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.

Video: J.D. Martinez hits league-tying 23rd home run

Seattle Mariners v Boston Red Sox
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The Red Sox and Mariners left nothing on the table Friday night, going head-to-head in a series opener that eventually ended 14-10 in the Sox’ favor. Led by Steven Wright and Wade LeBlanc — neither of whom made it past the fifth inning — the teams combined for 34 hits and four home runs, including two moonshots from Seattle’s Nelson Cruz and a five-run rally that gave Boston the edge in the seventh.

In the sixth inning, however, the Red Sox were still scrambling to make up a four-run deficit. Left fielder J.D. Martinez cut it in half with one swing, pouncing on an 89.5-mph fastball from Seattle right-hander Nick Vincent and posting it to dead center field for a two-run shot.

The 427-foot blast was Martinez’s 23rd of the season, tying Mike Trout for the most home runs in the league this year. While he still has a ways to go before eclipsing the career-best 45-HR mark he set in 2017, he’s off to a strong start this season: Entering Friday’s game, the 30-year-old slugger was batting .315/.386/.623 with a 1.009 OPS and AL-leading 55 RBI in 308 PA. He finished Friday’s game 4-for-5 with five RBI, just one triple shy of hitting for the cycle.

Heading into the All-Star Break, both Martinez and Trout still have some competition for the home run title. Jose Ramirez is sitting at 22 homers, while Nelson Cruz and Khris Davis are tied at 20 apiece.