In the time I’ve been a fan, baseball has changed a lot. We now have instant replay, two wildcard teams in each league, and specialist relievers for seemingly every situation which may arise. However, no aspect of the game has been transformed more than defense, with teams now shifting their players into a myriad of formations at an unprecedented rate.
When I first started watching baseball, the shift was a rather rudimentary measure deployed by managers relying on gut instinct and “common sense.” A few infielders would trot over to the other side of the diamond when a burly, left-handed slugger like Ryan Howard or Carlos Delgado came to the dish, but, other than that, teams played straight-up defense.
Nowadays, such intuitive management is liable to get a manager fired. We live in an age of analytical baseball, where every chunk of data is consulted before decisions are made. Accordingly, the shift has undergone a dramatic transformation, both in terms of aesthetic nature and practical value. Now, each team studies the spray charts and probability graphs of every opposing hitter in order to tailor it’s alignment. Now, defensive configurations change with each pitch, as coaches factor strikes and stadium dimensions and batter tendencies into every play. Now, defense is more calculable science than natural art.
Naturally, it’s difficult to accurately collate statistics on such an inexact event, but even the most casual baseball watcher will know that the popularity of defensive shifting has exploded in recent years. The once-rare method of containment, supposedly devised by Indians manager Lou Boudreau to nix a Ted Williams hot streak in the 1940s, is near-ubiquitous in the modern game.
Visionary manager Joe Maddon is regarded as a pioneer of the “new shift,” and the brand of baseball played by his Tampa Bay Rays would be almost entirely alien to a prospective twentieth century audience. When watching the Rays, shortstops magically appear in right field, third basemen traverse the diamond in search of ground balls, and outfielders encroach on the infield when the data demands.
In front offices throughout the land, heated debates can be heard as to whether it actually works. Do teams scattering defenders about in a nomadic fashion gain a genuine advantage, or simply tie themselves up in an exhausted knot? The Rays 31-47 record, worst in all of baseball, may go some way to answering that particular question but, as fans, we must focus on another conundrum: does excessive defensive shifting spoil our enjoyment of the game?
Many will fire a quick rebuttal at such an assertion. The kind of shifting synonymous with Maddon and Tampa Bay adds a layer of intrigue to baseball, they argue. It brings additional interest, strategy and fuel for conversation. Furthermore, shifting undoubtedly keeps the defense involved and, arguably, places greater emphasis on that traditionally neglected element of the game. By constantly demanding more of defenders, many claim that baseball becomes more of a team game in the truest sense, undoubtedly a positive step forward.
Similarly, advocates of shifting stress that, in a spiritual sense, the concept descends from the same thinking which sees corner infielders play in to defend against the bunt or retreat to double play depth in other situations. These are time-honored, accepted parts of baseball, so why can’t shifting be similarly embraced?
Ultimately, I believe the entire argument rests on the invasive nature of shifting. Sure, we can live with infielders stealing a couple of yards or “cheating” a little in anticipation of a batted ball, but when their actions begin to preempt the events of a game, the debate is endowed with new significance.
For many years, baseball has relied on the purist notion that, more than any other sport, you have to give the other guy an opportunity. You can’t waste time like in soccer. You can’t conserve possession like in football. You can’t deny an opponent his chance to beat you, which is a unique and refreshing concept which makes baseball so special. However, by allowing managers to plug every infield gap with a mass of defensive bodies, including one possibly obscuring a hitters vision up-the-middle, we’re in imminent danger of losing that unique balance and fairness.
Naturally, the game must evolve, but I feel it’s going in a direction which fans don’t necessarily wish to see. The NFL holds a monopoly over television ratings, with its regular season games often averaging more viewers than MLB’s showcase World Series. Further, the NBA offers the quick, instantaneous entertainment befitting a technology-minded generation. What is baseball doing to win back those viewers, entertain those fans, and reclaim its rightful title as America’s chosen pastime?
Certainly, allowing the dominance of fielding and pitching to grow even more prominent will not help. Many people may not wish to admit it, but, overwhelmingly, we want to see offense. Sure, a phenom pitcher can thrill, a pesky speedster can inspire, and a demonstrative fielder can excite. But, on a baseball field, nothing sells like long home runs and fearsome offense. With all due respect, nobody turns on the television hoping to see Big Papi line out to a shortstop in shallow right field. I want to see him duel with a pitcher and his defense on equal terms. I want to see a fair fight.
The history of baseball’s development is characterized by adjustment and counter-adjustment but, in this case, I see no way for hitters to revolutionize their approach without the game descending into farce. Many will argue that a slugger faced with a blocked infield should lay down a bunt, bop one over the fence, or generally aim to hit it where they ain’t. Just like classic old baseball. However, we don’t want the game to devolve into a state whereby every pull-happy hitter has only a choice between knocking one out of the yard or nudging one down the line. There is more to the traditional fabric of baseball than that. We have to honor it.
Thus, Major League Baseball must intervene and redress the delicate equipoise which once made its game so great. Instead of pitchers and defenders dominating unfairly, it must consider a restructuring. Perhaps a rule allowing just two infielders to move from the traditional base of their position on each play could work, or an allotted number of permissible shifts per game instituted?
Regardless of how, baseball must act, before the game becomes even more unfair, uncertain and unrecognizable.