In January 2015, during his first public interview as baseball’s commissioner, Rob Manfred floated the idea of banning the defensive shift. In doing so, he earned his first significant brush with controversy.
In the years since the commissioner first suggested banning the strategy, it’s only grown more common—and more contentious. In 2015, teams shifted their infielders on 9.4% of pitches; in 2018, that number has risen to 17.5%. Broaden that to include any defensive positioning that MLB’s Statcast categorizes as “strategic,” even if it’s not conventional, and you’re looking at shifts on more than a quarter of this season’s pitches, versus less than a fifth in 2015.
But the technique’s increased use hasn’t necessarily led to its increased acceptance. Before he was fired from his managerial gig with the St. Louis Cardinals, Mike Matheny said that he’d be interested in seeing a rule against the shift; earlier this season, Kansas City Royals skipper Ned Yost said the same. Those echoed a similar statement from former New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi in 2016. Meanwhile, Manfred hasn’t said anything quite as harsh as his initial comments on the subject, but he’s alluded to it several times since, and limiting the use of shifts was reportedly one of the topics discussed by the league’s competition committee during a meeting held last month. Will players consider speaking out against the strategy?
“The shift wasn’t something that players came up with,” said Tony Clark, executive director of Major League Baseball Players Association. “Players believe that the game was fine before a lot of the things that we’re starting to see come to fruition. So to the extent that we’re willing to have a conversation about shifts, I can suggest to you that we’re willing to have a conversation about shifts.”
That conversation will take place on a varied landscape of player opinion. A key part of that variation, of course, comes from the fact that the shift’s recent uptick in popularity hasn’t been uniformly distributed. The majority of players who regularly face the strategy are exactly those who you’d expect—lefties, particularly power hitters and those with a tendency to pull the ball. Of 50 players who have seen the shift most often this season, 49 are left-handed. Included in that set is Boston Red Sox first baseman Mitch Moreland, who’s having a career season and just made his first All-Star team at the age of 32. He’s also been facing the shift on 63% of his plate appearances this year.
“I’m kind of torn on it, because I value defense pretty good, too, but when I’m in the box, I definitely wish it wasn’t there,” Moreland said. “You’ve been taught from the time you can swing a bat—stay to the middle of the field. Now you hit that ball up the middle and the shortstop’s standing there and catches it, that can be pretty tough.”
Houston Astros third baseman Alex Bregman echoed that sentiment with a one-liner, capturing a thought shared by what seems like more than a few other players.
“When I’m hitting, there should be no shifts, but when we’re on defense, we can shift whenever we want,” Bregman joked.
There’s been debate over just how well the shift actually works, but it can clearly have a strong effect on a hitter’s mindset. Go back to the man who was first credited with popularizing the shift, back in the 1940s: Lou Boudreau, who used the strategy as a player-manager facing Ted Williams. “I always considered the ‘Boudreau Shift’ against Williams a psychological, if not always a tactical, victory,” he wrote in his autobiography, noting that he thought the Red Sox great “considered it a personal affront, a challenge to his ability as a great hitter.” Boudreau’s inspiration? Exactly what inspires managers and front offices to use the shift now—a chart that showed 95% of Williams’ hits went to right field.
“At the end of the day, you’re doing what you think is going to help you win,” Milwaukee Brewers outfield Christian Yelich said. “Everyone’s so into analytics. If it says that this guy hits 80% of his balls right here, why wouldn’t you put all your fielders there?”
This discussion is usually centered on the question of why baseball should or shouldn’t limit the shift. But there’s another question here: How would baseball limit the shift, if it wanted to try?
That might sound like it has a boring, obvious answer. If MLB wanted to cut down on the shift, the league would probably require that a team play two infielders on either side of second base, granting a manager only a set number of opportunities per game to deviate from that alignment (or no opportunities at all). And that’s all it would take, right? Maybe. As modest as that change might seem, it would require a radical modification of not only the game’s rulebook, but also the concept of a defensive position.
