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Verducci: baseball should think about an “illegal defense” rule to combat shifts

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I suppose General Cornwallis hated it and considered it unsporting for the Continental Army to hide behind rocks and trees and stuff rather than march in formation and fire from established lines during the Revolutionary War. I doubt he proposed some formal rule change about it. But when it comes to baseball, some folks aren’t as easy-going and open to change as the 18th century British Army was.

Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci writes about the prevalence of defensive shifts and talked to many people around baseball who are frustrated by them. He then concludes that something should be done about them. Or, at the very least, we should think about doing something about them:

Support of an “illegal defense” rule – or at least the consideration of it – is gaining some traction in baseball. Such a rule might stipulate, for instance, that you cannot have three infielders on one side of second base. A shortstop would be able to shift as far as directly behind second base on a lefthanded hitter, but no farther.

Is it time for such a rule? My gut reaction is that it is time to at least think about it.

This is stupid for a host of reasons:

    • Shifts stop singles. They don’t stop doubles, they don’t stop homers. They stop singles. So while, yes, shifts have led to a lower batting average, they do not necessarily translate to lower offense. Big bad power hitters’ power numbers are not being hobbled by shifts.
    • What’s really hobbling offense — and making the game one of increasing inactivity — are the massive increases in strikeouts. I don’t have any game film or spreadsheets ready at the moment, but last I checked a shift doesn’t affect strikeout rates. Maybe we should look at how umps are calling balls and strikes on lefties these days (eyeballing it, my verdict is: poorly) or, you know, encourage hitters to be a bit more selective and shorten up their swings;
    • Shifts reward teams with athletic and versatile players, both in the form of defenders who can play out of traditional position and hitters who can hit to all fields. I bet I don’t have to go back too far in Verducci’s archives to see complaints about slow, lumbering take-and-rake dead-pull hitters, inflated offensive numbers and teams not focusing on defensive skills being baseball’s biggest problem. Now it’s this.

But more fundamentally, Verducci — who is considered by many, either on the merits or by virtue of his high-profile job, to be baseball’s top analyst — should know better than anyone that contexts in baseball change all the damn time. Dead ball, crazy ball in the 1930s, station-to-station ball of the 50s, base-stealing and new deadball in the 60s through the 80s and back to crazy ball in the 90s. It’s now swinging back to pitching and defense. Hitters will adjust again, just as they always do, and the cycle will continue ever-onward. Messing with the Rules the way Verducci suggests here is to mess with one of the sport’s greatest traits: evolution and changes over a long timeframe, rewarding those fans who see it happening.

Verducci correctly notes that there have been rules changes in the past such as outlawing the spitball, lowering the mound and installing the DH. But the spitball and DH weren’t solely about offense — the spitball was a safety issue and the DH was in part to boost sagging attendance, which is not a problem today — and lowering the mound was about uniformity and combatting some team’s unfair advantages as much as it was about boosting offense (some mounds, like Dodger Stadium, had been made crazy high). Strike zone rules and interpretations had a LOT to do with low offense in the past as well.

If, as was the case leading up to those alterations of the game, there are other, structural reasons for a rule change, cool, let’s talk about them. But let’s not make as radical a change as the institution of some “illegal defense” rule simply because offense is temporarily down. To do so would be wrongheaded and reactionary. It would constitute the validation of a temper tantrum over some short term frustration on the part of some lefthanded hitters who are no longer getting what they used to get.

Matt Wieters is close to signing with the Washington Nationals

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 02: Matt Wieters #32 of the Baltimore Orioles connects on a two-run home run in the fourth inning against the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium on October 2, 2016 in the Bronx borough of New York City.  (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
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Jon Heyman reports that the Nationals are closing in on a deal with catcher Matt Wieters. Joel Sherman of the New York Post reports that it’s a two-year deal. UPDATE: Ken Rosenthal reports that the deal is for two years, at $21 million. There is an opt-out for him after year one. He will get $10 million in 2017 and, if he returns in 2018, he’ll get $11 million.

Wieters was not expected to go this long without signing, but his market, which many thought would be robust, never materialized. The Nats had been rumored to be interested for months, but they were apparently waiting to swoop in late and get what one presumes will be a bargain.

Wieters, 30, finished last season hitting .243/.302/.409 with 17 home runs and 66 RBI in 464 plate appearances. The Nationals currently have Derek Norris and Jose Lobaton, so who falls where in the catcher fight in Washington is unclear, but one presumes that Wieters getting a two-year deal puts him at the top of the depth chart.

Sergio Romo experienced some difficulty in the past couple of years

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - OCTOBER 11:  Sergio Romo #54 of the San Francisco Giants walks off the mound after allowing an RBI double in the ninth inning of Game Four of the National League Division Series against the Chicago Cubs at AT&T Park on October 11, 2016 in San Francisco, California.  (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
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Ken Rosenthal has an interesting story up about Sergio Romo as he begins spring training with his new team, the Los Angeles Dodgers.

There is some fun stuff about his family, all Dodgers fans from southern California, but the more notable stuff is about Romo himself, who has dealt with a lot more than has been reported over the past couple of seasons. The loss of three of his four grandparents is a big one, as it has thrust the mantle of head of the family on Romo in ways that he was not fully prepared for. There are also allusions to personal and psychological problems Romo has experienced — there is a vague suggestion of alcohol or maybe just late nights out and perhaps depression, but he is not specific about it — which he worked on with the help of friends and teammates on the Giants and which he now has overcome.

There’s always more going on the lives of baseball players than we as fans know.