Maybe I just needed to get north of 40 years old to achieve my "old man yells at clouds" moment, but it's arrived.
I've held out for years. For a long time, when I heard people say "ban the shift" my response was that hitters should adjust and the beauty of baseball was that the defense wasn't required to stay in specific spots. It was actually at the 2018 All-Star Game when Jed Lowrie convinced me that infielders shouldn't be in the middle of the outfield.
Now? The 2020 season has convinced me that Major League Baseball needs to do something to essentially ban the shift. Here's why.
Though it's been rising in recent weeks, the batting average this season is .245. Think about that at the surface level. If you see a player hitting .248, what's your initial reaction? We've grown accustomed to thinking that's bad, but it's actually above average this year. This is the lowest league batting average since 1972, the year that led to the implementation of the designated hitter. The only other lower batting averages in history are from the 1800s, the Deadball Era, 1967 and 1968. The latter two led to the mound being lowered. We absolutely have a batting average problem.
Yes, part of this is the strikeout rate exploding, but in watching games, part of that is the defense seemingly being in the exact right spot on most of the groundballs and line drives that don't leave the yard ...
Balls in play/Scouting
The batting average on balls in play (.291) isn't excessively low by historical standards, though it is currently the lowest since 1992. The problem is teaming the continual rise in strikeout rate -- the strikeout percentage, league-wide, is the highest ever for the 13th(!) consecutive season -- with the low BABIP, we get so little on-field traffic.
Forget the numbers and use the eye test.
On the point Lowrie made to me in D.C. in 2018, let's picture a lefty hitting a hard line drive that will end up in the middle of right field. For decades, that's been a routine single. Nowadays, you've got an infielder standing in right field with the right fielder able to play near the warning track. Now that ball is a lineout. If the player hits a ball that used to be over the right fielder's head for a double or triple, now it's a flyout. It just feels wrong, you know?
Now picture that same lefty. How many times have you seen this one? He goes to the left side with a line drive or hard grounder. The one defender left on that side of the base is exactly where the ball was hit. Anecdotally, I've seen this so many times. This was an amazing reaction play from Fernando Tatis Jr., from earlier this week.
Again, those are excellent reflexes and you have to give that young superstar credit for it. We also have to acknowledge he was in exactly the right spot and doesn't make the play anywhere else. Again, just go to the eye test. How many times have we seen something similar in recent years with a lefty trying to do the right thing and go to the other way?
Next up, for those of us from my generation or older, we'd long been accustomed to seeing a hard grounder or line drive up the middle be an obvious single. These days, it seems like more often than not, those balls end up right at either the shortstop (when it's a lefty) or second basemen (righty). I have nothing data-oriented here to offer. It simply feels wrong. A ball up the middle should be a hit, dammit.
It's scouting with advanced data. Teams have scores and scores of batted ball data and they know exactly where to position players on any given hitter. That Tatis play wasn't luck. The Padres knew exactly where to position him. Teams in the 1970s didn't have access to such data. They do now and it's harming the on-field product, offensively.
Some of it seems dumb that it took so long. Think about the legend of Tony Gwynn and the "5.5 hole" (the hole between third base and shortstop). Why the hell didn't teams start shifting to stop it? I suppose one could argue Gwynn was such a great batsmith that he would've found a different hole, but that can't be proven.
Given the above points, why wouldn't you adopt an all-or-nothing approach? If you're a left-handed power hitter and every single time you hit a hard groundball or line drive it goes right at someone, wouldn't you just try to hit a home run every time? It's easy to be a Goose Gossage type and lament today's game at every turn, but what's the solution?
Also, I'm a lot less inclined to yell at the hitters for striking out a lot, given that the raw stuff of the pitchers has never been better. Back in even just the 1990s, a pitcher sitting 97 was hailed as a fireballer. Now that's basically every single reliever and most starters. The breaking stuff has never been more ridiculous. Pitches have been invented along the way, too. Babe Ruth never had to deal with a cutter, slider or splitter or this kind of velocity. It's simply never been harder to make contact as a major-league hitter.
And yet, when a player does make contact and it's not a home run, it often ends up right in the glove of a perfectly positioned defender. See the Tatis play above. That ball was crushed.
First off, the easiest rule to write is to make sure that every infielder is actually an infielder. Each of the four infield position players are required to have no more than one foot on the outfield grass when the pitch is thrown. That gets our shallow right field infielder/deep right field outfielder problem out of the discussion.
The next step is a two infielders on each side of second base rule that's been kicked around for years. We don't need a physical line through second base or anything, so it's on the umpires for discretion. I trust them with this.
As for my feeling that a ball up the middle (or in the 5.5 hole) should be a hit, I'm not sure I'd want to go far enough to alter the way things are now. A rule could be designed to create "zones" where players are allowed to play at each position, but I don't want drawn circles on the field or anything like that -- which would be erased during the course of the game -- and I don't know how to enforce said zones without circles. I think I just have to accept that teams are going to play guys up the middle and do mild shifts within the new hypothetical rules.
Still, I want to ban the excessive shifting. No more infielders in the outfield or three guys on one side of second base. Implement this, please, Major League Baseball. The batting average is just far too low and there isn't much we can do about the strikeouts at this point. Hits in the field of play need to be saved.