To Shift or Not To Shift? That Is The Question

A defensive shift is employed when a power-hitter, known to swing for the fences, comes to the plate. A lefty hitting power-hitter will pull the ball to the right side and a righty power-hitter will pull the ball to the left side. A defensive shift occurs when defensive players leave their normal positions to overload one-side of the field. For example, a shortstop will move between first and second base for a lefty pull-hitter.

The first known defensive shift was done against the Babe. It involved overloading the three outfielders between centerfield and right field. But, most baseball people credit Lou Boudreau, the Cleveland manager/shortstop for instituting the first shift against Ted Williams. On July 14, 1946 in a doubleheader against the Red Sox Williams went 4-for-5 in the first game including three homers. In the second game, Boudreau employed the following shift on Williams. He placed three infielders between first and second base, three outfielders between centerfield and right field, and one infielder into left field. There were no infielders between second and third base.

So how did it work? Well, Williams went 1-for-2 with two walks. Clearly a better result than the first game. This shift became known as “The Ted Williams Shift.”

The NBA made any zone defense illegal for many years. A zone defense allowed teams to clog the area close to the basket. The commissioner outlawed the zone defense because he felt that the zone defense caused a decrease in scoring. With the introduction of the 3-point shot the effectiveness of a zone defense was reduced. This led to the decision to allow the zone defenses.

Recently, new Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred suggested that eliminating the shift as a legal defense would put more scoring into baseball. Can you imagine the NFL not allowing linebackers to blitz? Is Manfred’s logic correct that the decrease in run production is caused mainly by the shift? Baseball Info Solutions (BIS) which tracks shift data stated the total number of shifts used by teams has jumped from 2,357 in 2011 to 13,296 in 2014.

Can one conclude from this that there is a direct cause and effect relationship between the increase in the number of shifts and the decrease in scoring? BIS estimated the number of runs saved via shifting in 2014 was an average of 6.5 runs per team for the entire year. In 2014 the average team scored 659 runs compared to 779 runs in 2004. Thus, we can estimate that the shift accounted for approximately 5% of the decline in offense over the past 10 years. Of course, the trend of using shifts by teams is clearly increasing. As more shifts are used in future years this result will increase but still have a minor effect on scoring.

So what is the biggest reason for the decline in offense? The answer is the increase in strikeouts. The total MLB strikeouts for 2004 was 31828 rising to a new record of 36710 in 2013. Guess what! In 2014 there were 37440 strikeouts, another new record.

Chapter 17 of my book “Sandlot Stats” has the title “Mission Impossible: Batting .400 for a Season.” In that chapter, I also showed the reason why it is very unlikely any player will bat .400 again is the increase in strikeouts. In 1941 when Ted Williams batted .406 he struck out just 27 times in over 600 plate appearances.

Clearly, the data shows making a defensive shift illegal will have little effect on run-scoring. My request to Commissioner Manfred is do not be so obsessed with run scoring that you make rule changes that hurt the great game of baseball. A rule forbidding defensive shifts is unnecessary. It is the responsibility of a major league hitter to have the ability to hit the ball to the vacated positions. If he repeats this process enough times the shift will be stopped.

Original Comments:

stanley rothamn said…

I agree with Marty that other ways can be used to increase scoring such as what was done in 1968. In that year The mound was lowered. But it should be pointed out that the real problem with baseball today is there is too much time where no action is occurring. To remedy this problem the commissioner should reduce the time between pitches and stop batters from leaving the batter’s box after each pitch. He should be looking at even more ways to speed up the game.

January 30, 2015 07:58:29

Martin Cobern said…

The man is clearly deranged. The most interesting part of baseball is strategy – the battle of wits between the managers. This aspect of the game was partly crippled by the idiotic designated hitter rule, which essentially eliminated the “double switch” and made pitchers into narrow specialists. There is already a rule that all players, other than the catcher, be in fair territory when the ball is pitched. If he wants more scoring, he should use the traditional method – lower the mound.

January 29, 2015 08:27:33

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