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The exact moment I became a "ban the shift" guy

Drew Creasman Avatar
August 24, 2021

“Baseball doesn’t need to be fixed!” I decry whenever commissioner Rob Manfred announces a new rule change, or potential rule change, to MLB that I find utterly unnecessary or even damaging.

Of course, that mantra fades away pretty quickly every time someone on Twitter tags me with video of yet another egregiously missed ball/strike call from a home plate umpire.

“We need to fix this!”

Baseball isn’t perfect. Like everything else, it needs to grow and change over time in order to maintain relevance. And we have witnessed some hard and fast trends over the last several years that rightly have people all over the community wondering about the short and long term health of the game.

The commissioner and owners have been hyper-focused on profits (naturally) and appealing to a more casual audience with shorter games and more postseason spots.

Fans have long been hankering for better access to games, an end to blackouts, and a business model that doesn’t incentivize losing on purpose quite so often for the lowest payrolls in the league.

Players would like to see an end to the era where the best strategy is to pay everyone on your team less than what they are worth.

With a new CBA on the horizon this offseason, a lot of new ideas are going to be floated about how to solve each on of these issues and a myriad of complicated others.

In addition to talks of a salary floor and luxury tax and expanded postseason, we are likely to continue to hear about some potential new rules to help govern the game on the field.

Hopefully, the strong push toward the automated strike zone continues. Manfred has hinted that the two changes put in place post-pandemic – the California Rule in extra innings and the 7-inning double headers – are likely to go away, drawing mixed reactions.

But one potential rule change that I used to be adamantly against, I now realize could go a long way toward making the game better for everyone involved.

It’s time to ban the shift.

Or, at least, the extreme shift.

We should set up a system where there is essentially an invisible line (or put it in chalk, whatever) from second base to the grass in center and there must be two infielders on either side of that line. Everything else is fair game.

How and why did I change my mind when before this seemed so unnecessary?

The Exact Moment

I was sitting in the right-field bleachers at Coors Field in the press section next to my partner Patrick Lyons for the 2021 MLB All-Star Game.

The last few days had been an immense joy. It was all the pomp and circumstance and fun exhibition games and appearances from legends and general wonder that a baseball heart could take.

Then came the Home Run Derby which over-delivered in excitement and amazement.

Was there any way the Midsummer Classic could have lived up to all that preamble?

We settled in after the National Anthem sung by Hamilton’s Christopher Jackson and awaited the biggest star of the week… and season.

Shohei Ohtani by no means disappointed in the derby, he just got barely outshined by Juan Soto, going out in the first round. There was still enough time for the capacity Coors crowd to chant “Oh-ta-ni! Oh-ta-ni! Oh-ta-ni!” in appreciation for all he is giving the game right now.

It was still a bit of a bummer to only get one round out of him – though what a round – but it was OK because he was about to lead off this game and then take the hill in the bottom half, becoming the first player to ever do so.

He turned on a low pitch and hit it well, not a scorcher at 89.5 MPH, but sharply enough and in a spot that historically would probably have been a single through the right side most of the time. It had an expected batting average of .390.

Of course, the NL was shifted and so instead it was an easy play for the infielder standing in shallow right to scoop up the ball and throw the phenom out at first.

This is a common sight in today’s game but felt a bit more deflating given the full context of the moment. That’s OK, though, right? Here comes Vladimir Guerrero Jr. to electrify this crowd early.

And all he did was hit the hardest ball of the game, a 111.1 MPH sinking liner that nearly took Max Scherzer’s head off… but luckily he ducked. Unluckily for Vladdy Jr though, once again an infielder was positioned exactly in the right spot up the middle to make a relatively easy out.

Xander Boegarts struck out to end the inning without anyone reaching base.

In this moment, a series of alternate possibilities raced through my mind and it occurred to me that every single one of them would have been a more fun/entertaining and a better exhibition of baseball talent than what we all just witnessed.

That’s the moment I officially became a “ban the shift” guy.

What Could or Should Have Happened?

The most exciting scenario for those who love offense is of course that both well-hit balls would have gone for singles, putting runners at first and third with nobody out.

Perhaps Boegarts takes a more contact-oriented approach in that situation and instead of striking out hits a sac fly. Maybe he hits into a double play and Scherzer can still be pleased with his recovery, the crowd gets a nice display of glovework, and a single run scores to put a little early juice into the game.

