A Paradigm Shift, Of Sorts

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It has been way long since I last posted something on the blog itself. Lots of work, lots of time spent with family (which is good!), and just the boring offseason because owners don’t feel like spending money, have made it difficult to figure out something to write about. I suppose a Dreamcast to talk about the goings-on in Spring Training (which is right around the corner) would be nice, but in the meantime you can check out the last one we had a chance to put together.

There have been a few stories out about the players union and MLB discussing potential rules changes, some of which might take place as soon as next season. Many others might not come until the next CBA negotiations, which are expected to be rough due to the very notable free agent freeze-outs the past couple offseasons. For those of you freaking about about the National League adopting the designated hitter, you have a few years before baseball as you know it dies forever.

I do like the rule about each pitcher having to face at least three batters per appearance:

MLB’s proposal that pitchers face a minimum of three batters in an inning unless it ends was designed both for pace and to slow or reverse the increased use of relievers. The union wants its use at the big league level delayed until 2020.

This may mess with some notable one-batter “opener” strategies or the LOOGY and pitcher-outfielder quasi-platoons, but clever managers might still find a way to work around this while keeping the game moving along. I doubt any manager allows the bases to be walked loaded just to bring in a better pitching matchup!

I believe that the pitch clock will make an appearance this season, and perhaps that plus the suggested cut in commercial time will allow games to breeze along a bit better than the last time I tried to track game lengths (spoiler: they’re still three hours long). I don’t necessarily mind long games, but even as a die hard fan, I would prefer to see more action than too many lulls. And by action, I mean more balls in play, and specifically more balls in play that can turn into hits and exciting defensive plays.

That is the basis behind the current arguments for and against the exaggerated defensive shifting that we often complain about in more games than in the past. As we can see both anecdotally and quantitatively, Cubs players like Kris Bryant get shifted against rather often, and that leads to undue frustration because WHY THE HELL IS THERE A GUY STANDING THERE?! Of course, that is the reasoning behind the shift. With more data than ever before and more brain power to process it, front offices and coaching staffs are going to maximize that data to improve their chances of recording an out.

While there is some rumbling about the curbing or outright banning of shifts in the future, that doesn’t seem to be tops on the priority list just yet. That doesn’t prevent us from seeing how to implement it in a way that doesn’t completely kill strategic deployment while still generating some balls in play. After all, if you strike a baseball at 100+ miles per hour, you kind of deserve watching it get through for a hit, right?

I was reading this article from MIT about a discussion on the hypothetical banning of the shift. Newly minted Hall of Fame baseball writer Jayson Stark was one of the special guests, and had this very nice tidbit, among others:

Well, I think the big-picture reason is – if you’re going to ask Rob Manfred, inject him with truth serum and [ask], “What’s the biggest problem in your sport right now?” The big-picture answer would be, you know, we’re reaching this tipping point between what makes great baseball strategy based on information versus what makes great entertainment strategy based on what people who are sitting there in the seats would love to see. And I would say that if you’re going to define what he would like to do with his sport, he would like to see the game have better rhythm (which has nothing to do with the shift, really), and see the game have more action. And “more action” you could roughly translate to “more people running around the bases, more balls in play.” And why do they think the shift has an impact on both of those? Well, let’s talk about the running around the bases part. If you just look at the pure data, the single is now all of a sudden an endangered species. There were fewer singles this year than in any season in this millennium. Singles are down 3,000 – 3,000 fewer singles than 10 years ago. And singles aren’t what they used to be, but when somebody hits a single, he’s running around the bases. We’re looking for more of that. That’s the whole theory coming from the commissioner’s office – we need more action. And then the other part of it is more balls in play. I think this is probably the biggest question I get from people: If you’re trying to increase the number of balls in play, why would you attack a strategy that’s designed only for balls that are already in play? And I think the answer is [that] there is this theory within the commissioner’s office, within the competition committee: What have hitters been coached to do to combat the shift? You would think they would be coached to just hit the ball where nobody’s standing – try to hit it through that big hole on the other side. But that’s not really the case. What they’ve really been coached to do is hit the ball over the shift. It’s where the launch angle revolution has come from in great part. How have pitchers combated that? If you’ve got one hitter after another marching up to the plate with an uppercut swing, the answer from these pitchers is to start throwing their 97-mph four-seam fastball over those bats. And when uppercut swings meet those 97-mph four-seam fastballs, you know what you get? More swingin’ and missin’ than you’ve ever seen. I think that’s the theory and why limiting shifts could help all of that theoretically.

