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How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Shift

Baseball's governing grumps have decided that defensive shifts are a problem. But maybe this is just the game changing with the times. Let's enjoy that, for once.

by Robert O'Connell
Jun 8 2015, 12:22pm

Photo by Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Leading off the fifth inning of a scoreless game in Tampa Bay, Kyle Seager of the visiting Seattle Mariners served a Chris Archer pitch on a line into shallow right field. It was the sort of liner that baseball people instinctively understand as a hit, and had Seager hit it at any time in baseball history prior to the last couple years, it would have been a single.

This is now, though, and the Rays had a shift on for Seager, which put second baseman Jake Elmore about halfway, longitudinally, between his usual spot and first base. Elmore was scooted back a bit onto the outfield grass—well, turf—where he made for a sort of human netting between shortstop Nick Franklin, who for the moment occupied Elmore's station, and first baseman Logan Forsythe. Seager's shot landed just to Elmore's left. He gloved it on a belt-high hop, spun, and shuttled the ball sidearm to first, beating Seager by a smidge of a step. You'd score it 4-to-3.

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Defensive shifts work at generating both outs and opaque qualms where previously there had been none. They are new enough, still, to put a grimace on the face of the aggrieved batter; he can only shoot an accusatory look at the defense—What, couldn't get me out without your manager's help?—and blame his own lousy luck for playing in the age of the spray chart. The secondary qualms come from the broadcast booth, the stands, and even the office of the new commissioner of baseball. Shortly after assuming the position this past offseason, Rob Manfred announced that he might be willing to ban the infield reshuffling altogether. This is maybe more than a qualm. This is baseball's power structure perceiving what the Rays did to Kyle Seager as something like a threat.

Offense is down across baseball in recent years, which is the result of a cleaner game, a roomier strike zone, an influx of power pitching, and, yes, the rise of the data-based shift. Shift-detractors argue that this last factor might not be missed much if it disappeared tomorrow, that it turns what should by rights be hits—gauged by resemblance to the Platonic form of the hit, or something—into ill-gained outs. The strategy's defenders tend to appeal to its efficacy and to another strain of baseball tradition: the rules stipulate only that the eight non-catching defenders start the play in fair territory. Anything else is custom, not law, although baseball has long made a habit of treating the former like the latter.

Baseball's long-bubbling culture squabbles are more performances of dissatisfaction than actual debates in which there are cases to be made and common ground to be found, and the non-debate over shifts is even stagier. One group parses the shift in terms of style and beauty, the other in terms of strategy. The tacit assumption of each seems to be that the shift is ugly, a utilitarian measure that increases the rate of anticlimax in a game. Whether it makes for good or bad baseball depends on whether you privilege productiveness over elegance or vice versa. It's a narrow opening onto a broad and familiar debate about what baseball is for, and Supposed To Be.

A routine put-out, except for what the hell is an infielder doing standing out there? — Photo by Brad Barr-USA TODAY Sports

Let's not do that. Let's stipulate that the shift can be beautiful. What's more, the shift gets at something truer to baseball even than the idea that a liner that lands beyond the infield should be a hit. It has echoes of a more improvisatory, haphazard game than we're used to seeing in the big leagues. That's baseball, too.

By force of habit, we tend to judge defense based on a crude binary: plays that should be made, and plays that shouldn't. The historical steadiness of defensive positioning makes this possible. Every stock 5-3 putout or F7 is an entry in our collective catalog; we see an assembled blueprint of what is supposed to happen even as a grounder rolls through the infield. According to this blueprint, we rate the play to come as routine, exceptional, or an error.

The shift, on the other hand, creates baseball outside this massive antecedent. We don't have a backlog of examples telling us how a second baseman stationed in shallow right should behave; similarly, said second baseman is himself less accustomed to the outfield grass and its attendant angles than to the infield dirt. The throw Elmore made to get Seager out on that non-single single may be one he's never quite made before.

In a stroke of luck, Mariners manager Lloyd McLendon challenged the call at first in the fifth-inning play in Wednesday's game, so I got the chance to watch the replay a few times as someone in baseball's New York review center did the same. Looping, it revealed a distinct charm. At first, this was due to its impressiveness; Elmore needed to take a few tidy steps to reach the ball, and his snare-and-throw was neat and just timely enough.

As the play repeated onscreen, though, its formal attributes started to register. In broad terms, the infield is a horizontal place, and the outfield is vertical. Grounders move from left to right on our televisions, and anything that touches grass beyond the infielders' reach moves mostly from far to near. Elmore's play was a hybrid, an application of the infielder's talents—quick glovework, sharp pivots, a practiced knowledge of spin and bounce—that resolved itself vertically. He was away from his usual bearings, out on a clear patch of turf, and his throw ran nearly parallel to the foul line. It shared something, stylistically, with an impromptu game of catch whose participants were spaced according to whim, not the field's usual geometry. For all of the science that preceded and allowed for it—the stuff that explains what Elmore was doing out there in the first place—the play was void of any traditional directive but get the out.

Baseball will hopefully, and likely, evolve an answer to the shift in its generational way, independent of any action by the commissioner. In a few years, the ascendant hitters may all be adept at slicing a pitch the other way, and otherwise pull-happy mashers might drop pillowy bunts by the dozens. The game is not going to stop, because it never does. For now, though, we should recognize the shift not as a suppressive scourge or cold directive but as a novel bit of fun. It is as adventurous as it is analytical. It's new. Baseball can always use more of that.

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