Defensive Shifts Are Not the Problem

Photo by Owen Lystrup on Unsplash*

Jay Bruce retired from Major League Baseball thirty-four at bats into his fourteenth season. It’s always a little sad when a player retires, especially if the retirement is forced by performance or injury. In Bruce’s case, it was performance. He only had four hits in those thirty-four at bats. That’s a .118 average, much better than I could do, but below what was expected. Bruce was a quality major leaguer for over a decade. I hope everyone remembers that, and I’m sure the people of Cincinnati have many fond memories. I’d like to congratulate him and wish him well in retirement.

But, that’s not what I’m here to talk about. I want to talk about defensive shifts. Tom Verducci took Bruce’s retirement as an opportunity to rail against the shift in this piece. I usually like Verducci, both in writing and on air, but this is just dumb. It’s almost the epitome of a grumpy-old-man take. Change is bad! Bah! Humbug! In the article he calls for MLB to ban the defensive shift. Verducci describes Bruce, “as a left-handed pull hitter without much speed.” Here is the crux of his argument: since 2015 (when shifts became widespread), “left-handed hitters such as Bruce, Brian McCann, Anthony Rizzo, Matt Carpenter and Kyle Seager have seen their careers turn for the worse because of the shifts they face in which one or two infielders position themselves on the outfield grass to their pull side.”

Now, I happen to think Verducci cherry picked his stats to make his case. There are plenty of players against whom the shift doesn’t work. But, I’ll grant everything he says and accept every point he makes and I’m stuck with an overwhelming feeling of, “So what?” Why should the league intervene because Jay Bruce, Brian McCann, Anthony Rizzo, Matt Carpenter, and Kyle Seager have trouble competing against a defensive strategy that they face? It’s like asking the NBA to do something about Hack-a-Shaq. It’s not other teams’ fault Shaq couldn’t shoot free throws. It’s a strategy that’s within the rules. It would fail spectacularly against Steph Curry. It worked on Shaq because he lacked a certain skill. I don’t mean any offense to slow, left-handed, pull hitters, but there is absolutely no reason for baseball to change the rules because some players are less skilled than their counterparts.

Verducci says that the shift is, “harming careers and the entertainment value of the game.” The harming careers part is nonsense. The shift isn’t harming careers. The careers are being harmed by not being good enough to compete at the major league level. And for every Jay Bruce or Brian McCann who can’t hack it, there are plenty of young, dynamic players that would be thrilled to get a chance. It’s not like rosters are shrinking or jobs are being eliminated. Rafael Palmeiro might struggle in the modern game. Johnny Unitas would probably struggle in the modern NFL. That’s just how things work. Things change and those who can adjust thrive while the others fail.

More importantly, Verducci is wildly overestimating the entertainment value of slow, left-handed, pull hitters. I say this as someone who adores David Ortiz, but losing one-dimensional players would probably benefit the entertainment value of baseball. Instead of teams looking for the next Mark McGuire or (roided) Barry Bonds, they will learn to hunt for players unaffected by the shift. Maybe Ichiro will be the ideal. Or Ricky Henderson. That would be amazing. People would start wondering why hockey, soccer, and basketball are so static and dull.

So, Mr. Verducci, I promise I will stay off your lawn, but, in exchange, please spare me the outrage or whatever it is you’re feeling. We should be rewarding teams and players for innovative thinking. Natural, evolutionary changes are where its at. Try to keep up.

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* I know I talk about lefties here, but the picture is a shift against a righty. I hope that’s OK.

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