the league wants to dummy down the game so the big money teams don't have to deal with gnats isn't a good one for lesser revenue clubs. First Selig took away big draft bonuses after the Bucs stole Josh Bell, and now Manfred wants to take away analysis-based strategy (ie, smart baseball); heaven forbid that a batter counters. Every step forward...

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