While the MLB Pitch Clock has been the most discussed rule change in baseball heading into the 2023 year, the new rules regarding the shift may be the most impactful. In Major League Baseball’s definitive history of the shift, the legacy of its utilization in America’s sport goes back more than a century.
Note, the MLB is not removing the shift entirely, but rather imposing new restrictions on defensive positioning. The goal of these restrictions is to create a more balanced playing field between hitters and fielders, with the hope that it will lead to more offensive production and a more exciting game overall. But we’ll get to the pros and cons later, let’s explain what it is.
Two Key Points
Major League Baseball highlighted three points of emphasis that are included in the new shift rule. They are as follows:
- There must be two infielders “positioned on either side of 2B when the pitch is released.”
- All four infielders must have both feet within the infield when pitcher is on rubber.
Let’s unpack that. The first point on the docket is that we’ll now see two infielders required to be positioned on either side of second base when the pitch is released. This means that teams won’t be able to overload one side of the field and will have to be a bit more strategic in their defensive alignments.
One that people may not realize is included in the new shift rules is the one regarding where one puts their feet. This new rule requires all four infielders to have both feet within the infield when the pitcher is on the rubber. This means that we won’t see any more of those wacky defensive shifts where players are positioned in the outfield grass. It’ll be interesting to see how teams adjust to this new restriction and what it means for defensive strategies going forward.
Major League Baseball provided this semi-helpful image. There must be two players on either of the white stripe line.
Arguments For The Shift
Now, some of you may be wondering why these changes are being made. Well, according to reports, similar shift restrictions were implemented in the minors and it resulted in an increase in batting average and a decrease in strikeouts. And as we all know, in today’s game, every little advantage counts. Additionally, these changes will give players more opportunities to show off their athleticism and potentially make some highlight-reel plays.
The shift has become increasingly prevalent in recent years as teams use data and analytics to position their fielders in a way that maximizes their defensive efficiency. But some have argued that it has become too effective, resulting in a decrease in offensive production and making the game less exciting to watch.
It’s also not the first time that a rule has been implemented in order to favor one side of the ball. Across professional sports, leagues constantly tinker with the rules to either allow for more offense or defense. Let’s remember the dead-ball era in baseball which saw a magnificent dip in runs scored per game.
It was a time when strategy, the same thing people fear will be eliminated by the shift, reigned supreme and power hitting was not yet the dominant force it is today. Instead, small ball or inside baseball, as it came to be known, was the name of the game.
The emphasis was on speed, and for good reason. Stolen bases and hit-and-run plays were critical to a team’s success. Low-power hits like the Baltimore Chop, which was developed by the Baltimore Orioles in the 1890s, were used to get on base. Once a runner was on base, the goal was to steal or be bunted over to second, then move to third or score on a hit-and-run play. It was a style of play that required precision and skill, as well as speed.
In fact, in no other era have teams stolen as many bases as they did during the dead-ball era. It was a time when stealing bases was not only an effective strategy, but it was also a common one.
It’s interesting to note that during this time, the league leader in home runs often had fewer than 10 for the season. On only four occasions did the league leaders hit 20 or more home runs. In contrast, the league leaders in triples had 20 or more on 20 separate occasions. It was a time when power hitting was not yet the dominant force in the game, and players relied on their speed and precision to succeed.
Arguments Against Making The Shift Illegal
First and foremost, those opposed to banning the shift argue that it would limit a team’s ability to employ different defensive strategies based on their scouting and analysis of opposing hitters. The shift has become an increasingly popular tactic for teams to use as they seek to gain any advantage possible over their opponents. Banning the shift would take away an important tool in a team’s defensive arsenal, making the game less strategic and potentially less interesting for fans.
In addition, banning the shift would penalize teams that have invested in advanced scouting and defensive strategies. Many teams have invested significant time and resources into scouting opposing hitters and developing defensive strategies to combat their tendencies. By making the shift illegal, these teams would be forced to abandon their strategies and start from scratch, potentially losing any advantage they may have had.
Critics of the proposed ban also argue that it could interfere with the natural flow of the game. Enforcing a shift ban would require umpires to be more vigilant in monitoring defensive positioning, which could slow down the pace of the game and make it less enjoyable for fans.
Perhaps their strongest argument is pointing to the disaster was when the NBA attempted to institute an almost identical rule by banning zone defenses. The ban on zone defense was confusing, lead to more stoppages in play (to assess the technical created by the rule) and was mercifully shelved after a short tenure. However, it’s there are still one shot technical in the NBA for defensive-3 seconds. Thus…
How will it turn out is yet to be decided, but one would be foolish to assume that this rule about the shift is the last version we will see in the future. Most likely, it will be something that will constantly be tinkered with over time. We shall see.