Baseball and the Spirit of Innovation

If players are being outsmarted, the solution is for them to wise up, not the game to dumb down.


Baseball, being the noblest sport, has many lessons to teach: the value of daily persistence, the inevitability of failure and the likelihood that luck will not override ineptitude (Looking at you, Cubs.). But, as a creation of humans, it is also prey to human imperfections, like the urge to suppress useful changes to spare those who resist adaptation.

Part of the game's appeal lies in what George Will calls its "soothing continuities." Discontinuity can be jarring. It wasn't long ago that the Cubs had to fight to install lights in an ancient stadium that had hosted only day games.

But ingenuity is not something to outlaw. So fans and anyone who admires the creative spirit should be alarmed that the new commissioner of Major League Baseball is open to penalizing the clever and protecting the obstinate.

The target Rob Manfred has in his sights is an increasingly popular defensive alignment that puts three infielders on the first-base side of the diamond to rob hits from batters insatiably prone to hitting in that direction.

The bane of left-handed "pull" hitters, it is alleged to be draining offense from the game like a vampire sucking blood. The poor lunks would prefer to be presented with spacious expanses of unoccupied grass that they may barrage without fear.

But it's not the task of the defense to get these hitters on base. It's the job of the hitters. If they fail, it's their fault.

Manfred pronounces himself eager to consider ways of "injecting additional offense into the game," including a ban on the shift. If inflating scores is the goal, why not give hitters four strikes or shorten the distance between bases? For that matter, why did baseball ban steroids?

The tactic is no recent invention. Back when Ted Williams was terrorizing pitchers, teams regularly employed it when he came to the plate. The tactic frustrated him, but the Red Sox slugger learned to go the other way often enough that opponents eventually stopped shifting.

For decades afterward, the shift was rare. In recent years, though, it's become a standard defense against left-handed pull hitters. It was used 13,296 times last season, five times more than in 2010.

But the impact on offense is tiny. The Wall Street Journal calculated last September that as of that date, without it, the overall major league batting average for the season would have been .254 instead of .252.

Outlawing the shift would not be a mere tweak of the rules. It would alter a basic rule of the game, which is: Batters can hit the ball wherever they want, and fielders can position themselves wherever they think it will land.

That's a venerable prerogative, and fielders make use of it on every at-bat—shading left or right according to the predilections of the batter or the pitcher, moving up or back to cut off runs or prevent extra-base hits in crucial situations. To restrict these movements is to say the defense may not do the smart thing.

There is no doubt the shift makes life harder for hitters. But that's no reason to interfere. For every baseball action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

Batters have some obvious remedies. One is to bunt to the third-base side, which can succeed with great ease when the shift is in operation. Last year, reports the website Inside Edge, there were 50 bunt attempts against the shift—and 27 went for hits, a stunning .540 average. Bunting is a skill so simple that even feeble-hitting pitchers are expected to master it.

Hitters can also do what the legendary Willie Keeler (career average: .341) advised: "Hit 'em where they ain't." Left-handed sluggers like Adam Dunn (of the White Sox and Athletics, among others) and Matt Adams (of the Cardinals)—who are large, slow afoot and very strong—learned to use the other side of the field, forcing the defense to move back.

Dunn, who retired after last season, said he held to his "stupid, stubborn ways" until he tired of making outs and realized that with a runner on second, "there's a huge hole almost at shortstop" and "if you hit the ball over there, it's a run."

His example shows the way for other hitters to make the shift scarce by rendering it useless. If they are being outsmarted, the solution is for them to wise up, not the game to dumb down.

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  1. We have computers that can call balls and strikes accurately and consistently. Why leave the call to the moron behind the catcher?

    1. Because the moron behind the catcher has a union.

      1. Auto plants have Union guys whose jib is to watch the robot building the car and make sure it isn’t wildly malfunctioning. I’m sure a similar arrangement could be worked out in MLB. Doesn’t professional tennis do something similar?

