Banning the shift won’t help the Orioles, or baseball in general
By Tim Smart
The ‘ban the shift’ movement is apparently picking up steam around the league. Commissioner Rob Manfred has long sought to eliminate defensive shifts, but banning them won’t solve baseball’s problems, and it won’t help the Orioles
Jayson Stark published a piece over at The Athletic on Wednesday morning, suggesting that the league, as a whole, is moving closer toward banning, or limiting, defensive shifts. This has been a hot topic around the league for some time as league-wide shifting has skyrocketed over the past 5-10 years, and as MLB has trended more and more toward three true outcome baseball. But defensive shifts aren’t the problem that many would lead you to believe, and a rule change certainly wouldn’t help the Orioles.
One of the primary results of the analytics movement in major league baseball is that teams are becoming smarter, figuring out more effective ways for players to approach the game. Unsurprisingly, the most valuable outcome on the offensive side is a home-run; players and teams have adjusted accordingly.
From a Joe Sheehan newsletter on October 29th, 40.3% of all runs scored in the 2018 season came off home-runs, a number that jumped to 41.9% in the postseason. In the regular season, the team with more home-runs had a .774 winning percentage; that percentage in the 2018 postseason was .826. Sheehan’s #ballgofarteamgofar moniker is very real, and teams recognize that.
Look no further than our Orioles: in 2012, the Orioles HR/FB rate was a second-best 14.2%, and it was a league leading 13.2% in 2014. This past year, the Orioles posted a 12.6% HR/FB rate, but it was only good for 18th best in baseball. More players, and more teams, are focusing their efforts on hitting the ball over the fence.
For all hitters, but specifically left-handed power hitters, one of the results of trying to hit more home-runs is more pulled ground balls. Partially because of this, and partially because front offices have better access to opponents batted ball data, teams have employed a record-breaking number of defensive shifts over the past five years.
In 2017, the total number of shifts was 22,167; in 2018, it was 31,836. That’s a 43% increase in just one season. The Orioles did their part, finishing 2018 with the 7th most shifts in MLB. And as they fit the profile perfectly, those left-handed power hitters see more shifts than anyone else in baseball. 29.6% of all left-handed plate appearances saw a shift last year, compared to just 8.9% of right-handed ones. So how effective are those shifts?
The results are a bit difficult to discern; ground ball hits in 2018 are harder to come by to the pull side, but they’re easier to get going away from the shift. League-wide BABIP over the past five to ten years remains relatively unchanged, sitting between .295 and .300, and good hitters still spray the ball all over the diamond.
What about Orioles in particular? Chris Davis saw the shift on 91.9% of his plate appearances and posted a .243 wOBA against them, compared to a .216 wOBA against non-shifts. DJ Stewart was 7.5% better against non-shifts, but that was in just 47 PA’s. Cedric Mullins was significantly better when facing a traditional defensive front, but consider that he was horrendous against left-handed pitchers last year, and again in just 134 PA’s. Everyone else, including Trumbo, Villar, Mancini, Nunez, they all saw shifts in fewer than 15% of their plate appearances. Defensive shifts didn’t make the Orioles bad last year.
Yes, there’s a group of hitters who are more adversely affected by shifts than others [Chris Davis, Kyle Seager], but as long as home-runs remain the most valuable outcome in any given plate appearance, hitters are going to continue to try to hit the ball over the fence.
One of the reasons MLB wants to eliminate shifting is to create more action during games. Stark and Sports Info Solutions did the math in the article, and they figured that without shifts, teams would average an extra 17 hits per season. That’s not a lot of extra action. And let’s not forget that we aren’t getting more Mike Trout on the basepaths. We’re getting more Chris Davis, more Kyle Seager on the basepaths. That isn’t fun for anyone.
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If you think about it, if Chris Davis faced fewer shifts, wouldn’t he be more apt to try to pull the ball? Wouldn’t everyone? MLB is trying to incentivize hitting for contact by making it more beneficial to try to hit for power. Fangraphs’ Jeff Sullivan said it more succinctly than I’ll ever be able to, but MLB can’t fix the perceived ball-in-play problem by adjusting what the hitters can do. If you’re trying to fix a problem by evaluating the results rather than the process, you’re going to have a hell of a time.
MLB can’t increase balls in play by adjusting where the defenders are allowed to stand during the games. If MLB wants to create more in-game action by increasing balls-in-play, they need to adjust what the pitchers are allowed to do. Lower the mound, push the mound back, push the batter’s box back, enforce mandatory humidors to deaden the ball, push the fences back, change the ball density, change bat density, enforce a maximum pitch velocity; banning the shift only creates more problems and incentivizes hitters to hit more home-runs.
Does baseball have problems with in-game action and pace of play? Sure. Very few people want to watch a four and a half hour Orioles-Blue Jays game with 13 pitching changes. Should MLB be more open to rules changes like the NBA has been? Sure, you can make that case too. But this is all coming from the assumption that baseball is broken and needs to be fixed. Baseball can certainly be improved but it’s not broken.