About Eliminating the Shift

This morning, I had a link up regarding the Rob Manfred's controversial comments during his first day on the job. In case you missed it, Manfred explained that he'd like to find ways to create more offense in baseball, and one of the ways that might be explored is to eliminate defensive shifts.

Defensive shifts, of course, are still a somewhat new fad in baseball. Sure, there were a few teams that used them sparingly over the years -- I recall being at the ballpark as the Rangers played Toronto in the mid-90s and seeing their shortstop move into a position between the 1st baseman and 2nd basemen -- and the Tampa Bay Rays were among the first teams to consistently use the tactic, but the usage of defensive shifts is something that his grown increasingly in the past five years.

While it's nice that Manfred is coming into his new position with an open-minded approach, the first thing that came to my mind when I heard him say it was, "That's not going to fix offenses in baseball."

One solution that was mentioned to me by my cousin this morning was to lower the mound. It's something that's been talked about quietly in some circles for several years in regards to trying to protect pitching arms, but it's also a potential solution for flipping the scales back toward the hitters a bit.

It's a solution that merits attention, but is likely in its infancy if only because, to Major League Baseball, there aren't enough studies that can really show what kind of differences lowering the mound would make in regards to overall pitcher health. Yeah, it makes sense that the torque on arms would decrease, but considering no one has really identified what exactly is causing the Tommy John epidemic, it's unlikely that we're anywhere close to this being identified as the solution to that problem.

So that leaves us with one glaring fact: The strike zone in baseball has increased by almost 10% since 2008. The bottom portion of the strike zone, the area in which it become more difficult for hitters to do anything but put rollover grounders into play, has increased by almost 11%. It's a very real problem; A problem that Dave Cameron of FanGraphs has attacked much better than I can. Of note:

As you can see, wOBA-on-contact hasn’t really changed much over the last decade, and the last few years, the run value of balls in play was slightly higher than it was in 2002-2003, when teams were averaging about 4.8 runs per game. We’ve shaved over half a run off that total in the last seven years even as the results of contacted plays haven’t really changed much at all.

Because, as has been well covered, strikeouts are out of control. MLB is setting strikeout records every single season, and now walks trending downwards at the same time strikeouts are heading upwards. Pitchers are dominating the strike zone like they have never before, which is leading to fewer balls in play than MLB has ever seen. The dramatic reduction in offense is primarily the result of fewer contacted balls, not the outcomes of those contacted balls.

In addition, Cameron provides a handy chart in which it is illustrated that shifts haven't exactly been a dramatic hindrance to run-scoring, but contact rates certainly have.

Considering that Texas recently hired a manager in Jeff Banister that is sabermetrically inclined, it will be interesting to follow exactly where this goes. Given that Spring Training is set to begin in mere weeks, it's unlikely that we'll see any changes made prior to the 2016 season, but it's a conversation I'm sure we'll be seeing more of going forward.

For the die-hard or even the well-connected fan, the conversation about needing more offense in baseball is a non-issue. With that said, it's at least worth having a conversation about in an effort to build a stronger fan base moving forward during a time in which American sports are primarily viewed by fans that enjoy watching more scoring.