It’s Rob Manfred szn! Yes, folks, it’s time to get excited for the annual word from the commissioner’s office that the $10 billion plus industry he oversees is in need of an overhaul because it’s just so awful. Okay, that’s probably not fair. Yes, baseball is worth a crapload (sorry for the technical term there), but that doesn’t mean it’s perfect. And the general idea that the pace of play is a detriment is probably not that far from the truth. But the current preferred topic of conversation regarding limiting (or maybe eliminating) the shift is like trying to solve the issue of being hungry by watching a scary movie.
Jayson Stark of The Athletic wrote a great article yesterday that talked about how support for the idea is growing and has been a focal point of the commissioner since he took the job a few years ago. There were a lot of shifts in 2018, which was more than 2017 and that number doesn’t figure to decrease any time soon. Even the Royals were shift-happy with mixed feelings. And it makes sense why teams would shift. We now have more data than ever before indicating where hitters are likely to hit the ball, so why not move a defender to that spot to increase the likelihood that they can record an out. And the belief is that because of the shift, hitters have tried to beat it by hitting it over the shift rather than the other way against the shift.
The argument here is that the shift has had a lot to do with the “launch angle revolution” which has led to increased strikeouts and that’s led to less action.
Okay, but like, no.
We’ve known forever that ground balls are not ideal. Sure, some hitters try to keep the ball on the ground to utilize their speed but outside of some rogue players (looking at you, certain former Royals first baseman), getting the ball in the air has been a gameplan for a long time, long before the shift. Maybe more hitters today are trying to lift the ball, but even if that’s the case, that isn’t the issue to me. Now, I do believe that’s part of why we’re seeing more strikeouts, but I don’t believe it’s enough of the reason to matter.
As many smarter than me have noted, the reason we’re seeing so many strikeouts in today’s game is probably because pitchers are just really, really good. And maybe more than good, pitchers are really good at throwing really hard. Also, technology is now available to work on things like spin rate that can make balls even harder to hit. So what do you get when you combine an inordinate number of pitchers touching the upper-90s on the radar gun while knowing how to make it move in a way that is extremely difficult to pick up out of the hand and make contact with? You have swings and misses. So you can argue that the shift has led to trying to hit the ball six miles which has led to more swings and misses, but I believe you’d be misguided.
So before I get back to what the real problem is, if there is one, let’s look at the idea of banning the shift and how difficult it would be. As Stark notes, the basic principle of the rule would theoretically be that when the play starts, there must be two infielders to the left of second and two to the right. But how far to either side? And what is an infielder? It’s not that it isn’t possible to figure all these questions out, but I do believe there are more questions than answers at this point that’ll make this a much longer term project than just putting a rule in place and having it all ready to go.
It may seem like I’m against change in baseball altogether. I did tweet yesterday that banning the shift is silly because the game always adjusts. And I do agree with that, but that isn’t to say that there should never be rule changes. I’ve mentioned this before, but to me, there are three big issues with pace of play that have a bigger impact than anything the powers that be have tried to mess with to this point.
I mentioned the first and that’s strikeouts. I’m not sure what the answer is there because you can’t tell pitchers to stop being good even if you believe someone has told the Royals pitchers that throughout the years. Realistically, the only way to combat this is to change the mound, which brings plenty of health risks as pitchers would not be accustomed to pitching from a lower mound or even one a few inches farther back to mitigate their velocity and spin rate. I’ll leave that solution up to someone smarter than me.
And it might be that the pace of a game doesn’t drastically change until that’s fixed, so anything else is window dressing, but window dressing isn’t always bad. The two easy changes for me are to fix replay and do something about the time between pitching changes.
The first is one that I’ve argued about since the start of replay. Why in the world do the umpires need to wait for the manager to challenge, stroll over to the headphones, stand there as if they’re doing anything while waiting for New York, only to then take their time to make the call after they’re given the result? These replay officials are already watching the games. They need to be ready with the call in a much shorter time frame than they currently do. And, oh yeah, enforce the 10 seconds the managers have to make their decisions. No more hands in the air while they wait for the thumbs up or thumbs down from their guys.
As for pitching changes, I don’t know what the solution is exactly, but I know that what is happening now is slowing games down after the fifth or sixth to a point that it even bothers me and I’m the audience that they basically can’t lose. I don’t mind the idea that a reliever has to face multiple hitters. In fact, I actually think I really like that. It adds to the strategy quite a bit. You want to take your starter out in the fifth to play matchups the rest of the way? That’s fine. But when you get to something like Rizzo-Bryant-Schwarber in the seventh, do you bring the lefty specialist in to face Rizzo if you know he has to face Bryant next? Added benefit here is pitchers put into situations where they’re less likely to excel have a good shot to add balls in play since they’re more likely to be hit by the player they don’t have the platoon advantage against.
Anyway, these are issues that require detailed and nuanced responses. And as the winter meetings approach and the discussion of how much trouble the game is in continues, just remember that the rumors of the demise of the game have been greatly exaggerated. I respect and even like that Manfred is willing to think outside the box, but I don’t think I can be less impressed with both what he thinks is actually wrong and how he proposes to fix it. I guess what I’m saying is Lesky for Commissioner. Tell a friend. Or something.