    2. Because a manager can’t get ejected from a game for getting up in a computer’s face.

    3. Because the computers don’t have a labor union.

    4. Because no one is ever responsible for a systems failure.

    5. Small moves. The day will soon be here when umpires look down at a handheld device before delivering his/her distinctive ball/strike call. And umpires will always have a role to play in the game due to judgment calls.

  2. Baseball, being the noblest sport

    *rolls eyes, moves along*

    1. Indeed. Baseball has nothing on Cricket.

      1. Nobody said anything about “boringest” sport. Oh, wait – that’s baseball, too.

            1. What? I was just noting that they don’t play a lot of baseball in the Gaza Strip!

              1. And here I thought some of your best friends….

    2. The noblest sport, of course, is war.

      1. I vote foosball.

        1. Rugby football. Union, not “League”. 7s is an acceptable version – for the off season.

  3. Baseball, being the noblest sport

    Polo would like a word with you.

    1. Noble in spirit, not in blood.

      1. If played correctly, there’s plenty of blood.

    2. I always thought of Polo as a bit of a pansy sport until I actually went out and watched a game.

      Bloody hell on 32 legs going at 30 mph nonstop. And it can be exciting for the spectators too if they get too close to the sidelines when someone is forced off.

      Besided, it is the perfect sport to watch while sipping champagne and adjusting your monocle.

  4. This is dumb and has zero chance of actually happening. Why not talk about actual changes that are likely, like the pitch clock, limiting the batter from getting out of the box, aluminum bats, and starting warm up pitches during TV time outs instead of after them.

    1. No, the pitch clock is the stupid idea.

  5. and fielders can position themselves wherever they think it will land.

    That’s not true. The catcher is required to be in the catcher’s box when the pitcher releases the ball and all fielders (save the catcher) are required to be in fair territory when the pitch is released.

    Nevertheless the idea is a stupid one. Looks like the new commish is trying to make Selig look good by comparison.

  6. sports shmortz

  7. Baseball, being the noblest sport,

    stopped reading

    1. And here I thought bedding strange women was the noblest sport.

      1. But strange women lyin’ in ponds, distributin’ swords, is no basis for a system of government!

  8. Hey, want higher scores? Start each game at 10 to 10 and go from there!
    Even a great pitchers’ duel will be 11 – 10.

    1. Utter. GENIUS.

  9. They need a way for the defense to score. For example, striking out the side could earn a run.

  10. How about tweaking the scoring in soccer, a sport that really needs it?

    Make the goal a bigger target, like two yards wider and a foot taller.

    Limit offsides to eliminate stupid stuff like being offsides 3 yards from the goal when you get a pass from someone 5 yards from the goal.

  11. How about ending the ridiculous rule that the American League have a designated hitter but the National League can’t? Either both have it or both don’t.


      1. The pitcher having to hit adds a whole element of strategy to the game that is missing in the American League.

        1. Fucking DH is for pussies. Pussies.

          Want to make the game more exciting? Add penalties for delay and allow outs if you hit a baserunner with a baseball. Also, tackling.

          1. And then you can have a commercial break after every play, like other American sports, which will give viewers plenty of time to bullshit and drink booze. Which is all they were interested in in the first place.


    2. Now, with Inter-League Play, I would like to see the system reversed so that the DH rule follows the visiting team, to bring some variety into the lives of fans that actually go to the ballpark game after game.

  12. “I think the second set of changes that I would look at is related, and that relates to injecting additional offense into the game. For example, things like eliminating defensive shifts, I would be open to those sorts of ideas.” Ravech picked up on the opening and asked “The forward-thinking, Sabermetric defensive shifts?” Manfred nodded in agreement.

    Way to get off on the right foot, Manfred.

    He hasn’t given much thought to how much of a bureaucratic nightmare it would be to enforce an anti-shifting rule. You’d have to give every fielder a “fielder’s box” he can’t leave, and the wrangling over the dimensions of that would be legendary. And then you’d have to punish players who leave their boxes too early–can they begin running out of the box at the moment of the pitch and perform a kind of delayed shift, or would they have to stay in the box until the hitter made contact?

    It’s hard to put into words how awful this idea is, but here goes: it’s DH-level, Hawk Harrelson awful.

