As you’ve probably heard, there is increased momentum toward banning shifting in Major League Baseball. It certainly fits with Commissioner Rob Manfred’s desire to make today’s game a better mirror of the sport of yesteryear. I’m not going to focus on the merits of saving the shift, because those articles have been written many times lately, and most people know how they feel about the issue. Moreover, the benefits of shifting in general are in question, making it a strange choice as MLB’s lightning rod for improving offense in baseball. Instead, I plan to show what shifting could look like after “The Shift” is banned.
Firstly, we need to get an idea of what a new rule would look like. A large part of predicting an anti-shift rule has to do with the current laxness of MLB rules concerning defensive positioning. There are no rules dictating a minimum or maximum number of required infielders or outfielders. In short, as long as your pitcher and catcher are in their required positions, every other defender can be anywhere in fair territory. That’s pretty cool in my opinion, but again, that’s another discussion.
Given the leniency of the positioning rules, it seem unlikely that MLB would roll out deeply complex rules for eliminating the infield shift. For example, MLB’s Statcast measures a player’s angle from home plate to determine whether they are shifted or not. It’s hard to imagine the home plate umpire pulling out a sextant before each pitch to ensure that the rules are followed. Thus, conventional wisdom says MLB would institute simpler rules, such as requiring two infielders on either side of second base when the pitch is thrown. If a team was in violation of this rule, the punishment could be the same as a that of a balk.
To what degree would shifts change if that rule was instituted? Here’s an example of the “overshift” or “horseshoe shift” that we see utilized against lefty pull hitters today:
There are more extreme versions of this shift, but those versions would be banned in this hypothetical anyway, so it won’t impact this discussion. Under the new rules, the infielder positioned up the middle on the right side of second base would have to move to the other side of the bag. That would kill the shift, right?
Occasionally you’ll see a second baseman or shortstop move left or right as the pitch is thrown, typically because they were trying to hold a runner, or a runner is trying to steal the base they’re responsible for. In the same way, the infielder now forced to the left side of second base could simply move toward the right field side of second base when his pitcher releases the ball.
Additionally, Manfred & Co. could decide to enforce a rule in which infielders cannot be in the outfield grass when a pitch is thrown. This would pull in the deepest infielder, the one who always seems to “steal” hits from lefty pull hitters like Anthony Rizzo and Joey Gallo. Now how would anybody shift?
The infielder on the edge of the dirt can still play deep, and, if desired, can simply take a quick step back the moment the pitch is thrown, not unlike a slow-pitch pitcher preparing for hot ground balls. They wouldn’t be able to get into the optimal position, but, as with the player now forced to the left side of second base, the shift would remain very much alive. In this modified shift, hits directly up the middle should still be playable by the infielder nearest to second base, and sharp ground balls/liners toward the second base position should also be more playable.
Also, unless a new rule is instituted, teams can still swap infielders around at will, meaning the Brewers could put Orlando Arcia deep in the hole at “second base,” if that’s where a specific batter puts the highest number of balls in play. In fact, against lefty pull hitters, when first base seemingly becomes the hot corner, the Brewers could swap in Travis Shaw at first, and hide Jesus Aguilar at third.
This isn’t to say that nothing would change if MLB tried to ban the shift. Sharply hit ground balls on the right side of second base would become hits more often. The same goes for flares that would now sail just over the infielder standing near the back edge of the dirt. But overall, I think the on-field results would underwhelm those who want to “ban” shifting, while irritating those who want to keep player positioning entirely fluid.