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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.

Albert Pujols passes Mark McGwire with 584th career home run

CLEVELAND, OH - AUGUST 11: Albert Pujols #5 of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim runs out a double during the ninth inning against the Cleveland Indians at Progressive Field on August 11, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. The Indians defeated the Angels 14-3. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
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Angels DH Albert Pujols passed Mark McGwire for sole possession of 10th place on baseball’s all-time home run leaderboard, slugging his 584th career home run in the first inning of Wednesday night’s game against the Blue Jays.

Mike Trout had already slugged a solo home run off of Jays starter Marco Estrada to bring Pujols to the dish. Pujols jumped on an 0-1 cut fastball, sending it out to left-center field, clearing the fence by a few feet.

Pujols, who finished 4-for-4 with the homer and an RBI double, is batting .257/.321/.441 with 24 home runs and 99 RBI on the year. His next target on the home run leaderboard is Frank Robinson at 586.

Zach Britton allowed an earned run for the first time since April 30

BALTIMORE, MD - AUGUST 22:  Zach Britton #53 of the Baltimore Orioles pitches for his 38th save in the ninth inning during a baseball game against the the Washington Nationals at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on August 22, 2016 in Baltimore, Maryland.  The Oriole won 4-3.  (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)
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Orioles closer Zach Britton had appeared in a major league record 43 consecutive games without allowing an earned run, spanning May 5 to August 22. That streak came to an end on Wednesday evening against the Nationals.

The Orioles entered the bottom of the ninth inning holding a 10-3 lead, but reliever Parker Bridwell immediately found himself in hot water. He yielded back-to-back singles to Danny Espinosa and Clint Robinson. He was able to strike out Trea Turner, but walked Jayson Werth to load the bases. Daniel Murphy then crushed his first career grand slam to make it a 10-7 game. That prompted manager Buck Showalter to bring in Britton.

Britton, too, was knocked around. He served up a single to Bryce Harper, followed by a double to Anthony Rendon that scored Harper, pushing the score to 10-8 and ending Britton’s streak. Wilson Ramos reached on a fielder’s choice back to Britton, but the lefty finally finished the game by getting Ryan Zimmerman to ground into a game-ending 4-6-3 double play.

Britton now holds a nice 0.69 ERA with 38 saves and a 61/16 K/BB ratio in 52 innings of work this season.