A misguided solution to offensive woes
When the new CBA was announced on March 10, it included, among other provisions, a 45-day window to impose rule changes, decided on by a new joint committee, beginning in 2023. It was believed that MLB wanted to make some considerable rule changes and this provision in the CBA indicated that such changes were imminent. Sure enough, on September 9, rule changes became official. In general, I am in favor of the rule changes. I think the pitch clock could do wonders to reduce dead time in the game as it did when implemented in the minors. Bigger bases and limiting pickoff moves are fine by me also, as I’m generally in favor of actions to prevent injuries, and because I don’t know anybody that wishes there were fewer stolen bases in the game.
Where I take issue is the rule change that has garnered the most controversy of any: banning the shift. I will refer to it henceforth as “banning the shift” or “the shift ban,” but I will acknowledge right off the bat that may be a bit misleading. The press release from MLB defined the new rules for defensive positioning as follows:
Lateral Positioning: Two infielders must be positioned on each side of second base when the pitch is released.
Depth: All four infielders must have both feet within the outer boundary of the infield when the pitcher is on the rubber.
No Switching Sides: Infielders may not switch sides unless there is a substitution.
This will eliminate the overshift commonly used, particularly against lefties, where three infielders are stationed on either side of the infield. It will also eliminate four-player outfield alignments. It will not disallow playing at double play depth, guarding the lines, playing in to defend a bunt, or the rare five-infielder alignment.
The press release claims these changes will “return the game to a more traditional aesthetic... with the goals of encouraging more balls in play, giving players more opportunities to showcase their athleticism, and offsetting the growing trend of alignments that feature four outfielders.”
I am opposed to these restrictions on the shift. While I have some philosophical objections, my reasoning is mostly practical. I understand the reasoning behind it. Leaguewide non-pitcher batting average has cratered in recent years, dropping all the way to .243 this season, two points lower than the .245 mark in the infamous “Year of the Pitcher” in 1968. Meanwhile, strikeouts have also been steadily climbing in recent years, though they have slightly dropped over the past two seasons. As the league did in response to the lack of offense in 1968, they are attempting to find some way to juice offense and have landed on banning the shift.
It’s easy to look at the shift as the driving force behind the league’s batting average woes. Data for shifting does not go back very far, but we can see a clear decrease in leaguewide BABIP as the shift became more commonly used:
The issue I see is that the decrease in batting average began before the shift became en vogue. To illustrate this, let’s look at some trends:
This chart goes back to 1972, the last year before the American League adopted the designated hitter. The first thing I’d like to note is this season’s leaguewide BABIP of .291 is higher than it was through the 1970s and 80s, which makes me wonder what exactly this “traditional aesthetic” the press release refers to actually means.
In the past 20 years, batting average peaked in 2006, when non-pitchers collectively hit .274. Aside from a slight rebound from 2015-2017 and the Rob Manfred super happy fun ball season of 2019, it has steadily dropped since. The leaguewide strikeout rate, meanwhile, sat at 16.3% in 2006. It steadily increased every year from then through 2020, until it slightly dropped in the past couple seasons.
BABIP tracks fairly closely with batting average, so it’s unsurprising that it has also dropped in that time. However, it hasn’t dropped as much as one might expect. Between 2006 and 2022, BABIP has dropped from .304 to .291, a much smaller drop than the 31-point drop suffered by batting average. Batting average and BABIP have never in the past 40 years been further apart.
From 1972-2006, batting average and BABIP were quite consistently between 20 and 30 points apart. Since 2006, that differential has steadily risen. To summarize:
- Batting average has steadily dropped since 2006.
- Strikeouts have steadily risen since 2006.
- The gap between BABIP and batting average has widened since 2006.
This seems to point to an obvious conclusion: the shift hasn’t killed batting average, strikeouts have. Even if banning the shift brings BABIP back up to around .300, batting average will remain lower than in the past as this will not rectify the gulf between batting average and BABIP.
Let’s look at this from a bit more of a philosophical angle as well. If the goal is to increase action in the game, this does not seem to be the answer. After all, who is this really going to benefit? Check out the 15 hitters that have been shifted against the most this season (minimum 250 plate appearances):
That is a collection of 15 left-handed hitting, dead-pull sluggers. These guys step to the plate and swing for the downs every time, accepting the cost of losing a few groundball hits to the shift. With the shift gone, these types of players will get a few more singles throughout the season. Is that the “more traditional aesthetic” that MLB is referring to? Is this the group of players that we think need a boost to improve the quality of play?
Think about this from the perspective of a pitcher as well. Pitching to contact isn’t the modus operandi of MLB pitchers anymore as the focus has shifted towards missing bats. However, the shift provided pitchers something of a safety net against those pull-heavy sluggers. If they do make contact, there’s a decent chance they’ll hit it into the shift. With the shift gone, will there be even more incentive for pitchers to miss bats? It’s hard to envision strikeouts getting even more common than they already have, but never say it can’t get worse.
There are plenty of philosophical reasons to be opposed to banning the shift, but my beef with it is I think it misses the point. Sure, a few extra groundballs will sneak through the infield for hits, but it’s hard to see how banning the shift will move the sport away from the three-true-outcomes focus that we see today. Walks are still valuable, home runs are still the most efficient way to score runs, and strikeouts still have an OPS of 0.000. The game has been moving in this direction since well before the shift, and will likely continue to do so without it.