Rob Manfred says he's 'open' to banning extreme defensive shifts

New MLB commissioner Rob Manfred floats a big change during his first day on the job. (USATI)
New MLB commissioner Rob Manfred floats a big change during his first day on the job. (USATSI)

On his first day as commissioner of Major League Baseball, Rob Manfred embraced the idea of banning defensive shifts, as well as utilizing pitch clocks, as ways of "injecting additional offense into the game."

In this ESPN interview excerpt, Manfred suggested that defensive shifts, which have become popular in recent years with many teams (but not all) as a tactic against extreme pull hitters, give clubs an unfair "competitive advantage."

Manfred's exchange with host Karl Ravech was a tad awkward:

Rob Manfred: "For example, things like eliminating shifts -- I would be open to those sorts of ideas."

Karl Ravech: "The forward-thinking, sabermetric defensive shifts?"

RM: "That's what I'm talking about."

KR: "Let's eliminate that?"

RM: "Mmm-hmm."

KR: "So all of 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'?"

RM: "Yeah ... I mean, we have really smart people working in the game. And they're going to figure out way to get a competitive advantage. I think it's incumbent on us in the commissioner's office to look at the advantages that are produced and say, 'Is this what we want to happen in the game?'"

First of all, Manfred probably wants to take back the phrase, "injecting additional offense into the game," considering his work as Bud Selig's point man on PED punishment.

Secondly, as many fans know, MLB rules already stipulate that all players on defense -- other than the catcher -- must play within fair territory. Also: The pitcher must be in contact with the rubber on the mound as he delivers the ball. Other than that, there are no restrictions as to where fielders must position themselves. This is different in other sports, notably in the NBA, which has penalized teams for using "illegal" defenses (in some form or another) since the mid-1980s. Is Manfred suggesting that Jason Heyward be given two free throws the next time the Pittsburgh Pirates use an extreme shift against him? Add an invisible runner on second? Not yet. But he's not just "spitballing" either. He wouldn't go out on this limb alone. Note:

So there's a movement afoot, or soon likely there will be. It's OK for Manfred to be proactive. For what Bud Selig accomplished as commissioner for 23 years, he tended to be more reactive to "problems." Regardless, Selig leaves his post with MLB making about $9 billion a year. Still quite popular, as sports go. 

Manfred, though, seems to be all about fixing something that might not be broken. What have extreme shifts done to the game, exactly? 

Studies by Jonathan Judge at The Hardball Times, along with Dave Cameron at Fangraphs, show that the recent decline in offense is due to something other than shifting. Not only have batting averages on all balls in play remained steady as runs scored have dropped, but BABIP on all balls hit into fair territory has been stable, when compared to team runs scored per game. If shifting were impacting the game that much, both of those numbers should be in decline. 

Judge and Cameron conclude that the decline in runs scored relates to a decline in walks, along with an increase in strikeouts, rather than more shifting. They say strike-zone enforcement by umpires is a much bigger deal than shifting.

Not that Manfred has shown himself to be some kook. There was nothing in the interview clip that indicates he's for banning the breaking ball, or setting a limit on how hard pitchers can throw. But it would be interesting to see which ideas he endorses to eliminate radical or extreme shifting. Technical foul shots are fanciful, but would groundskeepers paint more lines on the field to delineate defensive zones? Would the zones be superimposed like the first-down marker in NFL TV broadcasts?

One suggestion: Align the rules of both leagues by adding a designated hitter to the National League side. That would increase offense, and it would work within the parameters of rules already in place in the American League. 

As for pitch clocks -- which MLB plans to use in the minor leagues in the coming season -- that's another bundle of outrage altogether. 

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