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.

Bryce Harper sets April record for runs scored

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With four runs scored during Sunday’s 23-5 drubbing of the Mets, Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper set a new April record for runs scored at 32, MLB.com’s Oliver Macklin reports. The record was previously held by Larry Walker, who scored 29 runs for the Rockies in April 1997.

Harper finished 2-for-4 with a pair of walks and a solo home run (off of Mets catcher Kevin Plawecki) on the afternoon. He’s now hitting .391/.509/.772 with nine home runs and 26 RBI on the year.

Anthony Rendon racks up six hits, including three homers, and knocks in 10 runs vs. Mets

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Nationals third baseman Anthony Rendon became the first player in nearly a decade to knock in 10 runs in one game, doing so on Sunday afternoon at home against the Mets. Rendon went 6-for-6 with three home runs along with the 10 RBI. It’s Rendon’s first time achieving any of the three feats — six hits, three homers, 10 RBI — individually in a game.

The Nationals trounced the Mets 23-5. In total, they hit seven homers. Along with Rendon’s three, Matt Wieters hit two while Bryce Harper and Adam Lind hit one each. Wieters had four RBI; Ryan Zimmerman, Michael Taylor, and Lind knocked in two each. The Nationals have now scored double-digit runs in four out of their last six games.

Angels outfielder Garret Anderson was the last player to drive in 10 runs in one game, achieving the feat on August 21, 2007 against the Yankees. Rendon is the 13th player since 1913 to drive in 10 runs in a single game and only the third to do it this millennium.

There were four six-hit games from individual players last season, eclipsing the aggregate total of three from 2010-15. The last player to have six hits, including three home runs, in one game was the Dodgers’ Shawn Green on May 23, 2002 against the Brewers. The only player to have six hits, including three homers, and 10 RBI in a game was Walker Cooper of the 1949 Reds.

The last team to score at least 23 runs in a game was the Rangers on August 22, 2007 against the Orioles when they won 30-3. Sunday’s contest was the seventh time this millennium a team has scored at least 23 runs and the 47th dating back to 1913. The only other time Mets pitching had allowed 23 runs in a game was on June 11, 1985 against the Phillies.

Things keep going wrong for the Mets. Noah Syndergaard started Sunday’s game after refusing an MRI for his sore biceps. He lasted only 1 1/3 innings, giving up five runs, before being pulled with a lat strain. The last-place Mets are now 10-14.