Baseball Ethics: MLB Changes The Rules Because Its Players Can’t Compete Under The Old Ones

I feel like I can’t let baseball off the hook while I’m being hard on the NFL today.

Of course, football’s ethical problem (well, one of the many) is that it allows too many players on the field who are killers, rapists and thugs, while baseball’s ethical problem is that it habitually changes the rules of the game rather than make the players accept the consequences of their own flaws.

You know, like Democrats…

Beginning in 2023, Major League Baseball will enforce a set of restrictions it claims “will return the game to a more traditional aesthetic” by outlawing extreme defensive shifts. The goal is to encourage batters to put more balls in play rather than swing for the fences, a trend that has led to record numbers of strikeouts. The theory is that once they feel they have a better chance of getting a hit without knocking the ball out of the park, batter will try to make contact and thus hit more ground balls and line-drives,  giving players in the field more opportunities to showcase their athleticism. The changes are:

  • Lateral positioning: Two infielders must be positioned on each side of second base when a pitch is thrown.
  • Depth: All four infielders must have both feet within the outer boundary of the infield when the pitcher is on the rubber.
  • No switching sides: Infielders may not switch sides unless there is a substitution.

The new restrictions will also eliminate the four outfielder tactic, which, has been used with increasingly frequency last season and this one, though still extremely rarely. That’s another “aesthetic” improvement, apparently, because some old fogeys, aka “traditionalists,” were offended by seeing four outfielders jsut as they were offended by infield alignments that had the third-baseman playing at shortstop, the shortstop playing where a second-baseman normally would, and the second baseman acting like a softball “rover,” positioning himself somewhere in shallow right field. These alignments weren’t symmetrical enough, or something, but they were always permitted by the rules for more than a hundred years.

Shifts developed once computers allowed each batter to have his own spray chart showing where his hits went. The shifts responded to the data: if a player almost never hit a ball to the left side of the diamond, why station fielders there? This annoyed dead pull hitters, who were seeing their formerly safe hits going into the gloves of strategically placed fielders. It annoyed pitchers too, because sometimes a batted ball that would have been an easy out with traditional positioning rolled into the outfield. (Such pitchers do not comprehend the concept of  beneficial trade-offs.) Fielders don’t like shifting because the have to move all over the field and check little pieces of paper in their hats to remind them how to play each batter.

Since the explosion in shifts coincided with an increase in strikeouts, the theory that players were now trying to aim their hits over Shiftville, and trying to hit home runs by avoiding fielders altogether, leading to more “Ks” as strikeouts are called on scorecards. That’s all speculation, though. It is far more likely that the increase in strikeouts is due to pitchers throwing much harder now than even ten years ago. But there is and has always been a way to discourage radical shifts: “Hit ’em where they ain’t,” as Wee Willie Keeler would say. Bunt. Choke-up on the bat and dribble an outside pitch through the uncovered infield. Major league batters have the ability to do that; all it takes is practice. They don’t want to, that’s all, just as Ted Williams, the victim of the first shifts, refused to take cheap hits even though he knew he could. (Ty Cobb called him an idiot for his stubbornness. If they had shifted on Ty, he might have batted .500.)

Do you know how frequently a shift robbed a player of a hit in 2021? Well, there were 59, 062 shifts last year, and they robbed players of 4,802 hits. They also gave players 3, 946 hits that would have been outs without one, so the net effect was 1.5%, or about one in 70. For that, baseball is wounding the integrity of the game and creating an ominous precedent. Last year, shifts lowered the MLB batting average by four points, which could have easily been made up for by enough players bunting and proving that the shift wouldn’t work on them.

The shift ban is anti-innovation. The measure goes against the long tradition in baseball of managers and players learning from experience and observation, and devising new strategies to win. It rewards stubbornness, laziness, and failure.

6 thoughts on “Baseball Ethics: MLB Changes The Rules Because Its Players Can’t Compete Under The Old Ones

  1. Back when teams first started using the shift, I wasn’t terribly concerned about it. I figured that these were professional ballplayers — they could defeat the shift by simply changing their hitting style a bit. It wouldn’t take all that much, I don’t think. Teams wouldn’t use shifts if hitters were adapting to and overcoming them.

    But, to my surprise (and dismay), they didn’t. They just doubled down on what they were doing and tried to hit the ball over the shift, but either not all the way to the outfielders or all the way over the fence. The Rangers broadcasting for many weeks have been remarking things like “That would be a hit next year if the shift is outlawed.”

    I guess the reward for the long ball these days trumps almost everything else. Can we imagine what Tony Gwynn would have done if teams tried a shift on him? He might have hit .500 (of course, he hit to all fields anyway, so teams wouldn’t have shifted, but still).

    The timing changes I can live with. If Manfred is so convinced that people are leaving the game is droves because the pace is a bit slow, well it is not, really, as they say, a deal breaker. Whatever. Of course, I also don’t think it was broke in the first place.

    And I notice that robo umps will apparently have to wait their turn.


    Turning to good news, who the heck does Albert Pujols think he is? Does he not realize he is 42?

    Sheesh, Saturday he had two game tying hits, including home run #696. Then Sunday he comes up in the ninth to hit what was essentially a game winning home run, #697 (it put the Cardinals ahead 3-2 at the time but they ended up winning 4-3, so I don’t know if it’s technically the game winner).

    Good for him — I hope he keeps going, but it’s still not a given until he does it. Home runs have a tendency to come in bunches and then go away for a while.

  2. One other thing whilst we’re on the topic of major league baseball.

    I’ve been listening to the Rangers all summer and one of the things that has struck me is the number of ads for betting on baseball. I’ve always agreed with Pete Rose’s ban, but this is a slap in the face to that policy. I assume other sports have similar stories, although I don’t know for sure. And, to be sure, I think baseball was perhaps always the most strict of the professional leagues.

    Money trumps all, here as elsewhere.

  3. Baseball is a game of getting a slight edge over the opponent, and an improvement of 1 out of 70 sounds like the exact thing we should be seeing in the game. Just leave the rules alone.

  4. What if baseball institutes all these changes — and the fans they hope to attract don’t actually flock to the game? That strikes me as the most likely outcome. It also strikes me that the increased preference for basketball and football over baseball among emerging and international fan bases is more a matter of culture than of the number of runs scored or the time it takes to play a game. When, say, Juan Soto is as big a national icon as, say, Giannis A., then maybe. But until then, I think the changes are futile, a typical case of “do something!” regardless of whether that something will actually help.

    • I think you are likely correct.

      It seems to me that baseball fandom has tended to be passed down from generation to generation. It also perhaps depends more from the dedicated fan than is necessarily true of football, I think. The reason for that has a lot to do with TV — football is broadcast nationally, baseball regionally. Baseball also depends a lot more on radio and on fans actually coming out to the ballpark, day after day, week after week.

      MLB can have a healthy business model that is very dissimilar to that of the NFL, even though the overall nation-wide revenues are similar.

      I am sorry to disappoint the commish, but I don’t think anything he can do will miraculously transform baseball into a fast paced game with non-stop action. Tinkering with some of the fundamentals (yes, I’m looking at the extra inning zombie runners) will do little to entrance new fans but can outrage its faithful followers. I could be wrong, but I don’t think that’s a winning approach.

      I can’t say I’m sorry to see the shift go away, but I was never offended by it. It simply disappoints me that major league baseball players — world class athletes — have done nothing but whine about it, when they have it in their hands (and bats) to stop their opponents from using it. That’s on them.

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