Skip to content

Dieter Kurtenbach: MLB’s shift ban is the first good thing to come from the lockout

This Major League Baseball lockout has gone on far too long, it’s poised to go on for weeks, perhaps months, yet, and I fear the collateral damage of it will relegate the sport to a second tier in American society.

But there is at least one good thing to come out of this ridiculous fight over fans’ money:

When baseball comes back, the beginning next season.

With no apologies to all the baseball purists out there, but this move has been a long time coming. Will it make baseball better? Not on its own. But the shift was a scourge upon the sport that needed to be spurned and I’m thrilled that it’s gone.

The specific wording of the shift ban isn’t yet public, but I imagine it will work an awful lot like the rules I have suggested for close to a half-decade, which just so happen to be the rules that were tried in the minor leagues last year.

It’s pretty simple: All four infielders have to be on the dirt when the pitch is thrown and two players have to be on each side of second base.

Seems logical to me.

The shift needs to be banned because the shift works. Yes, it has been around forever — Ted Williams and all that — but in this era of big data, teams had gone overboard in using it.

In 2016, teams shifted on 14 percent of plate appearances, per MLB’s Statcast data. Five seasons later, that number is 31 percent.

Think that’s just managers following their gut? Of course not.

Back in 2016, the Astros were the shift kings at 34 percent, with only Houston and the Rays shifting on more than 25 percent of plate appearances. Last year, only six teams to shift more than 25 percent of the time. The Dodgers shifted on 54 percent of plate appearances last season.

A team that’s shifting more than they played their actual positions? How can you tell me this doesn’t require intervention?

Of course, most of these shifts across baseball come against lefties. It’s downright unfair at this point: Lefties saw the shift on 52.5 percent of their plate appearances last season, and 18 of 30 teams shifted 50 percent of the time or more against them.

I can already hear your complaints now: “Just adapt… Hit it the other way.”

Perhaps that would have worked when pitchers were topping out at 88 miles per hour.

But “hit it the other way” or “just bunt” is a million times easier said than done in an era of power pitching where every team has a couple of guys who can hit 100 and are jamming hitters inside on nearly every pitch.

I’d argue hitters have already adapted to the shift, and it’s made the game far less entertaining. Teams have decided that it’s easier to hit it over shifting defenses than away from them. Welcome to the launch-angle revolution and a game where every plate appearance seems to end on one of the three true outcomes, a walk, a strikeout, or a home run.

This sport needs action, athleticism, and ball-in-play intrigue. Walks, strikeouts, and homers don’t provide it. This is supposed to be a thinking person’s game, but the three true outcomes are blunt instruments.

I’d prefer to see a player try to stretch a single into a double. Driving home a runner from second with a single. Great defensive plays, where we describe fielders as “ranging”. That’s the good stuff. That’s the baseball we all fell in love with back in our respective eras.

No one is falling for baseball in this new, finesse-and-action-free age. It’s a huge reason why this lockout is still happening — both parties, but especially the owners, are acting as if this is the last big payday the sport will provide. Miss out on this money and there won’t be more coming down the pipeline.

Again, I don’t think eliminating the shift saves baseball from itself, but it certainly can’t hurt.

This game used to be the national pastime — the nation’s premier sport. It hasn’t been that way for a while now, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the sport that’s dying had a long-standing policy of resting on its laurels.

After a flurry of rule changes in the early years of baseball and the first 100 years of Major League Baseball, there has not been a significant adjustment to the way the game is played in nearly 50 years.

The game itself has changed though, and because the rules remained static, teams across the country are now run like hedge funds, which, of course, are notoriously entertaining.

The rules — or lack thereof — are being exploited for wins, but not for the audience’s enjoyment.

The NFL has a competition committee whose goal is to vote on proposed rule changes every year. That committee’s expressly stated goal is that “Each game should provide a maximum of entertainment insofar as it can be controlled by the rules and officials.”

They said that back in 1940, well before televisions were a staple in households.

It’s taken baseball 80 years to follow suit.

Not every rule change the NFL has made has been a winner, but that’s not the point. You adapt or die, and the NFL is always willing to adapt to the systems and trends of the day to better serve their audience.

There will always be naysayers. You could have argued that instead of allowing the forward pass, football teams should just “run the ball the other way”. In basketball, the 3-point arc could have been met with cries to “just be a better inside scorer”.

But both rule changes — and so many more I’d be happy to email you about — have made their sports better for the players and the fans alike.

I’m not naive. I know that shortstops are still going to stand right behind second base when a lefty is at the plate. But at least we won’t have four outfielders clogging up all the hitting lanes.

Banning the shift in baseball should make the game fairer to left-handed hitters, force pitchers to be more diverse with their offerings, and create more action in the field of play.

That’s the kind of baseball I want to see. That’s a better game. A fairer game. A more entertaining game. And for those of us who truly love baseball, isn’t that the sport that we all want to watch again soon?

Tampa Bay Rays infielders Vidal Brujan, left, and Ji-Man Choi set up in a defensive shift during a baseball doubleheader against the Cleveland Indians Wednesday, July 7, 2021, in St. Petersburg, Fla. (AP Photo/Steve Nesius)

Tampa Bay Rays infielders Vidal Brujan, left, and Ji-Man Choi set up in a defensive shift during a baseball doubleheader against the Cleveland Indians Wednesday, July 7, 2021, in St. Petersburg, Fla. (AP Photo/Steve Nesius)

Leave a Comment