Maybe he still strikes out.

All that would have done was give Aaron Judge a chance to turn up the heat with a pair aboard. Whether he comes through with a big hit or Scherzer still wriggles out of it, we’ve watched much more intense and exciting encounters with the heart of the AL lineup.

Jul 13, 2021; Denver, Colorado, USA; American League first baseman Vladimir Guerrero Jr. of the Toronto Blue Jays (27) reacts to his home run as he passes National League shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. of the San Diego Padres (23) during the third inning of the 2021 MLB All Star Game at Coors Field. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

If the offense scores, it’s more fun because, well, offense is fun. If the pitcher wins that situation it’s much more of a fist-pump moment than being relieved that they hit it hard right into the shift. Either way, we’ve seen better baseball.

But that’s only a handful of potential branches of alternate possibilities.

Let’s go the other way and assume that Ohtani and Guerrero still made outs.

If the shift was banned, we wouldn’t just get more great offense, we’d get more great defense.

Fernando Tatis Jr. at shortstop and Adam Frazier and second base are stupendous fielders… but neither had to prove it for the first two plays of the game.

Under a system where each team must have two infielders on both sides of the diamond, there would still be plenty of room for pre-play positioning and this would still leave open the possibility that those hard-hit grounders are fielded.

But it dramatically increases the likelihood that the fielder will need to move their feet and make a real play, relying on their athletic abilities, rather than a computer making decisions before the game, to record the out.

Nobody goes to the ballpark hoping to see really clever pre-play positioning.

What do we go to the ballpark to see? The longball. The base hits. The strikeouts. Web gems. Action.

Other sports have rules governing pre-play positioning for this exact same reason. Football teams have to put a certain number of people on the line of scrimmage and basketball teams aren’t allowed to put someone down underneath the basket for more than three seconds at a time.

In all these cases you could make the argument that the athletes just ought to adjust, after all, there was a time in the NBA where you just had to deal with that kind of defense… and no shot clock. And they did. And everyone agreed those games were boring.

Let’s Incentivize Fun Baseball?

I’ve always considered myself a bit of a baseball purist and so I understand the instinct to push away from an idea for the sole purposes that it would increase entertainment value. This isn’t the circus. A lot of money and hard work goes into these games and shifting, undoubtedly, increases your chances of winning and so it is going to have some proponents.

But even putting aside the fact that both the owners and the fans have been publicly searching for ways to keep the game relevant and everyone seems to agree that the MLB needs more action, this seems an easy and fair way to do it where nothing of value is lost.

The kind of extreme shifting we are seeing today is a relatively new phenomenon and the game can absolutely survive just fine without it.

Honestly, ask yourself, what is the down side? Who is harmed by banning the shift? (Other than maybe a couple dudes ERAs?) In a future world with no shifting, would people be saying “oh man that used to be an easy out but now it’s a hit?” and be bummed out about that?

How would banning the shift make the game less fun?

Years from now, if my newly-preferred system was implemented, even the people who prefer to say “just hit the ball the other way!” aren’t going to be clamoring for a return to the days when teams could shift.

The game won’t feel significantly different and whatever ways it is tangibly different will be for the better.

Nothing is lost beyond an ambiguous feeling about what ballplayers ought to be able to do. And hitting a baseball is hard enough as it is.

It’s easy to fall into the temptation to say “just deal with it.” That’s what I did for years. The good players will adjust right? Easier for us to say than it is for them to do against 92-MPH sliders.

The good managers know when and how to shift right? Not really. Everyone is reading from the same book anymore.

This is why so many players these days just wait for mistakes and try to hit home runs. If you want guys to put the ball in play more, there has to be a solid incentive for them to do so. And right now, there’s just a solid chance that hitting a well-located pitch hard just means it’ll be right at a defender.

“Three true outcomes” is good strategy and terrible entertainment. It’s also not a better showcase of baseball talent.

It’s tough to argue that Ohtani or Guererro Jr. truly “failed” to start the All-Star Game. Tough to argue Scherzer truly “succeeded” in giving up the hardest hit ball of the game. Let’s reward good play and provide a more fun product for the fans.

Make the fielders earn it. Increase the singles and web gems and base traffic and action. Decrease the strikeouts.

Make baseball fun again.

Ban the shift.

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