Shifting Attention – MLB Shift Might Be Making the Game Unwatchable

MLB Shift
DENVER, CO - AUGUST 05: The Colorado Rockies infield employ the infield shift as they defend against the Seattle Mariners during interleague play at Coors Field on August 5, 2015 in Denver, Colorado. The Rockies defeated the Mariners 7-5 in 11 innings. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

A Downward Shift

MLB attendance numbers have dipped for four straight years. Why? Is it the price of hotdogs? Are the beers not cold enough? Have the peanuts all gone stale? Whatever it is, there certainly has been a downward “shift” in attendance.

Oh…wait…

2015 was right around the time analytics was becoming a full-fledged reality in the big leagues and when the attendance dip streak started. It’s doubtful that defensive shifts have everything to do with regular dips in attendance, but it’s time to acknowledge that defensive shifts have fans wondering where all the action has gone.

From 2000 until 2009, the collective MLB batting average was .265 with an on base percentage of .335. 2010 was the year defensive shifts were beginning to be used, so from 2010 to present, MLB’s collective batting average dipped to .253 with an on base percentage of .320. The year 2000 was the last time MLB’s collective BA was at .270, and it hasn’t reached that mark since then, with 2006 coming close at a BA of .269. This year’s collective BA? .249

So, with all of this defensive shifting and dips in BA and OBP, what’s the league to do? St. Louis Cardinals infielder Matt Carpenter gave us an idea.

Hit It Where They Ain’t

On June 1st, with the bases loaded in the bottom of the tenth inning with two outs, the Chicago Cubs put on a defensive shift for the ages: four infielders on the right side, all standing where the infield dirt and grass meet, creating the Great Wall of Chicago, leaving one infielder on the left side. The left-handed-hitting Carpenter did what any ball player in history would have tried to do, which was hit the ball to opposite field, making Albert Almora Jr. cover a St. Louis country mile just to get within reasonable distance of the ball. The Cardinals won 2-1 on Carpenter’s walk-off hit to take the opening game of the series.

So it’s that simple. Just hit it where they ain’t.

Not so fast.

Unfortunately, Carpenter’s walk-off hit is one of rarity, due to the fact he chose to beat the shift by going opposite field rather than trying to go over or through the shift by pulling the ball to the right side. Analytics will tell players that it’s better to hit over and through the shift rather than go the opposite way because it gives them a better chance at extra-base hits.

A Difficult Task

Why is Carpenter’s walk-off hit-it-where-they-ain’t way to beat the shift so rare? Besides the fact that analytics tells players not to, it’s HARD. Every pitcher that steps on the mound throws 95 with gross movement, so to ask a player to simply aim to hit a ball in a specific spot is asking too much, even for professionals. Hard fastballs with insane movement plus defensive shifts will leave us without something baseball desperately needs: baserunners and action.

Carpenter was asked by Jerry Crasnick about defensive shifts in 2018.

“I think the easiest way to do it would be for guys to play where they’ve played for all the time the game has been around. Two guys on the left side. Two guys on the right side. You have a designated area where the shortstop, third baseman, second baseman and first baseman all go, and you play there. That would be the simplest way. Is it gonna happen? I don’t know. But if you’re looking to help even out the advantages that pitchers have over the hitters, that’s the only way to do it.” (Jerry Crasnick: July 10, 2018)

Baserunners Wanted

Why is it important to have baserunners? MLB desperately needs players to be on base — not just for action, but for promotion. They need to get fans in the seats and get them to stay at the ballpark. Would fans rather see the likes of Bryce Harper, Anthony Rizzo, and Carpenter ground out, pop out, or strikeout and walk right back to the dugout in disappointment? Or would they rather have them be on base and actually see them play?

The NBA banned zone defenses because to have seven footers camp under the basket to swat away anything that came their way like a hockey goaltender just wasn’t a good enough product. The NFL came to their senses and got rid of that ridiculous catch rule because it was too confusing and slowing up the game. It was becoming a rough watch. The NHL changed their overtime rules from five-on-five to a much more active and faster-paced three-on-three style.

The NBA, NFL and NHL have all tweaked rules and made adjustments for the betterment of their sports. It’s time for MLB to consider doing the same and getting rid of the defensive shifts. Maybe then attendance can “shift” upwards.

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