MLB won’t address the real problem if it bans defensive shifts

DENVER, CO - AUGUST 05: The Colorado Rockies infield employ the infield shift as they defend against the Seattle Mariners during interleague play at Coors Field on August 5, 2015 in Denver, Colorado. The Rockies defeated the Mariners 7-5 in 11 innings. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
DENVER, CO - AUGUST 05: The Colorado Rockies infield employ the infield shift as they defend against the Seattle Mariners during interleague play at Coors Field on August 5, 2015 in Denver, Colorado. The Rockies defeated the Mariners 7-5 in 11 innings. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images) /
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Picture an NFL defense using the same personnel and formation against Derrick Henry as Patrick Mahomes. Or the same formation on third and 20 as on third and two. No nickel defense, no extra pass rushers … just the same four linemen, three linebackers, and four defensive backs … every single play. In other words, no strategy, no reason for the offense to adjust. Just line up and bang against each other.

That’s what pops into my head when I hear people advocate banning defensive shifts in baseball. Shifts are strategy, just like using five or six defensive backs, or four wide receivers, or three tight ends. Just like defenses bring in different personnel to adjust to offensive personnel or situations, baseball defenses have moved fielders to where they think hitters are likely to hit the ball.

Here’s the difference, though. If Patrick Mahomes sees that Travis Kelce is triple-teamed, he throws the ball to Tyreek Hill. If the Titans see that the defense is loading up the line of scrimmage to stop Henry, they run play action and throw deep. That’s regarded as basic common sense, and coaches who fail to do so usually get fired.

Baseball is different.

When MLB hitters look out and see three infielders on the right side of the infield, with enough space on the left side that Albert Pujols could beat out a bunt, they still won’t adapt.

They just figure if they hit the ball even harder, it will get through, no matter where the fielders are. We have several years of evidence now that this is bad strategy, but you would think they have no other choice.

What we are left with is a bunch of guys hitting .230 but feeling like they are winning the argument because they hit 20 home runs. Even when they get to free agency and find out that 20 home runs won’t get them more than a minimum contract because pretty much everybody hits 20 home runs now, they keep hitting into the shift. It’s as if the lords of baseball sat down to choose a prototype ballplayer and decided on Mark Reynolds.

Now we’ve decided, since hitters refuse to adapt, we’re going to reward them for their stubbornness by not allowing the defense to adapt. Beyond violating every tenet of good parenting, this just doubles down on everything that has made baseball stagnant over the past decade by rewarding the behavior that hurts the game. Throw the ball hard, swing the bat hard, don’t worry if you miss. Forget about strategy and skill, just focus on brute strength. Never mind that folks who are into that sort of thing are probably watching football and UFC anyway.

None of which even addresses how this rule would be implemented, because as soon as they place limits on where players can be positioned, someone with the Tampa Bay Rays will start trying to think of a way around it, then there will be another rule. Knowing how these things work in baseball (think mound visits and three batter minimums), the solution is bound to be clunkier than the problem.

It’s true, watching players drive the ball into the teeth of a shift doesn’t make for riveting drama. But the trends tell us that nobody is making contact and, when they do make contact, they hit fewer ground balls. If that’s the case, will banning shifts make that much difference?

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Shifts are a calculated gamble that only work if the offense refuses to adapt. The fact that they work is the symptom, not the sickness. The sickness is the unimaginative all-or-nothing style of offense that dominates the MLB game and makes it boring and one-dimensional.