Scared Shiftless: Should We Ban The Shift In Baseball?

Updated: Dec 17, 2018


Scared Shiftless:

Should We Ban The Shift In Baseball?


by Adam Van Grack // @WhitewaterAtty Most everyone is aware that a baseball team fields 9 players on defense. Most everyone can also name each of the 9 baseball defense positions: Pitcher, Catcher, First Baseman, Second Baseman, Third Baseman, Shortstop, Left Fielder, Center Fielder, and Right Fielder. Most people are, however, unaware that (other than for the pitcher and the catcher) there are no Major League Baseball rules[1] which governs where any of the position players are required to be positioned so long as they are fair territory. In fact, other than rules regarding glove size, the Major League Baseball rules do not even describe roles or requirements of specific position players other than pitcher and catcher.[2] The term “second baseman” only occurs in the rules in the commentary within a few play examples, and a team can literally field 7 “second basemen” surrounding second base if they so desire. Nonetheless, since 2015, Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred has been speaking publicly about a rule change that involves specific action of position players: banning the shift. As a result, baseball pundits have been recently debating whether the shift should be banned.

To properly answer the question of whether Major League Baseball should ban the shift, we need to first address three sub-questions:

  • What Actually Is “The Shift”?

  • How Could Baseball’s Rules Ban the Shift?

  • Is there a Good Reason to Ban the Shift?

[1] Neither The Professional Baseball Rules (“Major League Rules”) nor The Official Baseball Rules (“Baseball Game Rules”) govern any position for any baseball defender other than for the pitcher and the catcher.


[2] The entirety of Baseball Game Rule 5.02 titled “Fielding Positions” states:

"When the ball is put in play at the start of, or during a game, all fielders other than the catcher shall be on fair territory. (a) The catcher shall station himself directly back of the plate. He may leave his position at any time to catch a pitch or make a play except that when the batter is being given an intentional base on balls, the catcher must stand with both feet within the lines of the catcher’s box until the ball leaves the pitcher’s hand. PENALTY: Balk. (b) The pitcher, while in the act of delivering the ball to the batter, shall take his legal position; (c) Except the pitcher and the catcher, any fielder may station himself anywhere in fair territory."

What Actually Is “The Shift”?


Despite baseball pundits feverishly discussing the sudden existence of “the shift” over the past three years, defensive shifts or infield shifts are not a new phenomenon in Major League Baseball. Defensive shifts have been occurring regularly as part of the game at all levels. For example, in Game 3 of 1982 World Series, the St. Louis Cardinals had 3 infield defenders to the left side of second base just prior to Willie McGee’s famous “Flying Catch.”


Shifts are also not a special occurrence. As explained by the Baseball Reference,[3]


“A defensive shift is when the fielders from their normal positions for some tactical reason. The most common shifts are used in response to specific game situations, such as a runner on base, and are seen in almost every game. Less common shifts are a response to strong batting tendencies of an individual hitters. On some very rare occasions, a team may actually move a fielder from the outfield to the infield or vice versa.”

Essentially, for strategic reasons, a “shift” occurs when teams move their defensive players to non-traditional positions. However, considering that almost every play results in a different situation (hitter’s tendencies, runner(s) on base, number of strikes, wind speed, etc.), are there really “traditional positions”? Each defender (except for the pitcher and catcher) is constantly moving to different positions. In fact, technically, every time a shortstop or second baseman covers a runner at second base, they are employing some type of shift.


Nonetheless, the particular shift that the Commissioner and some pundits want to ban is a more dramatic movement. The primary type of shift that the Commissioner and others are discussing banning involves a dramatic shift where more defenders than usual (most often infielders) are located on the left or right side of the field.

For example, throughout much of 2017 and 2018, teams playing the St. Louis Cardinals regularly placed most of their infield defenders on the right side of the infield when Matt Carpenter was at bat. In fact, in one instance on July 22, 2018, the Chicago Cubs placed 4 outfielders and only 3 infielders in play against Matt Carpenter. The Commissioner and others argue that these non-traditional alignment of defenders in dramatic shifts should be banned because such dramatic shifts limit offense by creating abnormal challenges for certain hitters and create less entertainment.[4]

[3] Copyright © Baseball Info Solutions

[4] However, Matt Carpenter had an OPS of .897 in 2018. Thus, even though defenses often shifted against him, Matt Carpenter still hit well!

How Could Baseball’s Rules Ban the Shift?


Presuming one wants to ban dramatic defensive shifts in baseball, Major League Baseball cannot simply institute a rule merely stating: “The shift is banned!” There are significant details and complex issues that must be addressed before any shift banning rule is implemented. This is especially true because shifts (even minor shifts as simple as covering a base) occur in almost every inning of every baseball game. And as stated above, neither the Major League Rules nor the Baseball Game Rules govern where defenders (other than the pitcher and catcher) must be located within fair territory.

