Theo Epstein Talks About Limits on Shifting and How It Could Actually Bring Back Great Defense

We haven’t heard a whole lot about rules changes lately, with most of that having worn out its welcome in the discourse by the second week of the regular season. For now, it’s still mostly all quiet (which, to me, suggests the changes in the minor leagues are still going well), but we know some big changes are probably coming to the big leagues next year, especially with the league having secured the ability to make certain rules changes unilaterally with short notice. The chatter is coming eventually.

Among those likely big changes next year? Limits on shifting. The precise contours of those limits are still being debated, as well as what exactly the impact will be – ask a few different analytically-inclined people and you’ll get a few different answers, especially if you talk about near-term and long-term impacts – but most expect that some limits on extreme shifting are coming. General guess is that you may have to have all four infielders on the dirt, with two on each side of second base. In the outfield, each of the three outfielders will probably be restricted to staying roughly in their traditional areas (i.e., no three outfielders all on the same side of the field).

With that in mind, ESPN has a piece on reactions from various big leaguers about limits on the shift, as well as from former Cubs President Theo Epstein, who is consulting with MLB on the various rules changes. Some of Epstein’s comments speak to not only his own thinking, but probably that of MLB, which is why I want to share some of them:

“The best rule changes are ones that provide the most benefit to the style of play with the least amount of intrusion on competition or disruption to the game we love,” league consultant Theo Epstein said in an email. “Ultimately, the new joint competition committee will determine whether the benefits of banning extreme shifts are worth the new ‘intrusion’ of limiting where teams can position their fielders within fair territory.” …

“An anti-shift rule would restore a traditional aesthetic and make the game more familiar and relatable for fans who grew up knowing intuitively where the shortstop and second baseman play and what a sure base hit looks like off the bat.” …

Epstein also pointed to a “premium on range and athleticism for infielders” that would return with the shift’s departure.

“In last year’s Double-A and AFL anti-shift experiments, infielders loved playing with more freedom and room to roam — and we saw lots of athletic, rangy plays that you don’t see quite as often in a shift-heavy league with infielders bunched up,” he wrote ….

“Much as I would have fought this truth when I worked for a club, it’s better when games are won or lost by players making big plays … rather than by front offices developing just the proper algorithm to make sure that third infielder on the right side is positioned exactly where the ball is going to be hit.”

That last one really stuck with me as I read the ESPN piece. Discussions about limiting the shift are primarily about the impact on the batter – more emphasis on contact? less selling out completely for power (which adds to the strikeout totals)? – but equally important is the impact on the defense, itself. In the age of algorithmically perfect shifting, the importance of having incredible defensive athletes out there is greatly diminished.

Set aside, for a moment, the way we usually think about baseball (we tend to think mostly like a front office: how does MY TEAM win this game), and instead think about the visual consumption of baseball. Just watching a game between two teams you don’t care about at all. Wouldn’t you WANT to see more movement out there on defense? More balls in play, yes, obviously, but also more ranging from infielders and outfielders to try to make a play? For me, the answer is a huge yes. Defense just feels so much less important than it used to, and I don’t think that shift – no pun intended – is a good thing.

Sure, there are still stellar defensive plays every day in MLB. But in the aggregate, I’m not so sure we’re seeing as much “good defense” as we used to. Or, more importantly, we’re not seeing as much “good defense” as we could be.

Then, once the shift limits are in place, we can follow-up by thinking like a front office again: OK, within the contours of these new rules, how should the Cubs go about winning this game, and winning long-term? How should they play defense? Who should play where? How should prospects be selected and developed? Which free agents do or do not make sense in this new world? What are creative ways to optimize your run-prevention at the end of the day?

I tend to think, even in the “front office mindset” way of thinking, there’s a ton that could be very interesting about the anti-shift world.

Much more in that ESPN piece, including, as you would expect, many players who don’t like this (or any?) change.

written by

Brett Taylor is the Lead Cubs Writer at Bleacher Nation, and you can find him on Twitter at @BleacherNation and on LinkedIn here. Brett is also the founder of Bleacher Nation, which opened up shop in 2008 as an independent blog about the Chicago Cubs. Later growing to incorporate coverage of other Chicago sports, Bleacher Nation is now one of the largest regional sports blogs on the web.

more cubs news

Spring Training Miscellany: Another Win, Smyly, Brown, Thompson, Davis, Mastrobuoni, More

The Cubs will (1) never lose this spring, and (2) blow it out every game. Cubs beat the Giants 8-4 on the strength of a few homers (Brennen Davis, David Bote, Chase Strumpf), and pitching that just kinda allowed nothing...

Brennen Davis is Having a DAY, and That Makes Me Happy

We are all hoping that, after two years mostly lost to core/back injuries and surgeries, former top-50 prospect Brennen Davis could find his way back onto the radar this year. Being healthy is the first step. So far, so good...

Cubs vs Giants: Lineups, Pitching Matchup, Broadcast Info, Game Thread

Un-de-fea-ted *clap-clap...clap-clap-clap*. The Chicago Cubs are back on the air this afternoon, with their second Cactus League game of the year. Drew Smyly is taking the mound for the Cubs in this one, looking to claim the vacant fifth spot...

No Rushed Decision on Morel, Wicks, Uniforms, Extremely Elite College Performance, and Other Cubs Bullets

Anyone else have a mental image of Jed Hoyer texting Scott Boras during that game, what with all Pete Crow-Armstrong's valuable antics, and saying, "Hey, never mind ... jk ... or am I? ... " It's all just tongue-in-cheek for...

