Spring training has sprung and the Cactus League and Grapefruit League seasons are in full swing. Opening Day is only two weeks away. I can't wait. Spring training games are fun in their own way, but I'm ready for meaningful baseball.
Throughout spring training my fellow CBS Sports MLB scribes and I will bring you a weekly roundtable breaking down, well, pretty much anything. The latest news, a historical question, thoughts about the future of baseball, all sorts of stuff. Last week we looked at 2020 division winners that could miss the 2021 postseason. This week we're going to tackle a potential rule change after MLB announced some experimental new rules the league plans to test in the minors this season.
Should MLB ban the shift?
R.J. Anderson: Should they? Probably not. I'm typically not a fan of restricting how teams deploy their players during games unless it's a bad-faith situation. The overshift may annoy opposing hitters, but it's hard to argue that it fits in that category. Now, with that established, I suspect they'll impose some kind of legislation that limits defensive alignments. And, frankly, I'm not sure it's going to make much difference. Baseball Prospectus' Russell Carleton has done a lot of writing and research on the topic, and the actual impact of the shift seems overstated at best, and misunderstood at worst.
Matt Snyder: Absolutely, yes. I wrote as much last year. One of the biggest reasons I've changed my stance over the years is the notion that players can control exactly where to hit the ball with the pitching they are facing these days. It's easy to sit here at a computer and say a lefty should see a wide open left side and either hit it or bunt it that way. It's quite another to face a 100-mph fastball with the possibility of seeing that pitch instead be a 93-mph slider and not only make contact but control where said contact sends the ball. Through the lens of needing more on-field action, hitters focus more on just hitting the ball instead of controlling where it goes and hope that improves contact. When they do make contact, the BABIP goes up without shifting and we now have more traffic on the bases. Most starters aren't as good out of the stretch as they are winding up and you can see where this is headed, right?
As for players just going all out to hit homers ... yeah, most of them already do it. And think about it, if the defense is so perfectly tailored to your tendencies when the ball is actually on the field of play, why wouldn't you just try to hit a home run every time? Think about being a left-handed power hitter and hitting a line drive that in the old days used to be a one-hop liner to the right fielder for a single. That's a good piece of hitting. These days that goes directly to an "infielder" standing in the middle of right field. And if you hit it over his head in what used to be a double or triple, the right fielder is now camped on the warning track, thanks to the second baseman standing in right. Of course I'm gonna try to hit a home run and avoid the feeling of crushing a liner right at a second baseman standing 150 feet away from home plate.
I'm open to things like moving back the mound in order to cut back on strikeouts as we look to lower the three-true-outcome part of the game, but the shift is hurting the batting average on balls in play by virtue of teams being too good at scouting now with technology and the pitchers are too good to suggest the batters can just simply "hit it where they ain't." They can't. Even if they used to be able to -- and I'm dubious on some of that -- they can't now.
And, frankly, it looks stupid with extra players in the outfield. I hate it. At the very least, just make four infielders have at least one foot in the actual infield.
Dayn Perry: I'm torn on this one but not to the extent that I care much. On the one hand, I don't really like limiting what managers can do from a tactical standpoint, within reason. On the other hand, I hate the aesthetics of the infield overshift. While I realize that it's possible and perhaps even likely that the shift doesn't greatly alter the game at a league-wide level, I just hate seeing it. Aesthetics matter to me, so I'm OK with banning it. Allowing "sprint" shifts as soon as the pitch leaves the pitcher's hand is fine and would probably even be entertaining. At the end of the day, I don't much care what the path forward is, but if pressed to choose I'd go with some kind of structural ban on pre-pitch shifts. I don't see such a thing as being huge difference from limiting defenses in the NBA via the defensive three seconds call or the old ban on zone defenses.
Mike Axisa: I'm a firm no. I want teams to have the freedom to innovate and use their players however they want, and there is mounting evidence teams overuse the shift, in some cases even actively hurting themselves (particularly when shifting against right-handed batters). I also think the potential for unintended consequences is high. Ban the shift and you're encouraging hitters to pull the ball and sell out for power, which will only exacerbate the strikeout and home run (and walk) problem that plagues baseball. MLB's single biggest issue is the decline in balls in play -- nearly one-third of all plate appearances ended in a walk or a strikeout last year -- and this doesn't solve that at all. It might even make it worse. Anyway, I suspect I am on the losing side here. I think it's only a matter of time until MLB bans the shift.
Katherine Acquavella: I don't love the shift, but I think I dislike MLB attempting to ban it more. The league's logic for banning the shift is that we'll see more action in play and on the bases if the shift is gone which would in theory equate to more offense and movement. This is where MLB trying to come up with tricks and strategies "to fix baseball" just makes things worse. It's honestly concerning when the league spends this much energy trying to add rules and regulations to make the game more energized and more entertaining, at least, in their eyes, that is. I understand that mainstream, offense is generally more exciting to an audience, but I, for one, appreciate a good strikeout. Anyways, there are loads of other ways they can achieve that same goal without banning the shift. Baseball is literally a game all about adjustments, and the sport itself and how it's been played has gone through multiple evolutions. Shifts aren't even the biggest impact on the lack of offense, you can blame strikeouts for that.