Essentially, proponents of a shift ban seek to restrict exactly where position players are located and penalize position players for non-traditional alignments. Thus, to ban dramatic shifts, the rules (primarily the Baseball Game Rules) would need to be seriously altered. As a result, the Baseball Game Rules would have to address multiple impacts and provide clarification related to such a significant positional requirement. Specifically, at a minimum, the new shift ban rule would have to address:


(a) Where exactly position players are required to be located on defense (which is not addressed in the rules whatsoever);

(b) Whether the field requires additional lines drawn on the field to assist the umpires in enforcement (should umpires be required to estimate where a player is standing while the umpire is standing is a position that doesn’t give them the best view);

(c) Whether the restriction is for players located on the infield;

(d) Whether the restriction is for players located on the outfield;

(e) Whether the restriction governs outfielders coming into the infield (and vice versa);

(f) How the restrictions apply in different ballparks (infield and outfield dimensions are not standard in MLB);

(g) Whether the restriction applies equally when men are 1st base;

(h) Whether the restriction applies equally when men are 2nd base;

(i) Whether the restriction applies equally when men are 3rd base;

(j) Whether a defensive player who is holding a running on the base is exempt from the restriction (a defender covering 2nd base could be half on each side of the base!);

(k) When the position restriction applies (i.e., before pitch, after pitch, after hit);

(l) When the position players are permitted to be out of position (defensive players are constantly moving);

(m) What the penalty is for a violation or multiple violations.


Thus, any shift banning rule would not be simple to formulate. Properly addressing all of these issues – each of which needs to be addressed before any shift ban rule is implemented – would not an easy task. I would surmise that even those who are most vehemently in favor of banning the shift might disagree regarding some of the answers to these questions. Nonetheless, while it would be a significant task, banning dramatic shifts is possible. The most common shift ban rule suggestion involves requiring 2 infielders on each side of second base at the moment the pitcher releases the baseball. However, as noted above, there are significant and complex details that need to be addressed and answered in formulating even a specific 2-infielders-on-each-side rule (such as how the rule considers a second baseman covering second base who is literally on the base).


Is there a Good Reason to Ban the Shift?


The rules of baseball are constantly changing. In fact, the Baseball Game Rules require an annual edition because the rules themselves regularly require adjustment. Thus, arguing that we cannot change the rules is not an argument against banning the shift – Major League Baseball’s rules change constantly.


However, almost every single rule change over the past few decades addresses player safety,[5] adjustments to cheating enforcement, [6] or adjustments for administrative issues such as pace of game.[7] Non-safety-related substantive adjustments to how the game of baseball is played are extremely rare. The most recent example such a non-safety-related substantive Major League Baseball adjustment was the addition of the designated hitter rule in 1973.[8] Undoubtedly, banning dramatic defensive shifts is a major non-safety-related substantive and strategic change. In fact, such a change would be significantly more dramatic (and require more detailed rule changes) than the 1973 designated hitter rule – and people are still arguing about the designated hitter rule changes 45 years later! A defenders-location ban would be the first time that the rules have ever governed fair territory locations for non-pitcher/catcher position players whatsoever.

The primary reason given by most shift-ban proponents in favor of a rule change is the belief that banning shifts would “inject additional offense into the game”[9], and these proponents want “more entertaining baseball.”[10]

However, any shift-ability advantage has existed throughout baseball, and no previous Rules Committee or Commissioner felt that dramatic shifts needed to be banned until recently. How are dramatic defensive shifts unfair or less entertaining? At the least, it is not unfair for a player to face a different defensive arrangement because, as discussed above, players face different defensive arrangements in almost every at bat (i.e., runners on base, 2 outs, strong wind). Additionally, where is the support for the statement that less shifts will provide more entertainment? One could easily argue that unique defensive strategies employed by teams are entertaining to watch themselves.

Further, assuming we want to encourage more offense for “entertainment,” where is the limit to defensive restrictions? (where, again, the current rules have no defensive restrictions). If we decide to ban dramatic infield shifts, are we also going to ban other types of abnormal position shifts? For example, does the “no doubles defense”[11] need to be banned because that unique defense is unfair to players who want to hit a double – and more doubles is more entertaining! Does the “bunt defense”[12] need to be banned because that unique defense is unfair to players who want to bunt – and more successful bunts are more entertaining! In fact, if we decide to make a major substantive rule changes to create more offense, why not limit defenses to only 8 defensive positions. If there are only 8 defenders, then more hits will occur and – poof – more entertainment! These are all important questions to ask if the league is seriously considering changing the rules of baseball as to where position players are required to be located due to a desire for more (alleged) entertainment.

