Defensive shifts are becoming increasingly common throughout Major League Baseball. The Twins employ infield shifts — defined as having three infielders on one side of second base — at a rate near the top of MLB, and they have a prime opportunity this weekend with the Rangers and ultra-pull hitter Joey Gallo in town. With shifts becoming increasingly common, it’s fair to ask these questions: Are they bad for baseball, and if so should they be banned in some form?
First take: Michael Rand
I’m torn on this question because in some ways, a shift is just good strategy and good defense. As you wrote recently, Chris, the Twins have held opponents to a significantly lower OPS when employing a shift this season vs. playing conventional defense. Why punish or see as a negative something that is smart?
But the consequences of the shift — some intended, some not — are not aesthetically pleasing. The MLB walk rate is higher when shifts are employed. And entering the weekend, the cumulative batting average in baseball was just .245 — a number that, over a full season, would be the lowest in almost 50 years. Shifts certainly are influencing that number.
Shifts are making it harder to score runs and prolonging games. Those things are bad for baseball, at least from the standpoint of a typical fan, and if it’s bad for baseball a ban doesn’t seem unreasonable.
Chris Hine: I used to be against banning shifts. As far as I was concerned you could place the seven fielders anywhere you want. But after becoming disenchanted with baseball over the past few years because of how painfully boring it is, I’m for creating more action in the game, and if banning shifts does that, I’m not going to say no.
Of course, if there are more hits and more runs it might lead to longer games with more pitching changes. So do you really think it would accomplish the goal of making baseball a more entertaining product?
Rand: I think in combination with other changes, banning shifts could help baseball.
Lance Lynn might not want to hear this, but a strict pitch clock is the obvious next step. I’ve been on a trip this week watching a bunch of minor league games, and the pace thanks to the clock is wonderful.
Pick up the pace and add offense and baseball is back in business.
Hine: I’m with you on the pitch clock. That needs to happen regardless of what the players think. I might enact that before I try banning the shift. The pitch clock doesn’t affect how the game is played. It’s the same game only sped up. Banning shifts would alter strategy and I’m not sure how much good it would do. The average is game time is down four minutes to 3:04 this season. That’s not enough.
Rand: It will be interesting to see how a lot of sports respond to some of the consequences of analytics. I don’t think they make the NBA (more threes), NFL (short passing) or MLB (more walks and strikeouts with fewer runs) more fun to watch.
Last word: Chris Hine
If their team wins, fans won’t mind. If the Twins turn into a perennial contender and they shift a lot, fans likely won’t care even if they’re anti-shift. Unfortunately not every team that shifts or embraces analytics can be a winner.
More Rand: startribune.com/RandBall
More Hine: startribune.com/NorthScore