Sabermetrics has commandeered MLB over the last decade, cold-shouldering tradition and changing every facet of the game. Math and data now utterly dominate a sport previously managed by feel and instinct.
The most apparent data-driven adjustment has come in the way of defensive positioning – namely, shifting. Shifting will be boundless as usual in MLB this year, but it won’t be at a certain minor league level.
MLB trying to find a balance with sabermetrics
In an effort to increase batting average on balls in play, Double-A will require all four infielders to have their feet on the infield dirt when a pitch is thrown this year. It may go a step further during the second half of the season, prohibiting the placement of more than two infielders on each side of second base.
Will MLB eventually adopt such rules? Only time will tell. The fact that MiLB is even experimenting with them brings to light MLB’s concern over unvaried offense.
Under sabermetric rule, baseball has simplified to a game of home runs and strikeouts. Sabermatricians have determined the most effective way to score runs is via the home run, which has hitters obsessed with launch angle and driving the ball to their stronger pull-side. Higher launch angles produce more homers but also more whiffs.
Increased swings and misses play perfectly to a pitcher’s intention of striking everyone out. Sabermetrics has persuaded pitchers to pursue a strikeout at all costs because a ball in play is susceptible to misplays and bad luck. As a result, contact pitchers are losing favor, and the new generation of pitchers is being trained to throw harder and harder – which can be dangerous.
Home runs are thrilling, and witnessing a pitcher rack-up strikeouts can be a joy as well. But strikeouts will always outnumber long balls. Is it fun to watch your team’s offense come up empty 15 times in a game, even if they hit a home run or two? Probably not.
For the sake of its fan base, MLB needs more contact from its hitters. Limiting defensive shifts will ensure that. A home run can still be the overarching goal for a batter, but the batter shouldn’t be punished for ripping a 110 mph line drive directly at the second baseman who’s playing in shallow right field.
Furthermore, not everyone can frequently beat a shift by hitting the ball out of the ballpark. The guys who aren’t capable of hitting 20 dingers in a season should have a place in the game, too. Line drives should have a purpose, and groundballs should not be the death of a hitter.
While batting average has lost purity, a league-wide uptick in the metric would do the game plenty of good. In 2018, the league batting average dipped below .250 for the first time since 1972. The mark was .245 a season ago.
It’s too much to ask hitters to hit the ball the other way on command, especially with pitchers intentionally throwing the ball on the inside half of the plate. Modifying and controlling defensive alignments would be a more manageable solution to fairer offensive chances.
Home run prevalence has led to increased run production across MLB in recent years, but with a slightly deadened baseball in play this season, round-trippers will likely occur less often. With shifting persisting as a constant in the game, scoring will become more challenging.
If shifts were not a factor, or at least less of one, MLB would generate more base hits. More base hits means higher on-base percentages. More base runners create more pressure-pact moments, which make for more entertaining viewing.
Sabermetrics is a fascinating and necessary contributor to baseball. However, one can argue that it has too much influence on the game right now. By limiting or taming defensive shifts in some manner, MLB would wisely take away the right amount of power from sabermetrics.