A Change in Strategy: Should MLB Ban Infield Shifts?


Photo credit: Rich Rodriguez/Unsplash.com

BY DENNIS RICHARDSON


18 May 2021


ORLANDO, FL – By all accounts, Cleveland Indians player-manager Lou Boudreau was having a highlight-reel day on July 14, 1946. In the first game of a doubleheader against Boston, the future Hall of Famer collected five hits, scored three runs and drove in four.


Had there been cable TV and ESPN back then, his performance likely would have led off the highlights show. After all, this was a power-packed Boston team that, on this date, had a .720 winning percentage and an 11-game lead over the second-place New York Yankees.


But, Boudreau was upstaged by the Red Sox’s Ted Williams, who went four-for-five, hit three home runs, drove in eight runs and scored four times to lead Boston to an 11-10 victory. That wasn’t particularly surprising. Williams, himself a future Hall of Famer and generally considered one of the greatest hitters in the history of the game, was making life miserable for a lot of pitchers and managers in the American League that year. He would go on to hit .342 with 38 homers and 123 RBI, in his first season back after three years in the military. Apparently, serving during World War II had not diminished Williams’ hitting.


This day would become notable, though, for a reason other than Boudreau’s and Williams’ performances. After the left-handed, pull-hitting Williams doubled to right field in his first at-bat in the second game, Boudreau had had enough. The next time Boston’s outfielder came to bat, Boudreau deployed a defense that placed six fielders on the right side of the field. The only defender on the left side was the left fielder – and he was only 20 to 25 feet behind where the shortstop normally played.


The shift worked. Ironically, Williams grounded out to the shortstop Boudreau, who was playing in the second baseman’s customary spot. Williams finished with a single in two at-bats against the shift that day. But considering the year he was having, it represented something of a victory for Boudreau.


Thus, The Ted Williams Shift was born. From that moment on -- to his continued frustration and unhappiness – “Teddy Ballgame” would face an infield shift of some type for much of his career, though most not as extreme Boudreau’s. Williams was such a notorious pull hitter that 95 percent of his hits were to right field, hitting charts revealed years later. He once estimated that the shift cost him 15 points off his .344 career batting average.


Today, hitters across Major League Baseball are feeling Williams’ angst and pain.


The Proliferation in Shifts

The use of infield shifts actually dates back to the 1920s when teams occasionally used it to stop another slugger named Williams – Cy, who played for the Chicago Cubs and Philadelphia Athletics.


Throughout the following decades the shift made rare appearances against some of baseball’s more pull-happy power hitters, like Ted Williams. It wasn’t until this last decade, though, that the strategy really began to take hold – its use exploding. According to Prospect Insider, the shift was employed on just 2.5 percent of plays in 2010. It then increased to 9.4 percent in 2015, to 13.4 percent in 2016, 17.3 percent in 2018, and 25.4 percent in 2019.


In 2020, according to Baseball Savant, MLB teams employed the infield shift 34.1 percent of the time, with 19 clubs shifting at least one-third of the time. It shows no signs of letting up any time soon.


So, what’s led to the increase in shifts? As with most everything in the game these days, blame it on analytics and saber metrics. Every team has computers full of each opponent’s tendencies. With all the sophisticated data available to every team now, clubs know in which general area each hitter is likely to hit a ball on any given pitch and in any situation, thus providing guidance on where to position each fielder. If a team has information that a batter will hit the ball to a certain area 75 percent of the time, it makes sense to station a fielder in that space.


Defensive shifts are employed most frequently against left-handed batters who pull the ball, hit with power, and have average speed. Players such as Texas Rangers’ Joey Gallo, Seattle Mariners’ Kyle Seager, Atlanta Braves’ Freddie Freeman, St. Louis Cardinals’ Matt Carpenter, and Chicago Cubs’ Anthony Rizzo.


“You get a generation of players, generally speaking, that really do only hit it in certain areas,” Cardinals’ manager Mike Shildt told Ben Frederickson of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “At least a high percentage. So, you play there. And that’s the genesis of the shift. That’s why it’s become so universal.”


And, why it’s so effective. Analytics show that the infield shift is not kind to ground balls. In fact, this defensive alignment is where ground-ball singles go to die. It is designed to take away singles and doubles by turning ground balls and soft line drives into outs.


"I think it's no question the way the game has changed," Carpenter told ESPN senior writer Jerry Crasnick in an article for espn.com. "In 2013, even 2014, I noticed that you could hit ground balls for hits, you could pull balls for hits. You just can't do it anymore. There are infielders over there. As a hitter, line drives and fly balls are really your only success unless you're really lucky hitting it through the hole."


