Every few years, a trend emerges across Major League Baseball that threatens to forever alter the foundation of the sport. And every few years, the players who’ve spent their entire lives adjusting to the talent levels of their opponents figure out a way to buck that trend and change the narrative.
As recently as two years ago, pundits were calling for MLB to raise the strike zone because hitters were struggling to hit breaking balls at their knees. This rule, which has been in effect since 1996, was thought to be outdated in the era of PITCHF/x and instant replay.
Then the 2017 season happened, a campaign in which MLB hitters launched a combined 6,105 home runs — the largest total on record. Suddenly, analysts and scouts alike were tasked with determining what ushered in this new launch angle era.
When the home-run barrage continued into 2018, many within the game began questioning whether another rule should be enforced to keep the ball in the yard. In addition to the increase in homers, batters were also striking out at a dramatic rate. This was a concerning development for a league already dealing with a decline in viewership among young fans — a decline that many attribute to games taking too long and lacking enough action.
A popular theory follows that the rise in the usage of shifts has forced hitters to abandon the just-get-the-ball-in-play-and-see-what-happens approach, causing them to swing for the fences in hopes of avoiding grounding out to one of the three fielders on the pull side of the field.
The Athletic’s Jayson Stark reported last month that MLB banning the shift “could be a real possibility,” citing an increase of almost 8,000 shifts on balls in play between 2017 and 2018 alone. Given the general opposition to a shift ban by most MLB managers, that number is likely to grow again in 2019.
Washington Nationals general manager and president of baseball operations Mike Rizzo touched on the issue at the Winter Meetings, siding with the managers.
“I don’t like to limit what teams can do,” Rizzo said. “I think that each team is put together differently. I think that there’s different teams that build their defensive rosters around the ability to shift, so I think it would cut into the way that teams have prepared their rosters to this point.”
So, does MLB need to make a rule change? Players have been adjusting to trends such as this one for over a century. What makes this pattern concerning enough that the league needs to combat it? How far should MLB go to ensure hitters stop swinging out of their shoes on every other pitch? Should oft-shifted hitters such as Bryce Harper or Chris Davis be rewarded for hitting weak grounders through the infield?
As the saying goes, money talks. MLB brings in a revenue of over $10 billion a year, but its lack of younger fans bodes poorly for its long-term stability. The league is in a bind of not changing the game too much for fear of disgruntling current fans while also trying to enhance the product enough to draw in younger audiences. It also faces the unforeseen on-field implications of such a change, attempting to predict how players will adjust to a new set of rules.
So let’s forget telling defenders they must stay in certain “zones” or begin each pitch within a certain number of feet from the bag. Instead, just cut the field in half. The first baseman, second baseman and right fielder must stay on the right side of second base. In turn, the shortstop, third baseman and left fielder would be required to remain on the left side of second.
It seems pretty simple, but this change would allow defenses to shade players to one side of the field or the other and thus still leave room for managers to create their own competitive advantages by determining the best spots to play their defenders. It wouldn’t overcomplicate the game either, giving peace of mind to the traditionalists (who oppose the shift anyway) fearing their sacred game would be forever tainted by a dramatic change.
As hitters recognize they no longer need to elevate the ball as much, big swings will be replaced by two-strike approaches. Slap hitters will try to poke the ball through the infield rather than over it. As a result, there’ll be more RBI opportunities, baserunners will have more chances to make a highlight reel by stealing second and the number of strikeouts should begin to decline as well.
While the league’s gradual rise in strikeout rate since 2005 can be attributed to pitchers throwing harder and smarter, it sat at 22.3 percent in 2018 — the 11th-straight year MLB broke its own record for overall strikeout rate.
Rob Manfred and Co. can’t afford to believe it’s a foregone conclusion that streak can’t be broken.
Mind you, teams only shifted on 17 percent of plate appearances last season. It’s not as if this is some massive problem that requires a complete overhaul. Perhaps a subtle change is exactly what MLB needs to put the sport on its desired track.
This is about more than just getting back a few singles and turning the occasional whiff into a foul ball. The sport of baseball is a strong as it’s ever been, but MLB must always look ahead and prepare for the future.
Just don’t try to do too much.