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The Defensive Shift is Good for Baseball  

February 11, 2015

by William Szczepanek

Rob Manfred, the new baseball commissioner, says he’s open to eliminating the baseball shift, where fielders can move to positions where they think the batter will ultimately hit the ball. The argument is that implementing this change would open up the game providing increased run scoring and more interest. I don’t think so.

It is obvious that Manfred did not give this matter much thought, or he really does not understand the game, or he is just trying to make a controversial statement. What would really happen if teams were not allowed to shift? The obvious conclusion is that dead pull hitters would be able to get more hits thereby creating more runs and more interest. I don’t think so.

The sabermetrically astute clubs that have adopted shifts based on probabilities and statistics would then have to change their defensive approach. What would likely happen? Pull hitters are currently pitched to their strength causing them to hit the ball to the given field where more fielders have a better chance of catching the ball. If shifts were not allowed then pitchers would pitch more to the outside of the plate and more likely strike out more pull hitters than they currently do, thereby creating fewer runs and less action. Some sabermetrically aligned teams said they would favor the change. That’s because they have a defensive solution, not that it would be better for the game.

The History of the Shift

Boudreau ShiftThe shift strategy is often connected with Ted Williams, but it was actually first used against Cy Williams in the 1920s.  It was first formulated by Cleveland Indians manager Lou Boudreau for use in the second game of a doubleheader in July 1946 to cool down a streaking Williams. It was used later against Ted Williams during the 1946 World Series as a defensive strategy by St. Louis manager Eddie Dyer in an attempt to shut down the Spendid Splinter. The shift has more recently been used against teams in various degrees not only to restrict pull hitters, but to position defensive players in the most advantageous position possible. This is baseball strategy at its best. I think it is the heart of intelligent baseball playing.

The Shift in Baseball Cards

Willimas Shift Fleer 1958The Ted Williams Fleer Set of 1959 has one card devoted entirely to the Ted Williams Shift.

Many say that Ted Williams hit through the shift and for a long time he did try to do so. But, with seven fielders on the right side of the field he had to try something different.  Williams himself says that Paul Waner, “Big Poison”, advised him to step back from the plate a little since Williams’ strategy was to crowd the plate. He then could go to left field with control.

In an April 18, 1956 sports summary in the Chicago Tribune the headline reads, “ TED WILLIAMS DEFIES SHIFT: HITS 2 DOUBLES  - Paces Red Sox to 8 to 1 Edge Over Orioles --- Boston April 17 (UP) --- Ted Williams slammed two doubles to left and a single to center to foil the shift… Baltimore shifted strongly to the right side against Ted, who simply aimed the ball for the wide open spaces just vacated.

 In 1957, still playing against the shift Williams batted .388. Hitting well against the shift actually increases the offensive aspects of the game. I rest my case.

In the meantime, it appears as if Manfred has begun backpedaling.

"You never know whether people are going to adjust, maybe a lot of hitters went home this winter and they figured out how to go the other way against the shift and it's going to self-correct and we're not going to need to make a change. But we look at these things. We think it's smart to pay attention. We think it's important to think about possible solutions, even if it turns out we don't have a problem." ─ Rob Manfred

No kidding.

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