Conclusion


Changes to the Baseball Game Rules are inevitable, and changes occur annually. However, the justification for a major substantive rule that addresses an issue which has never been addressed in the baseball rules change needs to be better than: (potentially) more entertaining baseball. Additionally, as shown above, requiring a rule where position players must be positioned in specific locations during a game will present significant complications that cannot not be easy (or equally) addressed.


While basketball and football do indeed regularly make rule changes regarding the locations of defenders, baseball differs from those sports because (unlike basketball and football) baseball’s rules specially do not make any reference to defensive positions for position players (other than the pitcher and catcher). Further, such rule changes are also more necessary in basketball and football because both offensive and defensive teams are constantly adjusting to each other with equal number of players on the field. In baseball, however, the offensive player never is in possession of the ball (except for the split second of bat contact), and the offensive player at the time of the shift is himself already restricted to one location – the batter’s box. To institute such a dramatic substantive rule change for defenses in baseball would be an entire sea change of direction for the sport of baseball (unlike in football and basketball).

Changing the Baseball Game Rules to restrict defensive positions solely for (allegedly) more entertainment should not justify a dramatic substantive change to the rules of baseball. Equipment,[13] safety-based,[14] and administrative[15] Baseball Game Rules changes are common. These acceptable rule changes are justified as being necessary to protect the players, being necessary to ensure a level playing field for all players, or non-substantively-impactful. Some of these administrative rule changes are essentially minor rule changes (such as limiting the number of warm-up pitches and signaling intentional walks) to help speed up the pace of games. And minor administrative changes with specific rationales are not problematic. However, banning shifts is not minor, not administrative, and does not assist with player safety. Banning defensive positioning is not only complicated, but it is unfair to defensive-minded teams and players. If teams and players are unable to fully utilize where they place their defenders, then the rule change now provides an unfair advantage in favor of the batter. In fact, such a rule change would dilute managerial/coaching roles and penalize teams who are attempting sound defensive strategy.

Ultimately, it is my strong opinion that instituting any type of ban on dramatic defensive shifts is a serious mistake. Complex, substantive, professional-level, sport rule changes must have (1) more of a justification than some people’s view of “more entertainment,” and (2) a clear a method for implementation – banning dramatic defensive shifts in Major League Baseball has neither. As eloquently stated by St. Louis Cardinals Center fielder, Harrison Bader, last month, “I’m all for getting the opposing hitter out [to] the best of our abilities . . . I think you should be able to position your guys however you want to position them.”[16]

[5] Baseball Game Rule 6.01(i)(2) has been in place to prevent violent collisions at home plate which has caused significant player injuries. The recent rule (formulated in some form in 2014) states, in part, that “Unless the catcher is in possession of the ball, the catcher cannot block the pathway of the runner as he is attempting to score.”

[6] Baseball Game Rule 3.02 has changed so that if excessive use of pine tar on his bat is not discovered until after the bat is used, “it shall not be grounds for declaring the batter out, or ejected from the game.” Thus, George Brett would not have been declared out in 2018 for his Pine Tar incident.

[7] In 2018, Baseball Game Rule 5.07(b) was changed to adjust the number of warm-up pitches that a pitcher may throw.

[8] Baseball Game Rule 5.11. Interestingly, Baseball Game Rule 5.11 states that “Any League may elect to use Rule 5.11(a), which shall be called the Designated Hitter Rule.” Thus, the rules themselves permit the National League to use the Designated Hitter Rule if it so desires.

[9] “I think the second set of changes I would look at is related, umm, and that relates to injecting additional offense in the game. For example, things like eliminating shifts.” Commissioner Rob Manfred, Sunday Conversation, ESPN (2015).

[10] “Banning the shift does not guarantee more hits, but it sure gives predictable batters a better chance. More hits would inevitably lead to longer rallies, more runs scored, and more entertaining baseball—and that’s the goal, right?” Andrew Morrison, Want to Improve Baseball? Ban the Shift, The Daily Campus (2018).

[11] A “no doubles defense” is a defensive shift where the outfielders generally play deeper that traditional positions to avoid a ball being hit over their head and resulting in a double.

[12] A “bunt defense” is a defensive shift where infielders play closed to home plate to anticipate or discourage a bunt.

[13] Standardization of glove sizes occurred in 1973.

[14] Catcher/runner collision limitations were proposed and formulated in 2014 and 2015.

[15] Instant reply, although limited, was first implemented in 2008.

[16] The MLB Network, November 28, 2018.

Adam Van Grack is an attorney at the law firm of Longman & Van Grack, LLC practicing litigation, business law, and sports law. Adam is a fan of the St. Louis Cardinals having attended Washington University in St. Louis for college and law school. Adam has been previously appointed as the Chair of a U.S. Olympic National Governing Body.