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Should Major League Baseball ban the shift, or should hitters learn how to beat it?
In baseball, the infield shift is a method of trying to contain hitters by shifting the placement of the infielders to where a particular hitter most commonly sends the baseball. Hitters don’t like it, for obvious reasons.
The question of whether the shift should exist has been floating around for decades, but it’s safe to say it’s far from MLB’s biggest issue right now. If the league and the players’ union do not come to an agreement today (February 28), MLB has decided that the regular season will be delayed and any games missed will not be made up.
However, over the last three months without baseball (the lockout began December 2), the idea of banning the shift has been one of the very few topics of conversation, as the lockout prevents big-league trades, free-agent signings, even contact between team and player.
Last week, Yankees slugger Joey Gallo was quoted complaining about the shift, which led to chaos on Twitter:
Of course, Gallo got a lot of grief for complaining about the shift, as he led MLB with 213 strikeouts last season. He was one of only two players with 200+ strikeouts, and it’s hard to take him seriously when he failed to put the ball in play more than any other player.
The most damning grief came from legendary former Boston Red Sox and Anaheim Angels star Fred Lynn, who tweeted about Ted Williams beating the shift in response to Gallo’s whining.
Lynn also got into the issue in-depth with the Boston Globe‘s Dan Shaughnessy:
“I watch baseball, too,” said the man who hit .331 and was MVP in his rookie season in 1975. “When I played, shortstops and second basemen, if they were going to shift on you, they would wait until the last second. Now they don’t even disguise it. They’re telling you, ‘We’ll give you that, but we’re taking away this.’
“As a hitter, it’s up to me to make an adjustment. They’re not going to adjust the way they play defense if you just do the same thing. I can be hitting the ball on the screws and my exit velocity is great, cool, but they’re outs.
“I have to adjust my thinking. There’s a big hole over there, so how about me going the other way? The onus is on the hitter. It really is. Learn how to hit off-speed stuff the other way. Bunt.
It’s got to be a learned process. You have to teach yourself to go the other way. How do you do that? You practice it. You can get in the cage and turn that machine up pretty fast.
“I was a dead pull hitter before I got to Fenway Park. That’s literally hitting the ball before it gets to the plate. To go the other way, you bring your hands in … you hold back so that the barrel of the bat is in the hitting area for a longer period of time. That’s a foot of coverage. Just make contact and the ball is going to shoot off to the left side. You can make that adjustment, but it takes some work.”
Lynn also made sure to include a little dig at the lockout:
Should MLB ban the shift?
The shift has been around in various forms for a little over a century. At the end of the dead-ball era in the early 1920s, infielders were trying to get a handle on Cy Williams, the National League’s version of Babe Ruth, who slugged for the Chicago Cubs and Philadelphia Phillies.
A 1927 newspaper clipping from The Atlanta Constitution read,
“There was Willie Keeler who said:
‘Hit ’em where they ain’t.’ Which is about what Cy Williams does. The opposing defense shifts practically to the entire right side with Cyrus up and he continues to pole his home runs. He came up with No. 10 recently, putting him ahead of the entire National league field.”
However, the shift became more prominent in baseball discussions during the 1946 season, when Cleveland manager Lou Boudreau was desperate to contain the All-Star Williams, as were the St. Louis Cardinals, who took the World Series from the Sox that year.
The shift didn’t work; Williams led MLB in runs scored (142), walks (156), on-base (.497) and slugging (.667) percentages, OPS (1.164), OPS+ (215), and total bases (343). He was that year’s American League MVP.
In 150 games that season, Williams only struck out 44 times. In his 19-year career, he never struck out more than 64 times.
Of course, the game Gallo plays today is different than the one Teddy Ballgame knew; strikeouts are through the roof nowadays, and the strategy is all-or-nothing. But if MLB players want to ban the shift, the MLB Strikeout Leader is probably not the best person to lead the charge.