The whole discussion is a fantastic read, but that introductory statement does explain why I, among others, would not oppose some restriction of shifts like this:

A typical shift against a guy like Joey Gallo, who obviously is a pull hitter. (Via MLB.com)

Stark does mention the big shift in hitting philosophy with the emphasis on launch angle, extra base hits, and of course, the home run. And as we have frequently seen (and been impressed by), pitchers are throwing harder, which leads to more strikeouts and fewer balls in play. I think a marriage of a shift-restriction and perhaps either lowering the mound or moving it back to, say, 63 feet instead of 60 feet six inches, may balance the playing field for the hitters, who are responsible for most of the baseball action anyway.

I do like the idea of keeping the third baseman and the shortstop on one side, while keeping the second baseman and first baseman on the other side. Don’t limit their movements within their region of the infield, but also don’t give them a built-in advantage of already being in the general area of the field where the ball is likely to be hit (I know it’s counter-intuitive, but this kind of stuff is seen in other sports where they prevent overload situations, such as the original illegal defense in the NBA or illegal shifts in NFL).

Note also that on most double plays (see this highlight package for multiple awesome examples), the infielders are staying within the boundaries of the infield dirt. I think this makes sense as a standard boundary to dictate the starting positions of the infielders. And there could be a sort of “demilitarized zone” that goes up the line that penetrates home plate, the pitching rubber, and second base. It will not be a line, but more of a region that is about the width of second base where the left-side and the right-side infielders cannot cross until the ball is put into play.

While this would prevent four-man outfields, it would not affect the five-man infield alignments like we see in this end-game infield wall:

Look at those scheming Dodgers at it again. (Via MLB.com)

I think this is a fair compromise, as in those instances, a ball into the outfield will win the game no matter what, but the defense has to try to cut down the winning run at the plate. The “fifth infielder” would not be subject to the proposed shift restrictions, but then that gets into what Jayson Stark talks about in terms of rule logistics:

They would love to see a rule that says infielders have to stand in the infield, they can’t be on the outfield dirt. And so, you could do both of those or you could do one or the other. But then, like I’ve already had coaching staffs ask me, how are we defining infielder? Good question.

There might have to be something like a position declaration in the NFL, where linemen have to declare themselves eligible receivers to actually catch the ball or be downfield on a pass play. Or something like when Anthony Rizzo must switch gloves and be declared a second baseman in the box score to crash a bunt. It will probably come up in discussion either in one of the millions of blogs out there or in our next Dreamcast, but I’ll have to think about the logistics a bit more. That said, even if it is just an extra 500 or so baserunners a season, it’s still 500 more chances to see some action and craziness on the field, right?

I admit I have no idea how this will play out, but the minor leagues usually experiment with rules (i.e. with the pitch clock and the man on second in extras) before the vote to implement at MLB, so this will be a very fun thing to track whenever MLB decides to act on it. Watching guys running the bases when the defense has a chance to gun them down is cool. It’s not like I don’t like strikeouts and home runs, but there’s something magical about a baserunner motoring around the diamond like his life depended on it while everyone else scampers for the baseball in the gap. More of that can’t be a bad thing.

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About Rice Cube

Rice Cube is the executive vice president of snark at World Series Dreaming. He loves all things Cubs, with notable exceptions (specifically, the part of Cubs fandom that pisses him off). Follow on Twitter at cubicsnarkonia

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