There have been rumblings this off-season that the MLB might take steps to reign in defensive “shifting.” Which is a sabermetrics-driven strategy that a lot of teams use to position their fielders in specific places for each batter of the opposing team according to the “spray chart” of that particular hitter.
Let’s say a hitter’s stats say they’re 60% likely to hit it to left-center, 30% likely to hit it down the left field line), and 5% likely to go to the opposite field. With their percentage of opposite-field hits so low, it might make sense to position as many fielders as you can in the spot where they hit the ball the most often. Sort of the defevnsive side of the old “hit ‘em where they ain’t” saw, “position ‘em where they hit ‘em.” In extreme occasions, you might actually position all four infielders on one side of the field, essentially leaving either third or first base un-defended.
Personally, I think this is a cool aspect of the game, it’s another one of the things about baseball that is open-ended, so each team has a lot of room to strategize in a way that makes sense for them. Similarly to how there’s no official measurements for the in-field wall, meaning every stadium has it’s own delightfully unique peccadillos. And how there’s no minimum number of batters faced for a starting pitcher, which enables things like Craig Counsell’s unprecedented “fake start” of Wade Miley in Game 6 of the NLCS last year.
If you shift all your infielders onto one half of the field, you’re by definition leaving the other half totally open. This is a huge risk. So it’s not like there’s no downside to shifting. If the batter is capable of hitting a bloop to the opposite field, or even laying down a bunt, they are almost guaranteed a hit. So I don’t understand the argument that it’s “not fair.” It’s a gamble, and if you’re willing to take it, it can pay off, but it can also bite you. In fact, I’d argue it encourages batters to become more “complete hitters.” Get good enough at bunting and hitting to all fields that the other team doesn’t feel comfortable shifting on you.
The other argument I really don’t understand is that banning the shift will somehow speed up the game. This seems entirely at odds with the idea that shifting is unfair because it’s so hard to get a hit against. Hits make the game take longer. The more hits there are, the more at-bats there are. The more at-bats there are, the more pitching changes there are, and pitching changes are the biggest contributor to “downtime” during a baseball game. The shift actually speeds up the game, because it works.
So while I don’t think that some restriction, like “there must be two infielders on either side of second base at all times” would irreparably harm the game, I do think it’s kind of wrong-headed and silly. I think the shift is another tool in the belt of the team’s coaches and analysts, and like most sabermetrics type trends in baseball, it actually helps smaller market teams compete against the big market teams. Which expands the universe of competitive teams, which is good.