Dr. StrangeGlove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Shift

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Baseball does not like evolution. While the gameplay of football and basketball have changed drastically over the last century, you could probably go back to 1920 and watch a game of baseball that looks exactly like a game played in 2020. That’s just the way the gatekeepers want it. 

Rule Changes

Quite honestly, that’s fine by me. It’s cool that, for the most part, you can directly compare the stats of Babe Ruth to Mike Trout. You can’t do that in football or basketball. If you took the stats of the worst quarterback in the NFL in 2020 and put them in 1920, he would probably be in the Hall of Fame. 

Baseball does not like strategy. Now this is a problem. Anytime someone tries something new in baseball, the gatekeepers step in to put a stop to it. You can’t throw a spitball, you can’t do or wear anything that might distract the batter, you can’t slide with the intent to kill in order to break up a double play. While those rules may actually make sense, some of the new rules being discussed are trying to turn the game from chess to checkers. 

Pitching Changes

They make these changes under the guise of keeping the game interesting. I would say it’s pretty obvious, however, that it’s to keep the smaller markets out of the playoffs. You know who is expensive? A quality starting pitcher. You know who is cheap? A quality relief pitcher. So when smaller markets like Kansas City and Milwaukee keep sneaking into the playoffs on the backs of their bullpens, they change the rules of pitching changes in order to handicap a powerful bullpen. 

Defensive Shifts

Another rule change that’s been discussed over the last few years is banning the defensive shift. This one I actually find to be funny and will die on the hill of never banning it. We have all seen almost everything there is to see in a regular game of baseball, so how can you not get excited about seeing a player leg out a double on a 70 foot ground ball because there was literally no one on that side of the field, or seeing a third baseman airmail a throw to first because he was standing out in shallow right?

While the luxury tax scoffing, defending champion Los Angeles Dodgers led the league in defensive shifts in 2020, the next most shifting teams were smaller market teams like the Tigers, Pirates, and Brewers.

In fact, most powerhouse teams seem indifferent to the shift. For example, the powerhouse Yankees from 2020 were 15th in the league in shift percentage. However, the pedestrian Yankees from 2016 were 6th. It almost seems like the shift is an act of desperation. 

Do Shifts Matter?

Now, while this seems like another rule change trying to hinder the weaker team, it actually might not. You see, while it looks on the surface that defensive shifts actually work, the jury is still out. When using archaic statistics like batting average, you can definitely make a case for shifts. 

According to Mike Petriello of MLB.com, from the beginning of 2017 to mid-May 2018, when making contact batters hit .299 without a shift versus .281 with a shift. However, the wOBA against the shift and without the shift were nearly identical, .336 with vs .335 without. When comparing wRC+, the league was nearly split between teams who scored more with a shift against them vs without a shift against them, according to Nathan Piccini from blog.datasciencedojo.com.

So merely because of the appearance to help weaker teams, the league is out to ban something that basically has no effect over how many runs are scored in a game. The powers that be are so offended by the slightest change in baseball or the idea that someone can strategize their way past a superior team that they will ban nearly any new thinking. 

Should Shifts Be Banned?

That is why it’s fun. Whether it changes the outcome of a game or not, it is David poking at Goliath. While the league just wants the two teams at war to line up across from each other and fire, there will always be a disadvantaged team attempting some type of guerilla warfare. 

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