Spring Training Miscellany: Cubs Win the Spring Opener in a Big Way, Youngsters Shine

The Cubs batted around in the first inning today (six runs, including the Christopher Morel homer), so I think they're ready. Start the season tomorrow. Cubs win 8-1 over the White Sox. It was particularly fun to see Pete Crow-Armstrong...

Pete Crow-Armstrong Just Scored From Second Base … On a Groundball to Third Base

Chicago Cubs prospect Pete Crow-Armstrong is trying to win the center field job right out of Spring Training, and while much of that might actually be outside his control, he's certainly doing his best to impress in the first game...

Christopher Morel Hits the Cubs First Homer of the Spring

The ball will find you, even in Spring Training. The first ball in play of the spring naturally went to Christopher Morel at third base, and he moved ably to his left to glove it, and took his time to...

Cubs Prospect Notes: Davis Healthy, Less-Heralded Guys, Ballesteros, Caissie, Busch, Visuals Aplenty

As we await the first game of the spring, which will undoubtedly feature a number of Cubs prospects later in the game (there are several in the lineup, too), some prospect bits to share ... Brennen Davis was looking good...

Cubs Mentioned with Jordan Montgomery, But I Really Don’t Want to Oversell It, So This is the Headline

Maybe it's because I saw my kid's performance of 'Newsies' last night, but I wanted to be really careful not to shout some salacious headline from the virtual street corner and tell you to READ ALL ABOUT IT! So that's...

Matt Mervis and the Two New Lefty Signings This Week

I think the main takeaway from this week's left-handed-hitting, positionally-limited signings of David Peralta and Dom Smith is that the Cubs are just getting some extra left-handed-hitting bats in the doors in case they have a real crunch by the...

Latest News

Best NBA Prop Bets Today – Sunday, February 25, 2024

In one of the 11 compelling matchups on the NBA slate today, the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Houston Rockets square off at Toyota Center.One of the best ways to wager on the NBA is via NBA player prop bets....

Hurricanes vs. Sabres Prediction: Live Odds, Stats, History and Picks – Sunday, February 25, 2024

The Carolina Hurricanes are -155 favorites over the Buffalo Sabres (+130) despite their matchup on Sunday being at KeyBank Center in Buffalo.Hurricanes vs. Sabres Favorite, Moneyline, TotalFavorite: Hurricanes (-155)Underdog: Sabres (+130)Total: 6Best Hurricanes vs. Sabres Promo Codes[lasso type="table" id="1" link_id="1416318"]How...

Wagner vs. LIU Prediction: Spread, Total Points, Moneyline Picks – Sunday, February 25, 2024

The Long Island Sharks (7-19, 6-8 NEC) are underdogs (by 9 points) to break a five-game road losing streak when they visit the Wagner Seahawks (12-13, 6-7 NEC) on Sunday, February 25, 2024 at 12:00 PM ET. The matchup has...

Creighton vs. St. John’s Prediction: Expert Picks, Odds, Stats and Best Bets – Sunday, February 25, 2024

The No. 15 Creighton Bluejays (20-7, 11-5 Big East) will look to extend a four-game winning streak when they visit the St. John's Red Storm (15-12, 7-9 Big East) on Sunday, February 25, 2024 at Madison Square Garden as only...

Colgate vs. American Prediction: Expert Picks, Odds, Stats and Best Bets – Sunday, February 25, 2024

The Colgate Raiders (20-8, 14-1 Patriot League) host the American Eagles (14-14, 8-7 Patriot League) after winning six straight home games. The Raiders are double-digit favorites by 11 points in the contest, which tips at 2:00 PM ET on Sunday,...

Navy vs. Holy Cross Prediction: Picks and Betting Odds – Sunday, February 25, 2024

The Navy Midshipmen (9-17, 5-10 Patriot League) are 7-point favorites as they try to end a three-game home losing streak when they take on the Holy Cross Crusaders (9-19, 6-9 Patriot League) on Sunday, February 25, 2024 at Navy Alumni...

SMU vs. South Florida Prediction: Expert Picks, Odds, Stats and Best Bets – Sunday, February 25, 2024

The South Florida Bulls (20-5, 13-1 AAC) host the SMU Mustangs (19-8, 10-4 AAC) after winning 12 home games in a row. The Mustangs are favored by just 1.5 points in the contest, which tips at 12:00 PM ET on...

La Salle vs. Rhode Island Prediction: Picks and Betting Odds – Sunday, February 25, 2024

The Rhode Island Rams (11-15, 5-8 A-10) are 3.5-point underdogs as they try to break a three-game losing streak when they visit the La Salle Explorers (13-14, 4-10 A-10) on Sunday, February 25, 2024 at Tom Gola Arena. The contest...

Purdue vs. Michigan Prediction: Expert Picks, Odds, Stats and Best Bets – Sunday, February 25, 2024

The Michigan Wolverines (8-19, 3-13 Big Ten) are big, 13-point underdogs as they look to break a four-game losing streak when they host the No. 3 Purdue Boilermakers (24-3, 13-3 Big Ten) on Sunday, February 25, 2024 at Crisler Center....

Rutgers vs. Maryland Prediction: Picks and Betting Odds – Sunday, February 25, 2024

The Maryland Terrapins (14-13, 6-10 Big Ten) are only 2-point underdogs as they try to end a three-game road losing streak when they visit the Rutgers Scarlet Knights (14-12, 6-9 Big Ten) on Sunday, February 25, 2024 at Jersey Mike's...

more cubs news

Latest News