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.

Carlos Santana left last night’s game with back tightness

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Andrew Miller leaving last night’s Indians-Red Sox game got all the press, but the Indians lost another key player in the game as well: Carlos Santana. He was forced to leave after going 0-for-3. There was no followup announcement after the game, so he’s likely being reevaluated.

Santana is hitting .250/.355/.446 on the year, but he’s been pretty hot of late, hitting .375 with a couple of homers in the past week.

Bruce Bochy calls the Phillies Hector Neris “an idiot”

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On Sunday Phillies reliever Hector Neris hit Buster Posey in the back. Posey thought it was intentional and, after the game, said  “I guess he didn’t feel he could get me out.”

Was it intentional? There’s a lot to suggest it wasn’t. Mostly the game situation: the Phillies had a two-run lead, but Neris was called in with two men on base and hitting Posey put the tying run in scoring position, which is not something a reliever usually wants to do with his first pitch of the game. Beyond that, while Neris and former Giant Eduardo Nunez had a bit of an incident earlier this season (Neris blew a kiss at Nunez after some words), there was no bad blood between Posey and Neris. When the pitch hit Posey in the back Neris seemed to react negatively, as if he didn’t mean to do it, and said as much after the game.

Oh well, it’s not uncommon for guys who get hit to be angry about it, even if it was uninentional. It’s not uncommon for guys who hit someone to say it was an accident, even if it wasn’t. You can file this one in the “unsolved” drawer forever, where it will be forgotten.

Or at least you could until Bruce Bochy weighed in yesterday, after the Phillies left town:

“It wasn’t just a little inside. The same guy — I’ll say it, he’s an idiot. He showed it in Philadelphia when he was having words with (Eduardo) Nuñez, so I think that caused the radar to be up a little bit on what happened there. It wasn’t a glancing blow. It was at his ribs and on the backside of his ribs. I’m not surprised. I would have been upset, too. You never know for sure, but it certainly didn’t look good. Anyway, that’s behind us.”

I guess it was, anyway. The Giants don’t face the Phillies again this year, but remember it for next year.