Rob Manfred’s potential ban of the shift insults the Pittsburgh Pirates


"“I don’t have a problem with Clint Barmes. I have a problem with the (bleepin’) shift.” – A.J. Burnett, 2013"

Chicks don’t dig pitchers duels. The game needs more offense, more action, and more pizzaz — so goes the modern baseball mantra.

Youngsters – those only enthralled by the constant clamor of bells and whistles in an age of iPads and YouTube – will never be drawn by the allure of defense-dominated baseball. Grown-ups will nod-off in their Lazy Boys thanks to the monotony of ground ball put-outs and 1-2-3 innings. The casual fan doesn’t want to watch a 3-plus hour chess match between grown men who swing sticks and grab their crotches without discretion. No, apparently not. Everyone craves the king-hell lunar bombs, or runner after runner digging for third base while the ball bounces around the corner, or a conga-line of players heading towards home plate. Yes, apparently so.

By god, it’s time to enliven the chicks again.

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Twelve hours after assuming the role of commissioner, Rob Manfred indicated he would consider outlawing shifts to “inject additional offense into the game.” (Remember the last time “injected” was a buzzword in baseball?) The shift is the (now) common practice of positioning three infielders on one side of second base — placing defenders where statistics indicate a batter is most likely to hit a ball. The drastic measure of disallowing the shift would not only be a flip of the bird to forward-thinking teams like the Pirates, but also be an affront to the game.

As the book Moneyball has taught baseball fans, smaller-revenue teams must outsmart their higher-revenue opponents, to some degree, to maintain competitive balance. Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane acquired players who thrived in the undervalued statistic of on-base percentage (OBP) to fill the small-market yet overachieving  2002 Oakland Athletics’ roster. (Sure, there was also three dominant pitchers and an MVP shortstop on the squad, but whatever).

Building a team using foresight, and with a focus on neglected statistics, allowed the A’s to compete with baseball’s big spenders. Before long, it became chic for smaller-revenue clubs to seek undervalued means of becoming more competitive. In 2013, the Pittsburgh Pirates were widely credited with utilizing the shift to aide in their unlikely quest to the NLDS.

Dan Fox, former writer st Baseball Prospectus, was hired as the Pirates’ data architect in 2008. The next year, the organization began shifting defenses in their minor league ranks, which boosted defensive efficiency.

When Clint Hurdle acknowledged the positive results in 2011, the big league club became its experimentation; the Pirates’ infield shifted 87 times that year. The infield shifted 105 times the next year. In 2013, the club’s use of the shift more than quadrupled.

According to Baseball Info Solutions, the Pirates managed 68 defensive runs saved in 2013, opposed to -25 DRS in 2012, -29 DRS in 2011, and -77 DRS in 2010. Considering DRS in 2013, the influence of an improved pitching staff, an adequately controlled running game (Rod Barajas to Russell Martin, in particular), more agile defenders, among other factors, certainly was a boon to the defensive. However, to dismiss the shift altogether as an ingredient of the Pirates’ defensive success would be foolish.

Of course, The Pirates aren’t the only squad to aggressively employ the shift. Baseball Info Solutions also says that MLB’s shift total doubled from 2011 to 2012, rose by 80 percent from 2012 to 2013, and climbed by more than 60 percent from 2013 to 2014. But perhaps the shift is not the offensive killer that casual fans believe it to be. According to Grantland, through the same four-year span, the league’s batting average on balls in play increased by four points.

Although shifting peaked in 2014, league average BABIP was no lower that at any point in the prior 20 years. In fact, it was substantially higher than any stretch between the 1930s and 1990s.

So lay off the shift, Rob Manfred. Regardless of whether or not shifting has had a significant impact on offensive league-wide, why outlaw strategy? The financial chasm between teams with a hotel on Boardwalk Boulevard and those with a few houses on Baltic Avenue is already wide and deep enough. The smaller-revenue teams have incentive to outsmart the competition since they can’t outspend them.

Strategies and innovations such as the defensive shift are born in the think-tanks that aim to outmaneuver Rich Uncle Pennybags. Besides, Mr. Commissioner, if you’re considering banishing the shift simply because it’s an effective defensive strategy, you might as well nix the change-up because it’s more deceiving than the fastball; in fact, nix all pitches BUT the fastball. What about allowing batters to use rubber bats?

The financial chasm between teams with a hotel on Boardwalk Boulevard and those with a few houses on Baltic Avenue is already wide and deep enough. Strategies and innovations such as the defensive shift are born in the think-tanks that aim to outmaneuver Rich Uncle Pennybags.

Rob, sir, I’ve done you a favor and compiled a list of other ways to increase offense.

-No catchers. After a pitcher makes a pitch he has to quickly run to the backstop and retrieve the bouncing ball.
-No in-game pitching changes, no in-season roster moves, and no disabled lists. Did your pitcher just have Tommy John surgery a week ago? Too bad—play ball!
-No force outs. Only tag outs.
-Foul balls that make it to the upper deck are automatic three-run homers.
-Outfielders must run the ball back to the infield on balls in play.
-Allow ex-Pirates General manager David Littlefield to draft the pitchers for every team.
-Two players bat at once: a righty and a lefty.
-Play all games in Coor’s Field.

On a serious note, ways exist to boost offense that don’t involve outlawing the shift and/or other strategies and innovations employed by more creative teams. Baseball’s talking heads and bloggers have suggested numerous means to increase offense, and action. Many are repeated ad nauseam:  Lower the mound. Decrease the size of the strike zone. And call strikes consistently – the strike zone expands and contrasts from umpire to umpire. Some studies suggest that an amorphous strike zone may be the main culprit for about a third of the decrease in scoring during the last few seasons. Oh, here’s another suggestion- lower the mound. 

Outlawing the shift would also mean rewriting the baseball rule book. Per the rules, all position players, bar the catcher, need only be in fair territory and the pitcher must be in contact with the mound when he makes a pitch. How would a shift-less defensive be enforced? Is the league going to lay down chalk line grids on the infield and assign infielders to operate within predetermined margins? The baseball diamond would look like an architect’s graph paper, or the grid on a (normal) city map that isn’t Pittsburgh.

Hey, I can imagine one genuine way to eliminate the shift…get batters to beat it. Managers would be much less likely to displace the shortstop into right field and the third basemen closer to second base if a bunt down the third base line were a consistent threat. Perhaps GM’s should draft players known to spray the ball to all fields. Maybe sluggers at the major league level can take to the batting cages and learn to become – gulp – better all-around hitters. A tall order, yes, but what better way to increase offense than to increase the talent, and the skill-level, of those tasked with producing offense?

Rob Manfred will have much to deal with as MLB commissioner. Preempting strategy, especially out-of-the-box kind that forward-thinking teams like the Pittsburgh Pirates employ,  in favor of offense, should not be on the agenda.

Please, give chicks the chance to dig the shift, too.