Major League Baseball had a bit of controversy early in the season when Chase Utley – the man responsible for one rule change – was at the heart of a close call regarding a recently changed rule. And when the New York Yankees manager stated he would like to do away with the shift, some eyebrows were raised and hows and whys started to get asked. Brandon Magee wonders why Joe Girardi took an odd position.
On Tuesday, New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi stated that if he was MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred, he would ban infield shifts. Wall Street Journal reporter Jared Diamond, looking for clarification, asked Girardi how that would work. The Yankee manager said that the dividing line would be second base. If Girardi was commissioner and could unilaterally change MLB playing rules, how much of the rule book would need to be modified? Luckily, the 2016 Major League Rule Book is online, so we can see what rules would need to change.
Objectives of the Game
The first section of the Rule Book, Section 1, is the Objectives of the Game. This section lays out the very basic mechanisms of the game. There are two specific objectives that relate to the defense in baseball:
Baseball is a game between two teams of nine players each,
under direction of a manager, played on an enclosed field in accordance
with these rules, under jurisdiction of one or more umpires.
The defensive team’s objective is to prevent offensive players from becoming runners, and to prevent their advance around the bases.
Of course, these are just general objectives, with the rules of play defined more distinctly in the rest of the book.
Playing the Game
Section 5.02 defines the fielding positions for the nine defensive players thusly:
When the ball is put in play at the start of, or during a game, all fielders other than the catcher shall be on fair territory
It further states, in defining the position of the seven players other than the pitcher and the catcher:
(c) Except the pitcher and the catcher, any fielder may station himself anywhere in fair territory.
At this point, looking any further at the rule book leads to dead ends. After all, the problem for any prohibition of any shifts is in that very clear definition. The rule book does not define the placement of players other than the pitching battery.
What would need to change
The first changes to the rule book would be a definition of players other than the pitcher and catcher. While baseball has utilized the terms left fielder, center fielder, right fielder, shortstop, first baseman, second baseman, and third baseman for more than a century, these positions are not defined in the rule book. Which makes sense. After all, the rulebook states that these seven positions can station themselves wherever they would like within fair territory. If the Orioles want to put seven players in the outfield, they are allowed. If the Astros want to make a beautiful wall of ballplayers on the right hand side of the infield, they are free to do so.
Once these definitions are placed in the rule book, then each position would need to be defined further. Given the objective of preventing radical shifts, each position would then need to be defined to a specific area of the field, much like pitchers and catchers are limited by the rules of the game. Defining the exact position where fielders must begin a play could fundamentally change the very basics of defensive play.
Catchers are limited at the start of each pitch to the catcher’s box, an area approximately 80 inches by 43 inches wide, directly behind home plate (as defined by Diagram #2 in Appendix #2). Pitchers must begin their delivery while in contact with the pitcher’s plate (commonly referred to as the rubber), a 24’’ x 6’’ rectangular slab of whitened rubber (as defined by Rule 2.04), 10 inches above and 60’6’’ away from the back end of home plate (as defined in Rule 2.01).
If each infield position was to be defined in similarly narrow fashion, all of the following shifts could be deemed illegal:
- A first baseman holding a runner on the bag
- Double play depth
- Corners playing in for a bunt
- “No doubles” defense
- Infield shading for stolen base defense
- Setting up on the outfield grass for powerful hitters
Defining the area an infielder must start in more broadly would fix the above issue, but would raise the necessary question: Why is a shift with three infielders on one side of the infield less acceptable than any other shift? After all, in all the cases, the defense is attempting to keep the offensive team from scoring. It is the primary objective of the defensive part of the game.
A change of rules to end these shifts only serves to help offensive teams. However, a rules change is not the only way to end the shifting ways of MLB teams. Hall of Fame outfielder Wee Willie Keeler, a left-handed hitter, gave the ultimate answer to the issue of defeating shifts a century ago:
“I have already written a treatise and it reads like this: ‘Keep your eye clear and hit ‘em where they ain’t; that’s all.’”
Keeler wasn’t the only one who knew how to beat shifts. Ted Williams did too. Jimmy Dykes attempted the famous left-hander shift we see so often today in 1941. Williams poked an opposite field double in one at bat. In another, he bunted for a base hit. David Ortiz through the years of shifting against him has occasionally defeated the shift by dropping down a bunt. Sure, it may not be the most menacing thing a batter can do, but they also have one objective… score runs. Scoring runs is easier to do if you can take what the defense gives you.
Girardi is not the first person in baseball to rail against the shift. He won’t be the last. However, changing the rule book to legislate against the shift is at best cumbersome. It is also unnecessary. Shifts are not killing baseball, they are redefining baseball in an ever-shifting battle between the might of the offense and the guile of the defense. It is time for the offense to parry the blow of the shift, not to change the definition of the sport.
Follow Brandon on Twitter @cuzittt.