The Problem With Rob Manfred’s Problem With Shifts

Yesterday was Rob Manfred’s first official day on the job, and he didn’t waste any take making headlines. In addition to penning an open letter to the fans, he also sat down with Karl Ravech for an ESPN Sunday Conversation, offering some thoughts on what he saw as priorities to tackle early in his tenure. Some of the points of emphasis are things people have been talking about for a long time — there can be entirely too much time between pitches, and when certain teams get together, the length of the game is a real problem as well — but it was his comments about potentially restricting defensive shifts that got the most attention.

In the context of the conversation about how the game can be improved, Manfred mentioned that the league was looking at ways to “inject additional offense into the game.” And it’s fairly natural that people would draw a connection between the rise in shifting and the decrease in offense around the game. After all, the trend towards non-traditional defensive alignment has picked up a lot of steam in the last five years, the same time period in which offensive output has returned to levels not seen since the early-1990s. Shifts are also highly visible changes to the game, as we have all seen line drives end up as easy outs when a frustrated slugger shakes his head and walks back to the dugout.

But while I appreciate Manfred’s willingness to think about tweaking the game to improve the overall experience, this probably isn’t the best path to pursue.

The primary issue with going after shifts is that there just isn’t a lot of data to suggest that restricting them would actually have a real noticeable impact on the level of offense in the game to begin with. Back in August, Jonathan Judge did an excellent breakdown of the relationship between the rise of the shift and the decline in league offense. From that piece, this table is pretty telling:

Season League wOBAcon Team R/G
1999 0.374 5.08
2000 0.374 5.14
2001 0.367 4.78
2002 0.362 4.62
2003 0.363 4.73
2004 0.367 4.81
2005 0.362 4.59
2006 0.370 4.86
2007 0.370 4.80
2008 0.368 4.65
2009 0.370 4.61
2010 0.364 4.38
2011 0.361 4.28
2012 0.366 4.32
2013 0.364 4.17
2014 0.365 4.11

wOBAcon is wOBA-on-contacted-balls, so this essentially measures the difference in production when a batter puts the ball in play (or hits a home run). As you can see, wOBA-on-contact hasn’t really changed much over the last decade, and the last few years, the run value of balls in play was slightly higher than it was in 2002-2003, when teams were averaging about 4.8 runs per game. We’ve shaved over half a run off that total in the last seven years even as the results of contacted plays haven’t really changed much at all.

Because, as has been well covered, strikeouts are out of control. MLB is setting strikeout records every single season, and now walks trending downwards at the same time strikeouts are heading upwards. Pitchers are dominating the strike zone like they have never before, which is leading to fewer balls in play than MLB has ever seen. The dramatic reduction in offense is primarily the result of fewer contacted balls, not the outcomes of those contacted balls.

It’s not that the shift has zero impact. Clearly, guys like Ryan Howard and Mark Teixeira have been hurt by the shift, and the fact that teams are increasing their usage suggests that there is a benefit, even if league BABIP isn’t changing much at all. After all, batters may simply be hitting the ball harder now, so perhaps league BABIP would be over .300 now if it weren’t for the shift; we can’t simply point to the fact that BABIP hasn’t risen much as evidence that the shift doesn’t work.

But there simply aren’t enough shift plays throughout the year to have a massive impact on league wide run scoring. By the best estimates we have, teams have managed to save something like a couple hundred runs per year with their new defensive alignments. Not per team. Total. Adding back 200 runs to the 2014 total would move the league average of 4.08 R/G all the way up to 4.12 R/G. And that’s if the restrictions on shifting banned every type of shift, and teams responded by never doing it again. Realistically, any proposed restriction would probably be more moderate, so we’re likely looking at an even more marginal change.

If the goal is to add offense back to the game — and I do think that’s probably a worthy goal — then restricting shifts is the wrong solution. Or, at least, not a very meaningful part of the right solution. One could make an aesthetic argument against the shift, but suggesting that it’s going to do much to increase interest in the sport by creating more exciting, higher-scoring games is probably wishcasting.

And beyond the simple fact that it probably wouldn’t even work, I’d suggest that we should think twice before mandating sub-optimal strategies simply to achieve a desired end goal. Even if restricting defensive shifts would help restore offense to the game, I’d still hesitate to create a rule that didn’t allow teams to choose where to place their own fielders. Any time you create a restriction to a benefit, people will attempt to find a way around the restriction, or to get as close to the line as possible, because you’ve simply added an obstacle rather than eliminating the incentive.

If we say that teams can only have two fielders on each side of the second base at the start of the play, do we also limit whether they can be moving at the time of the pitch? Or could a team have the player they want to have shifted start 10 feet to the left of the second base bag, get a running start, and be in the position where he would have started if not for the shift restriction by the time the batter’s contacted ball reaches the shift position? As long as there are extreme pull ground ball hitters, teams will do whatever they can to put their fielders in position where the ball is most likely to go, and creating an arbitrary line for them to stand will just give them another problem to solve on their way to reaching that goal.

Instead, it’s likely better to just let teams put their defenses wherever they want, and let offenses get rid of the shift for you. Whether it’s through improved bunting, players developing better opposite field hitting skills, or simply through the league placing a lower value on bat-only pull-power guys, the market will find an equilibrium if given enough time to sort out this new shifting normal. Just as teams have an incentive to put their defenders in the best spots possible, they also have the same incentive for their own hitters to beat the shift. The shift isn’t an impenetrable fortress that can’t be overcome, and the same people who have found ways to align defenses more optimally will also find ways to help hitters exploit the shift’s flaws.

If MLB wants to add offense back to the game, then their first priority should be forcing the strike zone back to prior dimensions. Train the umpires to stop giving pitchers expanded strike zones, and give hitters a chance to make more contact than they do now. We don’t need better outcomes on contact; we just need more contact in general. And that starts at home plate.

The shift isn’t a serious problem for Major League Baseball, but the strike zone is. Let’s tackle that issue, and then in a few years, if no one has figured out how to beat the shift, maybe we can revisit this far more minor issue.

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Ron M.
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Ron M.

Kark Ravech — ESPNMars reporter?

Josh
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Josh

He places his sources wherever he wands.