According to a 2019 story on pitcherlist.com, shifts against left-handed hitters lower batting average by 46 points (.248 to .202). The infield shift lowers batting average on pulled ground balls from .205 to .109 (96 points) and from .241 to .214 (27 points) on balls hit to center.


The shift works, the story notes, because the average MLB hitter pulls 46 percent of his ground balls and hits 40 percent to center, leaving only 14 percent to the opposite field. It’s a no-brainer, then, for teams to shift their infielders to guard against grounders hit to the pull side and up the middle.


Shifts Becoming More Extreme

The infield shift, generally defined as placing three defenders on the same side of second base, can range from the basic – where the third baseman shades over toward the traditional shortstop position, and the shortstop moves over just to the right of second base – to the more extreme. An example of the latter: the Houston Astros in 2019 deployed a defense against Rangers’ Gallo that had only two infielders (the third and first basemen, both positioned on the right side of the infield), with the shortstop and second basemen both playing in short right field, and three outfielders. Aside from the left fielder, the left side of the field was vacant.


In this year’s Opening Day game between the Toronto Blue Jays and New York Yankees on April 1, the Blue Jays deployed an infield shift against the Yankees’ Jay Bruce that positioned all four infielders on the right side of the infield. It was no April Fool’s Day joke, and Bruce wasn’t laughing; he went 0-for-3. (After a 4-for-34 start to the season – a .118 batting average – the 34-year-old Bruce announced his retirement, ending a 14-year MLB career.)


It’s no wonder that hitters are frustrated. For years they’ve been told, especially when trying to break out of slumps, to “hit the ball back up the middle.” Now, particularly with pull hitters like Gallo and Rizzo, a fielder is waiting there to turn what traditionally had been a base hit into an out.


To counter that, hitters are turning to saber metrics themselves, treating metrics such as Exit Velocity and Launch Angle as the Holy Grail. More and more, batters are taking to the air in an attempt to beat the shift by hitting over instead of through the stacked defenses. For instance, there were fewer singles and fewer ground-ball singles in 2019 than any time in the previous 20 years.


The hitters’ mantra now is “hit it high, hit it hard.” Because the one hit that teams still have not found a way to defend against is the home run.


“Ground balls are outs,” Minnesota Twins’ third baseman Josh Donaldson said. “If you see me hit a ground ball, even if it is a hit; I can tell you: It was an accident.”


Should MLB Ban or Regulate Shifts?

MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred and others believe that banning or limiting shifts would help improve offense, invite more action on the field, and help speed up play, all of which would potentially increase fan interest and gate attendance.


Not everyone’s convinced that shifts make that much of a difference in preventing runs. As The Athletic’s Jayson Stark has reported, without infield shifts there would be about 500 more hits, mostly singles, league-wide each season. Yet, Stark also pointed out that removing the shift would only add about three extra hits, again primarily singles, per team per month. That’s hardly enough to constitute an offensive revitalization. Because bunching singles together to produce runs is hard to do in a sport where even the best hitters succeed only three out of 10 times – and even more difficult when one considers that 23 percent of at-bats these days end in a strikeout.


When he was managing the Houston Astros’ a few years ago, A.J. Hinch told Josh Nelson of Baseball America that he was not convinced banning or limiting shifts is the answer. “Is that going to produce more batting average? Maybe. More runs? Debatable. A more energized and entertaining game? I doubt it.”


MLB took over operation of the Minor Leagues this season. As part of a series of experimental rules to take effect in the minors this season, infield shifts will be banned in all Double-A leagues. The rule will require that at the beginning of each pitch the defensive team have a minimum of four players on the infield, each of whom must have both feet “completely in front of the outer boundary of the infield dirt.”


Violations will result in an automatic “ball” call on the play – unless the batter gets a hit, in which case his team has the option of taking that hit. Depending on how this rule fares, Major League Baseball may expand it in the second half of the minor-league season to require that the defense have two fielders on each side of second base. A lot of people are interested in how this rule plays out.


So, should baseball regulate or ban shifts? Such a rule would have a huge impact, dictating where fielders can or cannot stand on every single pitch during a game. Plenty of people contend that MLB should not be in the business of legislating strategies. Baseball doesn’t prohibit pitchers from throwing sliders down-and-away where batters can’t hit them. The league doesn’t prevent relievers from coming in and throwing 100-mph-plus fastballs just because hitters are striking out too often. So, why regulate infield alignments?


Banning shifts would reward batters for refusing to adjust, while punishing defenses for doing exactly that. Far too many hitters have become one dimensional, and lack the ability or the desire to change their approach.


