How Defensive Shift in MLB Could Change Future of Baseball

MLBIs it possible that the extreme defensive shift in MLB could change or possibly eliminate traditional positions like the “third baseman” or the “shortstop,” and replace them with positions known as the “infield roamer?” At the moment it seems completely ridiculous, but as statistics and shifts become more advanced, the ghosts of baseball’s past may roll over in their graves at the very thought of such a dramatic change.

Although Ted Williams was not the first victim of the extreme shift that moved as many as six or seven defensive players to the right side of the diamond in an attempt at filling the gaps, he remains one of the most notable MLB hitters to face the lop-sided defense. With baseball moving in the direction of advanced sabermetrics with data collecting agencies tracking every single at bat and a player’s hitting tendencies, the age of the extreme shift is likely to be used more than ever, as defenses look to get a leg up on opposing hitters.

In 1946, manager Lou Boudreau used what would become known as the “Ted Williams Shift.” Williams was well known for having great success in pulling the ball through the holes to the right side of the field, so managers and teams began to move the entire infield to the right side, as well as moving the center fielder closer toward right-center. Whether or not it was successful is something that can be debated, given that Williams posted greater than a .340 batting average in four consecutive seasons from 1946-1949.

MLBThere was a reason that Ted Williams was successful against MLB teams that attempted the extreme shift. He was able to adjust by moving a little further away from the plate, which allowed him to drive more pitches to the opposite field, as opposed to hitting directly into the stacked defense. It is an adjustment that not every player can perfect, and it is one of the reasons why the extreme shift is being used more often against modern-day ballplayers. A player that has been a dead pull hitter for his entire life will have a much more difficult time using an inside out swing or driving the ball to the opposite field, so teams are taking advantage of the skill level of some players that refuse to learn the skill of using all parts of the field. So then, what does this mean for the future of MLB? It could mean a number of things, including new positions, but it can also change the types of players that are drafted and eventually become an impact at the MLB level.

Players that have the tendency to turn on everything in an attempt to yank the ball into the right or left field bleachers will be more prone to making outs against the extreme shift. Occasionally, the good hitters will turn on something up and in or down and in and hit a long shot deep into the stands, giving a lucky fan a souvenir, but they will also see a heavier dose of breaking and off-speed pitches that dive away from them on the outer edge. Dead pull hitters tend to pull off of those pitches, which often times results in an easy ground ball to the pull side of the diamond. In the past, players have been able to get away with balls that are hit sharply through the third baseman and the shortstop, or between the second and first baseman, but times could change for those types of hitters. The success that players have lived on with these types of hits may dwindle and steadily as statistics become more drawn out, the baseball world may see a dramatic change in how MLB teams and managers approach the game in the future.

A guy like Tony Gwynn is one of the greatest examples of a baseball player who made a living out of hitting the ball to the opposite field. His hands were too quick, and even pitches that reached the mid-90’s on the inner half of the plate were not too hot for him to turn on, so the best option for pitchers was to throw him down and away. He became a master at handling this type of  pitch, and became one of the best opposite field hitters of all-time. As players move up through the college ranks, and into the minor leagues and then into MLB, the importance of players hitting the ball the opposite way become more of an emphasis and something that scouts and GM’s will begin to keep a closer eye on. People may love the long ball, but as more teams shift strategies and move toward the use of the extreme shift, batting average and the ability to drive the ball to all parts of the field will become a lot more important than power hitters.

MLBThere are strong opponents and proponents to the extreme shift and the use of sabermetrics in the game of baseball, but it is difficult to argue with statistics. If done right, the shift can be quite effective, as teams like the Oakland Athletics and Tampa Bay Rays proved last season, both saving over ten runs as a result of the shift. However, the shift had the opposite effect for the Chicago Cubs, who used the stacked defense 348 times on the season, but the numbers show that the shift actually worked against them, allowing opposing teams to score more than six extra runs as a result. It is a slippery slope for teams, and if it is not applied correctly, it may as well not be used at all. Until the stats and numbers are flushed out, it looks more like a gamble or a gimmick than anything else.

What it boils down to is old school baseball versus the new school of thought that tracks every imaginable statistic and pattern known to man. Every at-bat is tracked, while charts and graphs are drawn to determine probabilities of a player hitting the ball to a specific spot on the baseball field, against different pitchers and pitches, and every other minute factor that could play a role in the outcome of an at-bat. It can be overwhelming and bit confusing to the untrained eye or the statistically challenged, but for some teams there is a method to the madness and as stat tracking and patterns become more drawn out with greater sample sizes, it is most likely that the extreme shift will continue to become more popular in MLB. In fact, it might become so common that opponents of the shift might begin to make calls and draw out blueprints of a new rule that would make it an illegal defense. Again, it becomes a case of old school versus a newer school of thinking. Does the shift that moves six or seven players to one side of the field have too much of an effect on the game, and completely change the fabric and makeup of the sport? It all depends on who you ask. Some may point to the fact that illegal defenses are used in other sports, so why would baseball be any different? Others will argue that the game is progressing, and some teams choose to use a different approach and implement different defensive strategies.

Is there a chance that the traditional positions such as a shortstop, third baseman or second baseman could disappear sometime in the future, and be replaced with position players called “roamers?” While it seems preposterous to even contemplate, it is something to think about and ask how a player who is bouncing around from the third base line to the right side of second base can be considered a “third baseman.” There is no doubt that the future of MLB is changing, and in an age where “America’s Pastime” is being dominated by other professional sports, some may argue that it is time for MLB to try a more progressive approach, while others will clinch on to the traditional game of baseball that has been nearly the same for more than a century. For now, young players better fall out of love with hitting the long ball that curls around the foul pole and learn how to drive the ball to all parts of the baseball field. Otherwise the “Ted Williams Shift” will gobble up young players and spit them out alive before their big league career ever has a chance at becoming a reality.

Commentary by Johnny Caito

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