Whenever I suggest banning the shift to fellow baseball fans, I can expect one of two responses—in fact, usually both. The first is sort of a hesitancy, an unwillingness to go along with a perceived gimmick in a sport that prides itself on resistance to such. That’s followed by the person saying that as soon as players start bunting or slapping the ball the other way to beat the shift, everything will return to normal. I don’t buy either argument and believe MLB needs to step in with rule changes that will ban the shift as we’ve come to know it.
Those of us who follow the Boston Red Sox got some of the earliest looks at the shift. David Ortiz was subjected to the tactic well before it became widespread. When Joe Maddon was in Tampa, it was his first notable innovation. And it was a good idea. Maddon exploited the rules in a perfectly legal way. The Red Sox were given two choices—either watch Ortiz lose a huge chunk of singles to right, that were now being swallowed up the shift. Or reduce their best power threat to a slap hitter.
The Red Sox refused to give up Ortiz’ threat to hit home runs. That decision is replicated everywhere by managers today, as its rare to see a legitimate power threat drop a bunt or hit a gentle single to the opposite field. Instead, the effort is being made to beat the shift a different way—teach hitters to swing under the ball hit it in the air more consistently and beat the shift the old-fashioned way—with home runs.
On the surface that seems fine, just the normal back-and-forth strategic jousting. But the consequence is that the attempt to hit more home runs also leads to more strike outs. MLB is increasingly an all-or-nothing game. The classic rally with five sharp singles is rarer and more games are characterized by strikeouts, walks and home runs. In that regard, it’s come to resemble a Little League game. Long stretches of quiet interspersed with sudden bursts of excitement, followed by more quiet.
This is simply not healthy for baseball and it’s not the game we’ve come to know over the course of a century-plus. Telling power hitters to just knock it the other way is not a good solution. The entertainment value of home run hitters is one of MLB’s core attractions to fans. Is it really a good thing for the business of baseball to tell their best deep threats to voluntarily disarm? And is it healthy to tell fans that if they want to see home runs, they’ll have to endure a few hours of quiet strikeouts as the price?
The solution is to take the natural alignment of fielders that defined baseball for over a hundred years and codify it into the rules. Here’s how the rulebook might read…
*There must be four players positioned on the infield dirt, two to each side of second base.
*Three players must be on the outfield grass, positioned at least x number of feet behind the infield.
*At least one of those three outfielders must be on each side of second base.
There’s still room for managerial creativity. The centerfielder can make dramatic moves to one side of the field or the other and infielders can still nudge either toward the middle or toward the foul lines. You know, like players have done since the days of Abner Doubleday.
Furthermore, there is nothing gimmicky about rule changes designed to restore a sport’s natural equilibrium. Football requires a certain number of players to be on the line of scrimmage. Hockey has rules on offsides. Basketball won’t let you sit in the lane all day. The shift itself is what’s the gimmick. It’s time to ban it.