  13. Ban “The Shift”?
    Sure, right after we get ball players that don’t fall for the old “hidden ball trick”.

  14. 1. Restore the traditional larger strike zone and reduce the number of balls needed to get a walk from four to three. The offensive/defensive balance would be unchanged, pretty much, but the game would go faster. Batters couldn’t wait for a fat pitch, hoping to eek out a walk. They’d have to swing more often. And walks would be granted more quickly.

    2. Enable the use of fields with too-short fences, like Seattle’s old Kingdome, by allowing 1) the use of a deader ball there, and/or 2) counting short homers (ones hit into the first five rows of seats, say, or that hit Plexiglas panels that raise the height of the fences) as ground rule doubles or triples. It cost hundreds of millions of dollars to needlessly replace the Kingdome.

    3. Make bat manufacturers burn the exact weight of their bats into their knobs. (If they don’t do so already.) Then only a scale would be needed to detect “corking,” not an X-ray machine.

    4. Perhaps give teams that win their division a greater “edge” in the playoffs than mere home field advantage. E.g., maybe spot them a one-run lead in a few games. Not having such an edge devalues the importance of winning in their division.

    5. Call mound-chargers “out,” as well as ejecting them. This would work where fines, suspensions, and ejections (alone) have not. That’s because being called out would penalize the team, not just the player. That realization, plus peer pressure, would be effective (most of the time).

  15. 6. Perhaps embed homer/foul detectors or videocams in the foul poles. (In general, the ump should be “killed”?i.e., automated away.)

    (The following reforms were suggested by broadcaster Red Barber in “Can Baseball Be Saved,” in the April 1969 Reader’s Digest. I strongly endorse them.)

    7. Reward hit-batsmen with more than one base. For example, give him two bases if hit above the waist and three bases if hit above the shoulder. (Possible exception: if the batter is hit on the back by a slow pitch, the ump may choose to award only one base.) (Barber proposed four bases for head-hits, but that’s too big a jump, IMO.)

    8. Allow two more (say) designated hitters. Here’s Barber’s rationale: “Baseball, like football, has many men who excel in one facet of the game?. [With more DHs] fans could get to see the best batters batting, the best runners running, the best fielders fielding. They could see the game being played at its best all the time.” Note that the standard objection to allowing a DH to bat for a pitcher (that it simplifies the game by eliminating agonizing over removing the pitcher) wouldn’t apply. (Barber wanted to allow unlimited substitutions, like football’s, but that’s a bridge too far, IMO.)

    9. Shorten the season back to the old length of 154 games. Too many games, including the World Series, are now being played in football weather, which is ridiculous. (Barber wanted 142 games.)

  16. If baseball had four outs per inning, and only seven innings, the game would be faster, fairer, and more fascinating, because:

    1. There’d be four fewer field changes?that is, less dead time.

    2. There’d be 25% fewer boring, one-out-to-go situations, which is when the game is least interesting, especially when no one’s on base.

    3. The extra out would allow more runners to reach scoring position, which is when the game gets most interesting.

    4. Scores would be higher, because with more outs-per-inning, fewer men would be left on base over the course of the game.

    5. There’d be fewer boring intentional walks, because they are normally issued in one-out-to-go situations, or in situations when there are no men on base, both of which would be rarer in 4/7 ball.

    6. Scores would be fairer, better mirroring overall performance (on-base totals), because the more outs there are per inning, the less the luck-factor of hit-bunching affects the score.

    7. There’d be more action on the basepaths (bunts, hit-and-runs, double steals, plays at the plate, etc.), especially in two-out situations. (The more outs there are per inning, the smarter it is to sacrifice a batter to advance a runner.)

    8. Managerial strategy would play a more important role in the game, as a result of the greater appeal of the sacrifice plays above.

    9. Fans (and commentators) of all teams would have more opportunities to strategize and “call plays” themselves, both before and after the fact.

  17. Totally compatible with all other BuckyBall sets!Each set comes with a little carrying case too.each buckyball is 5mm in diametercube: 1 ?” high x 1 ?” wide x 1 ?” diameterFor adults only. ? These are so super strong, they should be kept away from children.

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