For some hitters, like the Braves’ Freeman, the Rangers’ Gallo, and the Cubs’ Rizzo, continually trying to hit over shifts makes sense because the damage they can inflict is worth the outs they make hitting into the defense.


But, for the vast majority of big-league batters, the onus should be on the hitters to adapt. Baseball is a game of adjustments, a continuous cat-and-mouse contest between pitchers and hitters. Just as batters must adjust to pitchers throwing them, say, a steady diet of off-speed breaking balls, so must they adapt to shifts.


It’s no different than NFL defenses having to find ways to stop the run-pass option and West Coast offenses, or a poor-passing college team finding a way to beat a defense that “stacks the box” to take away the running game, or NBA teams having to learn how to attack zone and 1-3-1 defenses.


Oakland A’s manager Bob Melvin told Baseball America’s Nelson, “There’s an easy way to combat (shifts). Just hit the ball the other way. If you start hitting the ball the other way, getting hits, it will shift back around.”


The bunt is another weapon against extreme, “softball-style” shifts. In a game in early June 2019, the Cardinals’ Carpenter did just that. The Miami Marlins employed a shift that had just one defender on the left side of the field – an outfielder positioned in left-center field. Carpenter bunted to where the third baseman normally plays, and wound up with a double as the Marlins’ pitcher had to chase down the ball in shallow left field.


Said Mike Matheny, a former Cardinals manager who now manages the Royals, “a bunt is a way for a lefty to upset that apple cart. They're giving you a free hit, man. This game is too hard not to take it."


Why don’t hitters adjust?

That seems simple enough. Just lay down a bunt or slap a grounder to the opposite field when a shift leaves that side of the infield mostly unattended, and virtually guarantees a hit. So, why don’t more hitters today take the “free hit”? Four primary reasons.


For one, change is hard. The human brain is hard wired to resist change. That’s true for major-league hitters as well, especially when dealing with 98-mph fastballs with movement, and 93-mph sliders.


“There’s this whole narrative of ‘Why don’t guys just hit ground balls to short?’” Carpenter told Crasnick. “The answer is: (a) It’s not that easy and (b) it’s the complete (opposite) of what you’ve taught yourself your entire baseball career to avoid.


“Just think about this: When there’s a runner on third base and less than two outs and the infield is playing back, every hitter in baseball knows that all you have to do is hit a ground ball anywhere, and you score the run,” Carpenter continued. “And that success rate is still super small. That play is easy, and it gets screwed up all the time.”


Second, most hitters think they can beat the shift – the feeling that ‘Whatever you throw at me, I can beat’ -- and that doing so gives their team the best chance to win. "I don't like hitting .206. But right now it's kind of part of the game, especially with the shifts. You don't just learn to hit the other way. If I'm slapping singles down the line, am I still Joey Gallo? Am I still productive? I get paid to drive guys in and hit the ball out of the ballpark," Gallo told Jeff Passan in a May 16, 2019 article for espn.com.


‘They Pay You for Homers’

Third, as Gallo mentioned, the power hitters are paid to hit for extra bases, not singles. “You can’t slug by hitting balls on the ground,” Los Angeles Dodgers’ third baseman Justin Turner told Dave Sheinin of the Washington Post. “You have to get the ball in the air if you want to slug, and guys who slug stick around, and guys who don’t, don’t.”


In other words, hitting over shifts for doubles and homers get you a lucrative contract. Hitting ground balls for outs gets you a ticket back to the minors.


Fourth, getting a power hitter to bunt or slap an opposite-field single plays into the opponent’s strategy. Teams figure they’re less likely to get beat by a single or a series of singles than by an extra-base hit or a homer. Punching a single to the opposite side places the onus for driving in runs on the next batter. So, if a team can get an opponent’s power hitter to ground a single to the opposite field, it has in effect taken the bat out of his hands.


The same applies to bunting. Hitters practice it less these days, because they’re called upon to do it less. As a result, they aren’t very good at it. And, it would take a lot of bunt hits for a defense to abandon the shift against a power hitter. Plus, if that batter is trying to bunt that frequently, successful or not, it benefits the opponent.


Banning or limiting the infield shift isn’t going to magically lead to an avalanche of runs, as Stark alluded. Nor is it going to magically put more fans in seats, whenever ballparks again are able to be at full capacity. It will make a lot of left-handed pull hitters happy, though.


No more infield shifts? Ted Williams would have been thrilled.


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Dennis Richardson is a writer/editor with Words Matter. He has an extensive background as a reporter, copy editor, sportswriter, sports copy editor, and Senior Special Sections Writer with newspapers in Missouri and Florida. He lives outside of Orlando, FL.



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