In a recent interview with ESPN, new Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred said, in an effort to increase scoring, he is open to banning one of the biggest changes to the sport in recent years, the increased use of defensive shifts.
Scoring in MLB has fallen 20% in just the last 14 years and is at its lowest level in more than two decades. While most people point to increased steroid testing as the reason for the decline there is evidence that home run rates have not decreased and there is a growing belief that the biggest reason for the lack of scoring is that teams have gotten smarter about playing defence.
This includes the defensive shift, where players move from their traditional spot on the field to an area where the batter hits the ball more often. Joe Maddon, as manager of the Tampa Bay Rays, is often credited for starting the trend.
On the surface, the notion of banning shifts is head-scratching as there are no boundaries within a baseball field that could be used to limit where players can stand.
However, even without clearly-marked zones there is a way to “ban” defensive shifts, or more accurately, to limit player movement, and MLB can look to the NFL for inspiration.
The NFL has a rule that requires teams to have at least four players on each side of the kicker during a kickoff. This rule is designed to keep teams from having ten guys one one side during an onside kick.
The equivalent in baseball would be to require the defence to have at least three players on each side of the pitcher.
In other words, the first baseman, second baseman, and right fielder would always be to the right of the pitcher, the third baseman, shortstop, and left fielder would always be to the left of the pitcher, and the center fielder would be free to go to either side.
The plan is not perfect and would not ban shifts completely. For example, a team could still use three players on one side of the infield with a single outfielder. However, the additional “infielder” would likely be an outfielder not used to playing close to the plate and the shift would often leave the team exposed in the outfield, either with just two outfielders or with an infielder not used to playing in the outfield.
Still, it is a simple solution that would have an impact and is likely the only way to limit the movement of defenders short of adding more lines to the field or the equivalent of football field hash marks.
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