Should the defensive shift be banned? Not so fast, say MLB managers at winter meetings

first_imgLAS VEGAS — For some of the baseball lifers here at the winter meetings, “shift” has become a bad word. It’s as if the “f” isn’t even there. Those folks, assuredly, were thrilled to hear the news last week that commissioner Rob Manfred — who has talked openly about the possibility of banning defensive shifts for a long time — now might have enough support among the owners to make the rule change a reality.  Ned Yost is one of those baseball folks. I asked the Royals’ manager his thoughts on the potential rule change during his media availability session Tuesday afternoon. I didn’t even finish the question before Yost jumped in. “Eliminate them. Do it now. It’s crazy. You’ve got my vote. I don’t like them,” Yost said. “I don’t like the shift. I really like the idea of two players on each side of the field, you’ve got to keep one foot in the dirt. For me, the shift has eliminated the single. HOT STOVE TRACKER: Deals, rumors from the winter meetings “The majority of the hitters, I’d say 90 to 95 percent, say, ‘To heck with it, I’m going to lean back and try to hit a homer or a double.’ Our number for singles as a baseball league last year dropped way down. And you just lose strategy with that, you lose the ability to steal bases. You lose the ability to hit and run or bunt if you want to. A lot of people don’t like the bunts. Frankly, I like bunts. I like that different kind of game. And I just think that (the) shift, it makes the game much, much more boring in my opinion.”Not everyone shares Yost’s opinion, of course. In fact, most managers didn’t. Just 11 minutes later, Brewers manager Craig Counsell — sitting on the other side of the room, maybe 100 feet away — was asked the same thing. He’s of the opinion that this is one rule change that will never happen. At least, he hopes it won’t.”I’ll just say, I don’t see the sense in banning the shift at all. I don’t see how it improves the game,” Counsell said. “I think it’s a strategic part of the game that is one of the things that makes our game fun, is let’s find strategies to win baseball games. That’s why we love the game, because we spend hours — that’s why you guys have jobs, because we talk about strategy all the time, so if you want to eliminate all the strategies, I don’t know, you guys better think about that.”It wasn’t just the current managers talking about the potential rule change, of course. Commissioner Rob Manfred has floated the idea of banning shifts. Safe to say opinions at the Winter Meetings are split on the subject.Ned Yost: In favor of a ban.Craig Counsell: Not in favor of a ban.— Ryan Fagan (@ryanfagan) December 12, 2018A couple hours after Yost and Counsell offered their conflicting opinions, Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa was asked about the potential rule change, too. La Russa, now a Red Sox executive, was doing a Q&A session after a special showing of an MLB Network documentary on Dennis Eckersley — a fantastic hourlong film set to debut on Thursday night, by the way — and he was asked by a member of the audience.”If you ban the shift, you’re penalizing the information and the use of it,” La Russa said. “But at the same time, our game has gotten to where the action is more limited. That’s one of the things the Red Sox did, they put the ball in play, they ran the bases, and if you get more baserunners, it’s more entertaining. We don’t want to lose the entertainment value.”He continued:“We actually had this discussion amongst us old-timers and there was a real mix. Some of the old-timers said, ‘Hey, you use the information,’ and some of us think you put two infielders on each side of the base, shade them up the middle if you want to. That’s one that’s being debated right now. It’ll be interesting to see what the powers decide.”It certainly will be interesting. It was interesting to hear what other managers thought, too. Not every manager at the winter meetings was asked during the media sessions, but more than half were. Here’s a sampling of their best quotes. A.J. Hinch, AstrosA manager who uses shifts often, Hinch would love to keep them. “Where do you think I fall on that one? (Laughter) You know what, I respect the commissioner’s view and his wish for more offense, and I also sort of appreciate the humor of (Rangers slugger) Joey Gallo, who wants it for Christmas, but it’s tough. I think our game is built around a lot of things, and it’s funny: Change is not necessarily the strength of our game, and when things changed toward the shift a little bit, we fought it, and now we’re going to change unshifting if that’s the case. But we’ll play by the rules whatever we’re told to.”I’m not sure — I’m convinced that unshifting however many feet that we have, or I’ve heard people talk about the depths of the infield or where we play our second baseman or what the rules are going to apply, is that going to produce more batting average? Maybe. More runs? Debatable. A more energized and entertaining game? I doubt it.Dave