First-year Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred has been a breath of fresh air for the game, challenging assumptions and beliefs most fans wouldn’t fathom touching with a 10-foot pole: pace-of-play, shorter seasons – and eliminating the sabermetrically-minded defensive shifts that are a favorite of new Chicago Cubs’ manager Joe Maddon.
In his time with the Tampa Bay Rays, Maddon pioneered the use of defensive shifts at the turn of the decade and now, that philosophy has permeated through the league. In 2011, the Rays led the majors by quite a margin when they employed 216 infield shifts over the course of the season.
“You are trying to split someone’s desires, his concentration, his thoughts…It’s a psychological ploy as well. They grew up looking out from the batter’s box and the infield had a certain look to it. Now when you look out there, people are in different places. How’s that going to affect you in that at-bat?”
That same year, only four teams shifted more than 100 times. Now, however, it’s as common as hot dogs and beer at game; in 2013, the Baltimore Orioles led baseball with 470 shifts and 23 other teams shifted at least 100 times. Just to name a few – the Yankees, Jays, Brewers, Pirates, Red Sox and Cubs – are all teams who rely heavily on the spray chart data and shifts.
The Houston Astros, meanwhile, shifted more than any other club last year – which can likely be attributed to GM Jeff Luhnow, who is known for being in-touch with sabermetric measures.
Of course, getting rid of the shift would be detrimental to Maddon’s strategy, because as much as its reserved for strict pull-hitters, it’s a psychological ploy as well. Here’s what the new Cubs skipper had to say on the matter.
Over the last half-decade or so (which coincides largely with what is believed to be the end of the Steroid Era) – offense has been on the decline throughout Major League Baseball. The league is concerned with this because, by and large, fans like offense – not 1-0 pitching duels.
Here’s a look at major league batter production by year over the past six seasons:
2009: .266 AVG .763 OPS
2010: .261 AVG .740 OPS
2011: .259 AVG .731 OPS
2012: .259 AVG .737 OPS
2013: .257 AVG .725 OPS
2014: .256 AVG .717 OPS
Are defensive shifts actually killing offense? Do fans really want too see sluggers bunting?
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I personally do not agree with adding rules to stop teams from shifting. I believe that one of the reasons baseball is so great is that the game and players constantly evolve and adapt. A new breed of slap-happy hitters will come along and general managers throughout the league will begin to assemble shift-proof teams – or at the very least, teams that are impacted less by defensive ploys.
But with that said, the game is better when the casual fans get what they want, and it appears Manfred is not opposed to banishing shifts to infuse more offense into today’s game.
If accomplished, it would affect the Cubs’ skipper and baseball as a whole tremendously; the implementation and success of such innovation is one of the reasons Joe Maddon owns two American League Manager of the Year awards.
His value would decline in one regard – but don’t ever overlook his contributions in building a winning culture, something Chicago desperately needs.