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The stupidity of eliminating defensive shifts

Rob Manfred, Commissioner of Major League Baseball, opened his mouth for the first time in his new role. The results weren't thrilling.

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Rob Manfred, new baseball commissioner, sent the baseball-nerd world into a tizzy. He had prepared index cards for the occasion, writing "DON'T SEND BASEBALL NERDS INTO A TIZZY" in Sharpie. He stared at those index cards all night. Then he opened his mouth, and aerosol tizzy came spraying out.

Way to go, Manfred.

The tizzy had to do with Manfred saying he wants more scoring in baseball, and he would consider eliminating defensive shifts to get it. The early returns are in on the new commissioner, everyone! It's not fair to judge the guy after one sit-down interview, but do you remember the feeling when you saw The Phantom Menace trailer for the first time? People bought tickets to Meet Joe Black with actual legal tender, just to watch it. About 45 seconds into it, Jar Jar Binks got his head caught in an electrical field and made a silly, slapsticky noise. And everyone had the same thought: Uh-oh. It was too early to definitively say if the movie was good or bad. There was just a whole lot of uh-oh.

Watch it yourself:

And note that the reviews are already in for the teaser trailer on ESPN's page:


Don't take this for an impassioned argument in favor of shifts, an argument that wants to wax rhapsodic on the strategy's inherent beauty. The shift kind of annoys me, actually, at least aesthetically. For 30 years or so, I had a good idea what was a hit off the bat when watching a game on TV. The last few years, there's been an increase in oh-right-the-shift moments. Shifts are so common that announcers don't always bring them up, and that leads to the camera cutting to a second baseman playing in right field, calmly scooping up a baseball and making an easy play. It's kinda annoying. It's like the camera feed went out and the director decided to cut to a still picture of a scouting report.

No, shifts aren't my favorite part of baseball. They're not the reason I tune in, not even close. Except, here's the more important counterpoint: They're not the reason people tune out, either. There isn't a casual fan out there thinking, "Boy, I'd sure love to watch more baseball, but, ugh, those shifts." They're not the reason the hardcore fan is losing interest, either. No one cares enough either way.

They're a possible Manfred target, though, because of the general idea that baseball needs more offense. Here's the exact quote:

I think the second set of changes is ... related (to modernizing baseball), and that relates to injecting additional offense in the game.

Interesting choice of words. Because I can think of some rule change to help hitters out, and it would literally inject additional offense into the game. Literally!

It's not the idea of eliminating shifts that's so odious, though. It's the idea that Manfred was briefed with a memo titled, "Kids these days like more scoring," and he's apparently willing to screw around with the game to get it. No more shifts. Lower the mound. Move the mound back six feet. Make the baseballs bigger. Make the bats bigger. Dig a pit where the mound used to be and have the pitchers lob the ball out of the pit. Whatever it takes. Did you read the memo? Right there in the title: "Kids these days like more scoring." Make it happen.

That's what the grumbling is about. The new commissioner came in and immediately started talking about different ways to screw with the game. There are demographic concerns about baseball -- the average fan is older than the average football or basketball fan -- so it's not ludicrous to worry about how to appeal to a younger audience. Still, this is a healthy sport, with record attendance and strong regional television ratings. The commissioner coming in and essentially saying The State of the Game is flawed with his first breath? That's a huge red flag. That's a Jar Jar Binks pratfall in the teaser trailer.

To be fair, maybe it was just something that crossed his mind, something he's willing to explore. He wants to be open-minded, and it's the grumbly purists making a big deal about everything, as usual. Maybe he'll listen to smart people telling him that shifts aren't a huge problem. Maybe he'll have an epiphany that the issue people are actually talking about -- the increasing length of baseball games -- will be worse with more offense. A fancy new game clock isn't going to make a difference if teams start averaging closer to five runs a game. Games will get longer with more runs, not shorter.

Mostly, though, the idea behind eliminating defensive shifts is repugnant because it ignores the ebbs and flows of the baseball universe. The game changes and evolves, and that's the inherent beauty of the game. When baseball starts to value speed, the GMs and managers who are a step ahead figure out a way to acquire power. When the rest of baseball catches up to that idea, those GMs and managers start to figure out how to use spray charts to set up their defense. Right now, teams are building teams that are mostly shift-proof. That's the new trend. If shifts actually murder scoring, a new breed of slappy hitters will excel.

Or you'll just see this more often:

Coming in with a sledgehammer to eliminate the shift instead of waiting for the game to catch up, as it always does, appears to be a little baseball-ignorant. That's not a good look for an incoming commissioner. Still, it's a sentence in an interview. It's possible that a tizzy just isn't warranted yet, and we don't have nearly enough information to freak out properly.

We can review the teaser trailer, though. Rob Manfred got in front of a television camera, openly wondered if yousa offense gonna die, and everyone had the same thought: uh-oh.