Seattle Mariners

John McGrath: Baseball’s love-hate relationship with the shift has a solution

Diamondbacks shortstop Nick Ahmed, second baseman Brandon Drury, right, and first baseman Paul Goldschmidt, near, overload one side of the infield against Oakland during a spring training game in Scottsdale, Ariz. The defensive shift, while not particularly fan-friendly, is gaining popularity.
Diamondbacks shortstop Nick Ahmed, second baseman Brandon Drury, right, and first baseman Paul Goldschmidt, near, overload one side of the infield against Oakland during a spring training game in Scottsdale, Ariz. The defensive shift, while not particularly fan-friendly, is gaining popularity. The Associated Press

If you stopped watching baseball a few years ago and are getting reacquainted with the 2016 version of the game, what you’d notice right away is how many traditional base hits are no longer base hits.

A left-handed batter such as the Mariners’ Kyle Seager lines the ball through the gap on the right side of the infield. This used to be a single but now is a routine out, because the shortstop is playing second base, enabling the second baseman to position himself in short right field.

“The shift,” I say to myself, “is a scourge. I hate it more than I hate day-night doubleheaders, and the only thing I hate more than day-night doubleheaders is taking off my shoes in the airport security line.”

But then the opposition is similarly deprived — instead of a single off the bat of a left-handed pull hitter, it’s a grounder to Robinson Cano in short right — and the reaction is different.

“The shift,” I say to myself, “is the gift that keeps on giving. I love it more than I love a bleacher seat in the sun, and the only thing I love more than a bleacher seat in the sun is being able to keep my shoes on in the airport security line.”

There’s a love-hate dynamic going on with the shift, and I’m not alone. Upon succeeding Bud Selig as MLB commissioner 16 months ago, Rob Manfred indicated he was amenable to a rule book revision requiring defenses to remain conventional: two fielders on the left side of second, two on the right.

The outcry was vehement, and Manfred offered a swift retraction that could be paraphrased as “Hey, I was just thinking out loud. Carry on.”

Yankees manager Joe Girardi isn’t as circumspect.

“It’s an illegal defense, like in basketball,” he has said. “Guard your man, guard your spot. If I were commissioner, the shift would be illegal.”

While Girardi may not like the shift, he uses it because he’s fond of favorable odds. Placing three infielders to the right of second base in anticipation of a lefty with extreme pull-hitting tendencies is sound strategy, and explains why shifts were used eight times more last season than in 2011.

A typical argument of shift proponents is that it’s up to batters to adjust. Don’t be greedy. If the defense is giving you one side of the infield, take it. Shorten your swing and hit the ball the other way — Tony Gwynn made a living out of this — and maybe put down a bunt.

But here’s the rub: Just because Gwynn appeared casually content to hit the ball the other way doesn’t mean it’s easy to hit the ball the other way. Muscle-memory components, developed over a lifetime, tend to be stubborn.

As for countering the shift with a make-’em-pay bunt, again, much easier said than done. A specifically placed bunt is difficult to execute for those practiced at it, much less those who aren’t.

Besides — and here is what Manfred was saying, without actually saying it — fans don’t crave to watch power hitters shorten their swings and put down bunts. Fans crave offense. Fans crave fireworks.

And so the quandary persists: regard the shift as a trendy phase in an ever-evolving sport where trends eventually are solved, or figure out some rules to contain it?

I’ve got an idea that can be called a compromise and might even qualify as a solution.

Modified shifting.

Allow a team, say, three chances to place its infielders wherever the manager chooses to position them. If a natural pull-hitting lefty is batting in the fourth inning and it makes sense to overload the defense on the right side, go for the gusto.

That’s one shift. You’ve got two remaining.

Granted, managers won’t be thrilled to face still more second-guessing about strategy, but they’re grown men who are paid well. And it’s not as though they’re alone in the dugout. Managers are flanked by a bench coach, a euphemism for “assistant manager.”

The baseball manager, I keep hearing, has less of an impact on any given game than his counterpart in football and basketball. He assembles a lineup, oversees pitching changes and makes the occasional decision to send up a pinch hitter who might entail corresponding revision of the lineup, but the manager’s most important task is keeping the clubhouse thermometer at a comfortable temperature over six months.

Is it unreasonable to put a little more on his plate?

In case Girardi missed it, most zone defenses are now permitted in the NBA, and nobody misses the whistles that interrupted games because of a violation of a some arcane rule. The sport has moved forward.

An outright ban of the infield shift in baseball would be not be moving forward.

But turning an obviously effective tactic into the stuff of strategic decisions that can be implemented only three times in a game — strategic decisions with the potential to keep fans engaged for nine innings — this is the very essence of moving forward.

I hate the shift, and I love the shift.

May it survive in a modified mode that brings out the best in hitters, and the managers challenged to contain them.

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