Writing at BillJamesonline.com, John Dewan, in late October, reported that, "[o]ver the last four seasons the number of shifts in Major League Baseball, as measured by a ball hit into play when a shift is in effect, has nearly doubled every year." Fangraphs.com's Jeff Sullivan broke the numbers down this weekend in an article, "Identifying MLB's Most-and Least-Shiftable teams," noting that, "[a]s recently as 2011, there were just shy of 2,500 balls put in play with a shift on.":
"The next year, that number went up 94 percent. Then that number went up 79 percent. Then that number went up 63 percent. There were 564 percent as many shifts in 2014 as there were in 2011. Shifts are even rising dramatically against right-handed hitters, which is particularly unconventional."
Dewan notes that there were 13,296 defensive shifts in 2014 and 195 Shift Runs Saved, with Shift Runs Saved, he explained, "...an estimate of the number of runs saved by a team when employing The Shift Defense."
The Houston Astros led the majors in Shift Runs Saved, with 27 runs saved, "...on their 1,341 shifts," according to Dewan, followed by the, "Toronto Blue Jays with 16 runs saved on 686 shifts."
"If you want to save runs, shift," he wrote. "Simple as that. And the more you shift, the more you save."
So defensive shifts have clearly saved a lot of runs, which some, apparently, see as a problem. On his first day on the job on Sunday, new MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said he would at least consider eliminating defensive shifts.
In an attempt to speed up the game and boost run-scoring, Manfred started a discussion about potential changes to the game with ESPN's Karl Ravech by saying he would be "aggressive" about using a pitch clock that limited the amount of time between pitches which could help "move the game along."
"I think the second set of changes that I would look at is related," Manfred continued, "and that relates to injecting additional offense in the game. For example: Things like eliminating shifts. I would be open to those sorts of ideas."
"We have really smart people working in the game," Manfred explained. "And they are going to figure out ways to get a competitive advantage. I think it's incumbent upon us in the Commissioner's Office to look at the advantages that are produced and say, 'Is this what we want to happen in the game?'"
YahooSports.com's Jeff Passan wrote on Twitter that Manfred was not alone in thinking that a change, when it comes to shifts, might be for the best.
This is very telling: I ran Rob Manfred's idea to limit defensive shifts by two sabermetrically inclined GMs -- and both said they agree.— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) January 25, 2015
Both essentially said same thing: The game is better when the casual fans gets the product they want. Big concern baseball isn't delivering.— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) January 25, 2015
In an article in early September, Wall Street Journal writer Steve Moyer reported that at that point in the season, the Washington Nationals shifted their defensive alignment 258 times with a total of 11 Net Hits Saved, tied for 13th in the majors in Net Hits Saved.
Nats' skipper Matt Williams talked before his first season on the bench began about bringing Mark Weidemaier over from Arizona with him and naming the former Special Assistant to the GM and Advance Scout to the Nationals' staff as a, "Defensive Coordination and Advance Coach."
Your Nats defensive alignment. pic.twitter.com/KujDKgSZLR— Craig Calcaterra (@craigcalcaterra) March 4, 2014
"It's interesting because defensive alignment is a big part of the game these days," Williams explained in an MLB Network interview.
"You just don't throw the gloves on and go play everybody straight up and look [to] your athletes to go catch the baseball and all of that. Today it's a little more intricate."
The Nationals struggled defensively early in the 2014 campaign, but the defense picked up soon thereafter, though Weidemaier himself told the Washington Post's Adam Kilgore that dramatic shifts other teams employed were not necessarily the Nats' thing.
"'A lot of people talk about the shift," Weidemaier said. "[Forget] the shift. That’s extreme. We’re going to shade, whether it’s two or three steps, right or left. That’s the key. That’s the real key."
A full shift, like teams employ against Ryan Howard or David Ortiz, Weidemaier explained, is extreme, more important is positioning.
"'We’re going to try to put them in an optimal spot to start," he told the WaPost reporter, "and then move from there according to the charts and research that we’ve done.'"
How exactly would baseball regulate where a player is allowed to position himself defensively? It might not affect the Nationals too drastically, but surely they want the option of shifting dramatically against straight pull hitters? What about bunt situations?
How, if it ever came to actually making this ill-advised change, could MLB actually do it? Maybe this idea and the discussion should have been saved for Mr. Manfred's second day as Commissioner?
Can I paraphrase Ben Affleck's character from Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back and ask if I'm alone in thinking this is the worst idea since Greedo shooting first?