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.