The first step of cracking down on the shift would likely be defining the shift. That might seem like something else that has a boring, obvious answer—if not an explicit one, then at least a Justice Potter Stewart-style “know it when you see it” one. But explicit answers are usually needed for changing a rulebook, and there isn’t necessarily an easy one available here. Anyone can identify this as a shift, sure:
(Listen to the Vin Scully call of this alignment here)
But what about the countless arrangements between that and a traditional defense? At what point does a manager shading his fielders one way or the other cross over into definitively being a shift? Is it only when there are three infielders fully on one side of second base? What about when, say, a shortstop is positioned unusually close to second without quite crossing over, with the second baseman in the shallow outfield? Or when fielders are played uncommonly far in or far back? How about when guys are intensely guarding the lines? When a fifth infielder is added? Sure, it’s persnickety to ask about such specifics, but being persnickety about specifics tends to be a requirement of sound rule-making. Even the most straightforward new rule about how many fielders can stand on either side of second base would open up all of these questions and more.
So what about the definitions of “shift” that are used to collect fielding data? Baseball Info Solutions began compiling shift data in 2010 and began providing that data to FanGraphs for publication in 2016. The positional categories that they created here are pretty simple—shifts are either “traditional” or “non-traditional,” with the former term applying to three different types of alignments. To be a traditional shift, there must be three infielders on one side of the infield, or two players “significantly out of their normal position,” or one infielder playing deep into the outfield. A non-traditional shift is any situational shift that doesn’t fit into the above descriptions. While those classifications are completely sufficient for data collection, though, there’s some gray area there that would prove tricky for a rulebook’s formal definitions. (At what exact point is a player considered “significantly” out of position? And so on.) Any rule change would likely require far more technical terms.
But there’s another set of definitions used for data collection, one developed more recently, and these are more technical—about as technical as anyone could possibly hope for. They also come directly from the league. Go to MLB’s Statcast glossary, and here’s a sampling of what you’ll find:
“Standard positions are defined based on the zones where, under neutral conditions (first to eighth inning, no runners on), the league average fielder was positioned 70% to 90% of the time. For angles below, -45 degrees is the third-base line, 0 degrees is straight up the middle from home plate to center field, and +45 degrees is the first-base line.
1B: Between 85-130 feet from home; angle between 31 and 42 degrees
2B: Between 130-160 feet from home; angle between 9 and 31 degrees
SS: Between 130-160 feet from home; angle between -18 and 0 degrees
3B: Between 80-130 feet from home; angle between -37 and -17 degrees”
The glossary goes on to establish these standard positions for fielders facing right-handed hitters. By this definition, then, a shift is on when fielders are playing outside these standard positions, whether that entails moving a third man to one side of the infield or adding a fourth outfielder or whatever else. (Statcast divides the defensive data into regular infield shifts, when there are three or more players on one side of second base, and “strategic” shifts, which include everything else. There are future plans to break down the “strategic” category into more specific options going forward, according to senior database architect of statistics Tom Tango.) It’s a system that allows for excellent clarity in reviewing fielding data—but the level of detail here would pose a challenge if applied to the rulebook. How would an ump determine if the second baseman was, say, at a legal angle of 28 degrees versus an illegal one of 32 degrees, or a legal distance of 150 feet versus an illegal one of 170, short of literally redrawing the field to create mandated zones for each player?
There’s remarkably little about defensive positioning in the Official Baseball Rules. It’s not just that there isn’t an exact rule about how many men must be on each side of second base, or about how deep an infielder can play, or about how many outfielders there must be—it’s that there isn’t even a rule saying that there must be infielders and outfielders in the first place. There’s a rule saying that there must be nine players. (The very first rule, actually Rule 1.01.) And that’s… it, pretty much. There’s a section titled Fielding Positions, but it only offers specifics about the battery. As for everyone else? “Except the pitcher and the catcher, any fielder may station himself anywhere in fair territory.” That’s all.
In a rulebook stuffed with specifics about so much else, this subject is left almost entirely open. There’s an entire field of space that’s clear for creativity and strategy and experimentation. If MLB wants to legislate against the shift, of course, the league will surely find a way—but it would likely mean drawing some very harsh lines through an area that’s traditionally been completely unmarked. Right now, a defensive position can be just about whatever a manager or player or front office wants it to be. Cracking down on the shift would be more than just issuing a boilerplate answer. It would require that everyone stop asking the question in the first place.
“I don’t think they will. I don’t think there can be,” Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Matt Kemp said when asked if he thought that the league should make an attempt to curtail the shift. “I think it is what it is. I’ve hit a lot of balls hard up the middle, and there’s a second baseman there and he just catches it—and that’s just part of the game now. You’ve just got to hit it over him.”