Rob Manfred has been MLB Commissioner for a day, and he’s already doing things to make people upset. In an interview with ESPN’s Karl Ravetch, Manfred indicated that he would be "open to" eliminating infield shifts. This would be done, he suggested, in the name of increasing offense in a depressed run environment. Don’t be misled by the title of the linked video—"MLB Could Eliminate Defensive Shifts." While that conclusion can be drawn from his words, he really just says that it’s something he would consider thinking about. The interview strikes me as Manfred stating that he wants to be a doer. As if he doesn’t want to simply be Bud Selig’s successor, but a Commissioner who acts on his own accord. Some of the responses from baseball Twitter have been a touch hyperbolic. He just said he’s "open" to the possibility. And if I had to guess, I'd say that this objective, if it is one, doesn't go anywhere.
That said, I hate (hate) the idea of eliminating the infield shift, especially in the name of offensive production.
First, a philosophical question: What is the shift? Shifts have been a part of the game ever since the defense discovered that it was beneficial to stand where the ball is most likely to be hit. Outfield shifts take place for almost ever batter. A centerfielder might drift towards right-center with a pull happy left-handed hitter up. No doubles defense where the first and third basemen play close to the line and the outfielders near the warning track? That’s a shift. The wheel play for a sacrifice bunt? Also a shift—and both ineffective. In the most recent Hardball Times Annual, Jeff Zimmerman shows that those shifts in particular don’t save runs. It’s a lot of moving around to no avail. What Manfred is really open to banning is what we might call the extreme shift, where three or more infielders are stationed on one side of the bag. Over the past several years, these types of shifts have become more and more common, and they’ve proven to be more effective than regular shifts (though not dramatically so). If Manfred pursues banning the shift, he’s going to have to define it. There will have to be legal and illegal shifts. Baseball teams would likely only have the ineffective ones open to them.
Second, the shift is only partially responsible for declining offense. In fact, it’s likely not even the primary cause of the depressed run environment. The expanded strike zone and the ensuing rise of strikeouts have been more responsible. Below are the league-wide BABIPs for left-handers since 2002 (shifts are more common against lefties), along with strikeouts per nine innings.
To really get at the effect of the shift, you’d have to find out groundball BABIP. But this table works. League-wide BABIP was the same in 2014 as it was in 2002, before shifts were common. Strikeouts, however, are trending upward. An infield shift is useless against a big fly—or even a double in the gap. In fact, the groundballs produced while the shift is on frequently result in a 5-3 out that would have otherwise been a 6-3 out. Additionally, the mass of data now available to every team disproportionately favors pitchers. Again, shifts are just a piece of the puzzle. Jeff Sullivan in the most recent Hardball Times Annual (hey, guess what I’ve been reading!) calls it the data age we’re in baseball’s "accidental era." Targeting the shift would only address a part of the problem of declining runs (if one sees it as a problem). It would be much more effective to either shrink the strike zone or ban technology.
Finally, squashing a recent innovation because the results are not to one’s liking is, in a word, radical. I don’t think Rob Manfred wants to be a radical commissioner, but adding pages to baseball’s rulebook in an attempt to manipulate a matter of the game that, historically, fluctuates, is exactly that. It’s a knee-jerk reaction that would ultimately make the game less interesting by constraining creativity.
To increase offense, I’d rather have the designated hitter in the National League. I wouldn’t really miss double switches, but I’d miss shifts.