Talk of Banning Defensive Shifts Is Just Stupid
There was a particularly stupid article on espn.com today in which Yankees manager Joe Girardi said that if he was Commissioner he’d ban defensive shifts. The apparent motivation for this stupid comment was the fact that Nate Eovaldi lost a no-hitter because a batter hit against a defensive shift Girardi had at least tacitly approved. I’m not sure if I am more irritated by the inanity of Girardi’s quoted comments or the fact that ESPN presented this baloney as legitimate national baseball news.
Girardi is quoted as saying that as long as extreme, modern defensive shifts are permissible, he’ll use them (because — duh! they obviously work), but he just doesn’t like them because “it takes away from the original intent of the setup of baseball” (writer Andrew Marchand’s stupid choice of words, rather the manager’s actual stupid quoted comments).
This is just wrong on so many levels. Originally, the 1Bman, 2Bman and 3Bman played more or less right on their respective bases all the time and the shortstop was more of a rover who roamed around the inner outfield in 10-man softball. Gradually, over several decades of trial and error (quite literally) between roughly 1840 and 1870, infielders and outfielders moved around until they found the optimal defensive alignments, in an era long before each hitters’ batted balls were charted, where they could best defend against batted balls.
Probably from the moment fully professional league play started in 1871, infielders moved around based on the hitting tendencies of the hitters they were defending against, based on their own personal experience of observing and reporting to their teammates each hitter’s specific tendencies.
Even the extreme defensive shifts we see today are “new” only in the sense that they are being employed more frequently, and not that the infielders or outfielders are moving any further from their “typical” positions. A favorite trivia question of my childhood in the 1970’s and 1980’s was which team first employed the “Williams Shift,” i.e., the shortstop playing on the 1B side of second base and the 2Bman playing in short right field?
The answer is the Chicago Cubs, because the Williams Shift began in the 1920’s against left-handed hitting Phillies slugger Cy Williams, rather than the more famous Ted Williams a generation later. You would have been a dead pull hitter too, even against the most extreme defensive shifts, if you were a left-handed batter with pop playing half of your games in the Baker Bowl. Ted Williams and Barry Bonds didn’t change their swings or their approaches just because the infielders shifted, because pitchers usually pitched inside against them, into the shift, and right into their wheelhouses, as Teddy Ballgame once famously explained.
How can you say that a defensive strategy which has been around almost a 100 years is suddenly ruining the game? Only if you are profoundly ignorant, or you have some other agenda.
I kind of suspect that what Girardi was really doing was trying to make his pitcher feel better better about losing his no-hitter because a hitter beat the shift Girardi called. I doubt Girardi is a rocket scientist, but I doubt is as dumb as the reported comments make him sound.
The fact that espn.com reports this nonsense as national baseball news is perhaps more irritating because some professional editor really ought to know better. Making these kinds of facile arguments and presenting them as legitimate debate brings down the entire level of the conversation. Sort of like Marco Rubio making insufficiently veiled negative references regarding the size of Donald Trump’s penis, and Trump assuring the American television public in no uncertain terms that he is sufficiently endowed to be POTUS. While unconscious assumptions about Presidential candidates’ respective virility has probably played a much greater role in their ultimate success or failure than any of us would care to admit, it certainly does not elevate the discussion to make those unconscious assumptions explicit.
Another way to see how ridiculous Girardi’s claim is to take it to its logical conclusion. Do we put pitcher’s rubbers (or 19th century pitcher’s boxes) at every infield and outfield position and insist that each fielder make contact with it before the pitcher releases the ball or the batter puts the ball in play? Do we ban cannon-armed, but slow of foot shortstops like Cal Ripken from positioning themselves on the outfield grass? Do we ban outfielders who are exceptionally good at going back on the ball like Tris Speaker from playing too shallow for fear they might take away too many Texas League hits? Do we put additional chalk lines all over the infield to make sure infielders don’t shy away too far from their assigned bases?
Look, if a team wants to play put all seven defenders behind the pitcher in the right field corner, I say let them. The answer to more defensive shifts is obvious: find more hitters who can hit against the shift. If a left-handed pull-hitter’s value as a slugger is so great that the opposing team wants to play seven defenders to the right of second base, how does it desecrate baseball to let the fielding team have that option? If the value of left-handed power hitters is diminished somewhat by modern shifting, that means the value of players of the type who were baseball’s greatest hitting stars before 1920 will be elevated somewhat. How can that possibly be a travesty to the history of the national pastime?