Last month, Major League Baseball announced several rule changes for the minor leagues, the most profound being the elimination of the defensive shift at the Class AA level this season. It’s not an experiment. It’s a herald, a death knell and, if you’re anything like me, cause for a national day of celebration.
Some day soon, big-league infielders will have to stay at their traditional posts. All four fielders will have to keep their feet in the dirt, with two infielders positioned on either side of second base. You know, as nature intended.
Now, I realize this puts me in the King Tut demographic, made up of men and women who watch baseball through the bandages of ancient history. But is watching a left-handed hitter ground out to shallow right field fun? No, it is not. Is it good for the game? Only if you want to see less hitting. I don’t.
It’s reasonable to believe that a major-league hitter should be able to spray the ball to the opposite side, defeating the shift. But that’s not what this is about. It’s about aesthetics and creating the best product possible in a world losing interest in the game. Baseball is not better with the defensive shift, just as it wasn’t better with a turnstile of relievers facing one hitter apiece.
I’d prefer to see a left-handed hitter be rewarded for hitting a ball hard into the hole between first and second than a manager be rewarded for moving his shortstop to the right side of the infield. That means I prefer brawn over brains, athleticism over analytics. That means I’m old, with socks falling around my ankles and a full menu of medical complaints to share with complete strangers, but what can I say? I don’t find the shift fun, and, if fun isn’t the whole idea of sports, then we’re lost.
The major-league batting average so far this season is a miserable .233, but it will go up as temperatures do. If recent history is any guide, though, that average won’t soar. Last season, the batting average in baseball was .245, the lowest since 1972. In 2018, the average was .248. A lot of this has to do with the proliferation of strikeouts, with lots of pitchers throwing 95 mph-plus and lots of hitters swinging for the fences. But the shift surely has played a role in taking hits away from hitters and lowering batting averages.
Why, in a sport struggling to keep fans’ attention, would you want to do that?
Why would I want to see the Cubs’ Anthony Rizzo, a powerful pull hitter, try to send a grounder to the other side?
It’s impossible to make the argument that the way baseball is played now is more pleasing to the eye than it was even 20 years ago.
It has always been a thinking man’s game. It’s so full of numbers now that you’d think you were pondering actuarial tables instead of box scores. And that’s fine. As I’ve written before, analytics are simply a different way of describing the game. A different language. The temptation is to say “like Klingon,’’ but I’m better than that. The problem lately is that the language, not the action, too often is the focus.
From an analytical standpoint, the shift makes perfect sense. From an entertainment standpoint, it’s a show killer for many of us.
If you’re entertained by a manager outfoxing his counterpart in the other dugout, I would suggest that you’re missing the point of baseball, which is the beauty of a hitter swinging a bat, a pitcher grunting on a maximum-effort fastball or a center fielder leaping to steal a home run. Very little about it should resemble a Rubik’s Cube being manipulated.
The game is big enough for all of us — for the traditionalists shaking a fist at the sky, for the nerds staring at their computers and for everyone in-between. But all involved should keep their eye on the ball, the ball being the good of a game that is laboring to stay relevant. Getting a consensus on that isn’t easy. My good might be your bad. But the idea is not just to keep fans in seats. It’s to keep them on the edge of their seats. Decisions should be made with that in mind.
It’s not good theater when a hitter drills a line drive to a second baseman playing him perfectly in the grass in right field. It’s a letdown, a disappointment, a repudiation of what baseball is supposed to reward.
It’s true that things change in life. It’s also true that sometimes things change back to what they were — better.