Image credit: The Dodgers employ an extreme defensive shift during a 2014 game. (Photo by Denis Poroy/Getty Images)
LAS VEGAS — Just before the Winter Meetings began, The Athletic’s Jayson Stark published an article that said, in part, that Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred was considering a plan that would eliminate extreme shifting.
The article noted that the topic had strong support from MLB’s competition committee, which met during November’s owners meetings in Chicago. There would be a long way to go before any changes were made, but it’s clear there’s at least some faction of the game that believes the trend has gone too far.
After two days of the Winter Meetings, it’s clear that major league managers do not fall among that group. During their individual sessions with media, not one manager came out in support of curtailing shifts.
Milwaukee manager Craig Counsell, a 16-year big leaguer who played all around the infield, didn’t even want to entertain the idea.
“You can say I was wrong, (but) I just can’t see it happening,” Counsell said. “I’ll just say, I don’t see the sense in banning the shift at all. I don’t see how it improves the game.
“I think it’s a strategic part of the game that is one of the things that makes our game fun … Let’s find strategies to win baseball games. That’s why we love the game, because we spend hours—that’s why you (reporters) have jobs, because we talk about strategy all the time.”
The website Baseball Savant’s data says that the Brewers shifted 1,393 times in 2018, or 23 percent of total plate appearances. Those figures rank them as the eighth-heaviest shifting team in the majors last year.
The Brewers’ had three players—Mike Moustakas, Curtis Granderson and Eric Thames—who were shifted on in more than 50 percent of their plate appearances in 2018. Of that trio, only Thames started the season with Milwaukee. Granderson and Moustakas came to the club via midseason trade.
The Astros shifted their defense more than any other club in 2018, executing 2,191 shifts in 5,879 plate appearances, for a rate of 37.3 percent. So it’s no surprise that their manager, A.J. Hinch, also was strongly against the idea of limiting the way his team could deploy its fielders.
“I think our game is built around a lot of things. And it’s funny, change is not necessarily the strength of our game. And when things changed toward the shift a little bit, we fought it, and now we’re going to change unshifting if that’s the case. But we’ll play by the rules whatever we’re told to,” he said.
“I’m not sure I’m convinced that unshifting however many feet that we have, or I’ve heard people talk about the depths of the infield or where we play our second baseman or what the rules are going to apply, is that going to produce more batting average? Maybe. More runs? Debatable. A more energized and entertaining game? I doubt it.”
Anyone who’s watched the game in recent years can see that the shift disproportionately affects lefthanded hitters. The 40 most-shifted hitters in 2018 were all lefthanders, with Baltimore’s Chris Davis topping the list by facing a shift in a whopping 91.9 percent (475 of 517) plate appearances. Davis’ teammate Colby Rasmus was No. 2 on the list, with 89.4 percent of his PAs resulting in a shift.
The most-shifted righty? Cleveland’s Edwin Encarnacion, at 55.3 percent of his PAs. He is the only righthander, according to Baseball Savant’s data, who was shifted upon more than half the time
Athletics manager Bob Melvin—who won Baseball America’s Manager of the Year award—doesn’t see shifting as something particularly difficult to remedy. The onus, he said, is squarely on the hitters.
“There’s an easy way to combat (shifts),” he said. “Just hit the ball the other way. If you start hitting the ball the other way, getting hits that way, it will shift back around. Baseball is a game of adjustment. I’m not for (banning the shift). We’ll see where it goes.”
Players, too, have made their opinions on the matter public. Rangers slugger Joey Gallo, who was shifted on 84.2 percent of the time in 2018, would be OK never seeing the defense move to the right side of the diamond every time he came to the plate.
“This is all I want for Christmas … ” Gallo tweeted in response to Stark’s article. Cardinals infielder Matt Carpenter joined Gallo, tweeting, “I’d fly to the North Pole with you and ask Santa in person for this.”
Brewers minor league pitcher Jon Perrin, unsurprisingly, was not amused about the idea of the league putting limits on what the defense could do behind him.
“Banning the shift is the baseball equivalent of communism. You can’t dictate where teams want to put their players on defense. If a guy hits the ball to one side of the field 60+% of the time. I’m going to put more defenders there. Don’t want a shift? Hit the ball the other way,” he tweeted.
The idea behind the proposal, of course, is aimed at decreasing inaction while increasing offense and making the game more entertaining and appealing to the average fan. The sentiment wasn’t lost on new Reds manager David Bell, who was the only skipper BA spoke to who was anything but staunchly against the idea of a shift ban.
“First of all, the most important thing is what the fans want, so, I mean, that is what is best for our game and what’s best for our fans is the most important,” Bell said, before agreeing with the rest of his colleagues.
“My opinion, I like the shift because as a defensive player and a defensive coach you want to play where you think the offense is going to hit the ball. So when you’re positioning yourself with that in mind, I think that would take away a little bit of the challenges of positioning.”
Any clamps on what defenses can and cannot do are a long way off, but the first two days of the Winter Meetings have made it clear that big league managers like things just the way they are.