Roberts, DodgersRoberts is a believer in the value of the defensive shift. He was asked if baseball would be a better game without the shift. “You’re going to try to get me in trouble with the commissioner? In my opinion, I think that — I would say just kind of in a vacuum without the shift. But I still believe the players should be able to — it should be important enough to get on base to be able to manipulate the bat and hit the ball the other way or to lay a bunt down, so I will say as far as offensively, philosophically, for us, this year, we’re going to get better at that. When you see one player on the left side of the infield and you’re down a run, we’re going to challenge our guys to find a way to hit it over there, but you’ve got to do that by practicing, so it’s going to be a priority for us to get better at that.”Gabe Kapler, PhilliesKapler was asked about the shift in the context of a story on the subject written by The Athletic’s Jayson Stark — who was named the J.G. Spink Taylor Award recipient this year and will be inducted into the Hall of Fame. “Let me say this: I have no idea where it’s going, but I certainly agree with some of Jayson’s points, which is players would — probably a lot of players would probably appreciate it, especially the hitters who continue to hit into those shifts. You know, Jayson made a point about launch angle and strikeouts, so if you’re trying to beat the shift, the way to beat the shift is through putting the ball in the air and hitting the ball over the shift, and that’s led to an increase in strikeouts. I’m not sure I believe that’s true.“I do believe that players would prefer not to have to deal with it. From a pitcher’s perspective, I think a lot of pitchers would prefer they not have to deal with it. From a leadership perspective, a manager’s perspective, a coach’s perspective, the more ability that you have to be creative, I think the more opportunity you have to get a competitive advantage, if you work really, really hard. So some managers might say — I don’t have my thoughts fully baked on this yet, but some managers might say I might not have a competitive advantage. Now, we oftentimes had a hard time with the shift last year. This is not an easy answer. It’s pretty nuanced, actually.”When pressed if he’d be against the rule change: “I think we work within the construct of the rules and we look for competitive advantages within the construct of the rules, so if the rules changed and you had to have two guys on the right side of second base and two guys on the left side of second base, you would just start to get creative.”Again, like, I hate to beat a dead horse here but Jayson illuminated well in the article, maybe you play your shortstop an inch away from second base and you have him moving in a specific direction with the pitch. I’m not sure. But I think there’s a lot of ways to maintain creativity even if the rule changes a little bit.”Terry Francona, IndiansFrancona would stay away from a rule change. “I don’t think you can dictate to teams competitive things, you know what I mean? You hear me say it sometimes, the unintended consequences. I think the game makes its changes (and) sometimes they’re a little slower than maybe you’d like. Hitters are going to adjust. I don’t think we’ve seen it quick enough in our game, but it will happen and you’ll see hitters earning, making players play them more straight up. You know it just hasn’t happened yet.”We went through this with launch angle and . . . that hitters have forgotten the basics of fundamental hitting, but I think you’ll see guys getting back to that, so I hate to reward guys who don’t use the field by making a rule change. If we did that every time, our game would be all over the map.”Kevin Cash, RaysThe Rays have not been afraid to seek any advantage possible, especially including shifts. “It’s good for us, but I do think it’s good. I think that fans to come in, and I know people say that it takes away hits, those guys that are hitting home runs at a record clip right now, it’s not taking away those, but you see more thought. You see more decision-making on at-bats, pitch count, two-strike counts, how guys are moving. I know we pay attention, we know what we’re going to do on a nightly basis shifting. But when we see other teams do stuff against us, we go back after the ballgame and say, ‘What were they thinking? What was the information they had to make that make sense?’ So I’m personally a big fan of shifting and I think we’re going to see it, we’ve already seen the infield take over heavily, I think we’re going to see more outfield shifting.”Charlie Montoyo, Blue JaysMontoyo was Cash’s bench coach last year and was in charge of how and when the Rays shifted. Safe to say he’s not in favor of a ban. “I don’t think they should. They’re big league players. They should make the adjustment. I think they will. Sooner or later they’re going to make an adjustment because they’re the best hitters in the world, so I think they will.”Joe Maddon, CubsHere’s a shocker: Maddon spoke at length about the potential of shifts being eliminated. He is, as he put it, “anti-legislation.””That’s the one — I’ve talked about (how) I really want to be more acquiescent involving change. I’m primarily talking about a pitch clock. Shifting changes, I’m not on board with the fact that you’d eliminate that, legislate no shifting. MORE: Maddon’s bench coach close to becoming O’s manager“I still contend that (if) there’s a part of the game that we don’t like that you want to make better or change, to really focus on that in the minor leagues, (because) those are our next big league players. You could easily identify the heavy left-handed hitter that, with all the analytics, that he’s going to be in trouble. Really work on him learning how to bunt, hit the ball on the ground to the shortstop. I think that’s where it needs to begin. It’s more a technique-driven kind of situation to adjust.“Having said that, to get your guys that have been in the big leagues for four, five or seven years to change, it’s almost impossible, and when you ask them to do that, it looks easy, sitting up top, the game looks slower, it looks easier, but standing sideways at home plate (against a pitcher throwing) 95 (mph) and try to do something you’re totally uncomfortable with is very hard to do.”My answer is no, I would not legislate against the shift. The shift should be organically maneuvered. But if you really want your hitters to be more of a liberal arts method of hitting, work on that in the minor leagues. If the guy is big in — you never bunt in the minor league and you never try to, say, hit and run. You never did that with them. Those are the kind of things that need to be nurtured there so the shift becomes moot and not such a big issue.”Chris Woodward, RangersA first-year manager, Woodward doesn’t see a change happening. “The whole shifting, that’s never going to go away. I’ve heard talks about that; I don’t see how they can do it. Maybe they do it and then we have to adjust. I think it’s up to each of our players to — that kind of goes along with how they’re pitching you is how they’re defending you. I guess Joey (Gallo) is kind of — we did it in LA (while Woodward was coaching with the Dodgers), we put four outfielders out there at one at-bat. We looked at all the information and felt it made the most sense. If he hits a ground ball to left field we’re doing our job.“If you’re doing your job, you’re going to be more efficient in the (strike) zone to hitting the ball in the air. Maybe not as high a trajectory, maybe we’re going to lower that to make him have more opportunity to drive the baseball out of the ballpark, but everybody else is — along those lines, Nomar (Mazara) gets shifted, (Rougned) Odor gets shifted. We’ve got a ton of lefties, (Shin-Soo) Choo gets shifted at times. When it’s there and it’s available, sometimes with two strikes, I think that’s going to be a big one to maybe have that option available.”Bob Melvin, A’sMelvin would opt against a rule change. “I don’t like that. There’s an easy way to combat that: just hit the ball the other way. If you start hitting the ball the other way, getting hits that way, it will shift back around. Baseball is a game of adjustment. I’m not for that. We’ll see where it goes.MORE: A’s Beane voted SN’s 2018 MLB Executive of the Year”Yeah, there’s probably something to (the type of swings players are taking today). It’s a little bit more of a lift to it and guys are probably a little more understanding of (how to do it). When I played, I had no idea mechanically what I was doing compared to some of these guys now, and you have better instruction now, too. But I think what you’re seeing is pitching trying to combat that with more up and down than side to side. Guys that are launch angles are a little bit lower in trying to lift, you’re seeing guys pitch at the top of the zone because it’s tough for them to handle that, and/or depth to a breaking ball. I think the cutter and slider and the changeup, and now you’re seeing more high fastballs and curveballs off of high fastballs to try to combat what the hitters are doing to get the edge.” Mickey Callaway, MetsCallaway was probably just happy to answer a question that wasn’t about potentially trading away Noah Syndergaard. “When it’s a rule I’m in favor of it, because you have to be, so I think that teams that utilize information and dig deeper than other teams have an advantage when you can shift, and if you can shift we’re going to try to take advantage of that. If you can’t, we’re going to have to try to come up with another way to defend.”And I think it won’t be just, go back to the normal positions that we were playing 50 years ago. I think we’re going to have to put our heads together and try to see what we can do that’s creative to take advantage and be better than other teams with the set of rules that used to exist or the new set of rules where everybody has to play on a certain side of the bag. So I kind of look at it (as), no matter what they implement we have to be the best at defending the positions that are allowed to be defended.”last_img