Rob Manfred is officially the new commissioner of Major League Baseball. We already have our first thing to complain about with Rob Manfred. Here's Manfred talking to Karl Ravech of ESPN about pace of game, which has become a big topic this off-season with MiLB testing new pitch clocks.
Manfred: I would be aggressive about using the [pitch] clock over the long haul. I think it's a helpful thing in terms of moving the game along. I think the second set of changes I would look at is related, umm, and that relates to injecting additional offense in the game. For example, things like eliminating shifts -- I would be open to those sorts of ideas.Ravech: The forward-thinking, sabermetric, defensive shifts...?
Manfred: That's what I'm talking about, yes.Ravech: Let's eliminate that?
Manfred: [Nods} Mm-hmm.Ravech: So all the work that the Cubs and/or Angels and/or whoever has done, you're willing to say 'I appreciate that good idea, but it's killing the game' in a sense?
Manfred: Yeah, I mean, I think you ki...look, we have really smart people working in the game and they're going to figure out ways to get a competitive advantage. I think it's incumbent upon us in the commissioner's office to look at the advantages produced and say 'Is this what we want happening in the game?'
What the hell, Rob Manfred? I get not wanting players to inject themselves with substances to make them faster or stronger or whatever, but defensive shifts are too big of a competitive advantage and could be eliminated? That makes no damn sense to me.
It's not like there are one or two teams doing some odd, under-handed tactic in defensive shifts. Literally, every single team in baseball uses them. It's not a weird, foreign concept. Teams scout players, notice they hit a ball in the same direction a lot, and move guys over there. They challenge a batter to 'hit 'em where they ain't', but I guess batters need to be coddled a bit more. If a batter can't beat a defensive shift, maybe they shouldn't be considered such a great batter. Ted Williams had teams employ defensive shifts against him, but he found a way to beat them (h/t reddit):
Besides, what exactly would be done to eliminate shifts? Right now, MLB rules dictate players on defense (minus the catcher) must begin a play in fair territory. That's the only rule. Would Manfred require players at certain positions to always be located in a very specific range on the diamond? "Third baseman must be no more than 15 feet from location of base at start of pitch"? Will double-play depth be disallowed, too? Will corner infielders still be able to move in during bunt scenarios?
The concept of disallowing certain formations isn't unfamiliar in sports. The NBA has notably banned certain defensive strategies. The NFL has plenty of rules on how many players must be on the line of scrimmage, where they can be lined up, etc. But the MLB has always been a more simple game, without needing complex rules. People find advantages (see the oft-used example of the rise of on-base percentage) and teams catch on to either join the trend or combat it strategically on the field.
Of course, cards on the table, maybe part of the reason I'm not a fan of this is my allegiance to the Brewers. Milwaukee has been one of the heaviest employers of big defensive shifts, and they have also benefited fairly well from these tactics. But I'm pretty sure I would think this is a stupid idea either way. Still, it doesn't seem like Manfred is without his supporters:
This is very telling: I ran Rob Manfred's idea to limit defensive shifts by two sabermetrically inclined GMs -- and both said they agree.— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) January 25, 2015
Both essentially said same thing: The game is better when the casual fans gets the product they want. Big concern baseball isn't delivering.— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) January 25, 2015
To paraphrase: Who do casual fans want to see compete, Clayton Kershaw and Mike Trout or Andrew Friedman and Jerry Dipoto?— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) January 25, 2015
I don't know. That all just seems ridiculous to me. I want to see Kershaw versus Trout, but I also wouldn't want Trout to succeed because he hits the ball to the same place 80% of the time but teams aren't allowed to defend against it. A great hitter should be able to beat shifts. Offenses are already adapting to make extreme shifting more of a risky proposition. I mean, batters have a pretty big hole to hit it through when defenses play for the pull. It's not their fault if the batter can't find said hole:
But, hey, baseball has changed before to inject more offense into the game. Certain pitches were ruled illegal, changes to the ball were made, more baseballs began being used per game, etc. etc.
Nothing is imminent as far as ending defensive shifts goes, but it's now a topic that has been brought up by the commissioner of MLB (not on a whim, either) and that has it's supporters around baseball. It could grow into a bigger idea soon enough. But I'd prefer the commissioner's offense not dictate what constitutes a legitimate defensive strategy.
Rob Manfred has officially been commissioner for a matter of hours. Somehow, he's already off to a poor start in my book.