Since the MLB Lockout began in December, very little news has emerged about actual progress being made in negotiations.
One side makes a proposal, the other side hates it, and we continue on. But late last week, reports seemed to indicate that one thing the players had agreed the owners could implement was a ban on the defensive shift.
If you’ve watched or discussed baseball in the last decade or so, you know defensive shifting is a hot-button issue. Most teams implement shifts to varying degrees, and shifting strategy often operates at a pitch-by-pitch level. And fans are divided as to whether or not shifting should be part of the game.
First of all, any effort to ban the shift would require a major re-working of MLB rules. When I last read through them, the only two positions on the field that were defined were the pitcher and catcher. You can have a guy who stands just to the left of the pitcher and call him “Assistant to the Pitcher” because the rules won’t stop you.
Further, the rulebook – as Braves fans can painfully attest – doesn’t even define where the infield is. Infield dimensions also aren’t outlined in the rules, just the distance between bases.
So before superfluous shifting can even be curtailed a little, a number of infielders and outfielders for each team would have to be decreed, and then definitions would have to be put in place for where the infield actually is. Then a determination would have to be made as to whether this rule change affects the infield fly rule or not.
But beyond that, we have to ask why we’re banning the shift.
Folks will tell you that something has to be done because the whole game is down to strikeouts and home runs. That simply isn’t true, though.
In 1991 – a year I chose because 30 years is a nice, round number – the average MLB team accumulated 1,406 hits and 938 strikeouts over the course of the season. In 2021, the average team racked up 1,316 hits and 1,405 strikeouts. So yes, strikeouts were way up, but the shift can’t really affect that number too much, if any.
Of those 1,406 hits in 1991, 992 (70.6 percent) were singles, while the average team was good for 834 singles in 2021 (63.4 percent). While homers were a good bit more prevalent in 2021 – 15 percent to about 9 percent in 1991 – doubles were also up last season. The league average was 250 doubles (17.8 percent) back in 1991, while that number was up to 262 in 2021, or almost 20 percent.
Triples happened very rarely in both years with both numbers hovering around 2 percent. Those are also so situation- and stadium-specific that it’s tricky to read anything from them, in my opinion.
So while the data does reflect that strikeouts and homers are occurring at a notably higher rate, singles still make up almost two thirds of the hits accumulated for the average MLB team. And homers being up 6 percentage points over the totals from 30 years ago, despite current players having grown up in a baseball era when power and launch angle reigned supreme, seems like less of a jump than one might expect.
We also can’t forget that banning the shift won’t lower the home run numbers, it would just increase the single numbers and perhaps increase scoring. But scoring is already up to 4.53 runs per game, as compared to 4.31 in 1991. So is that something that really needs to happen?
All in all, I’ll gladly accept some sort of shift ban if it means baseball comes back sooner rather than later. But I’m not sure I see the point. The numbers don’t reflect much of a reason for such a drastic change in the baseball rules.