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.

Brewers fans gave Josh Hader a standing ovation after he apologized for offensive tweets

Josh Hader
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Brewers reliever Josh Hader received a standing ovation from the crowd at Miller Park during Saturday’s 4-2 win over the Dodgers. In the seventh inning, the 24-year-old southpaw took the mound for the first time since Major League Baseball discovered a slew of racist, homophobic, and misogynistic tweets the player had posted in 2011-12. He was given a protracted round of applause from the home crowd, many of whom stood to loudly cheer before, during, and after the pitcher’s two innings of relief.

The appearance — and the overwhelmingly positive reaction it inspired — followed another apology from Hader after he met with his teammates and coaches and underwent his first round of sensitivity training on Friday. When asked to explain how his beliefs had evolved over the last seven years, he told reporters, “They were never my beliefs. I was young. I was saying stuff out of just ignorance and that’s just not what I meant.” He also revealed that he apologized to his teammates in private and hoped they realize he’s not the same person now, though he failed to publicly address any specific ways in which he had changed his thinking and behavior for the better.

It goes without saying that the response to Hader’s return on Saturday wasn’t a good look for the Brewers or their fans. The fact that the pitcher had some old, vile tweets exposed doesn’t make him a victim deserving of sympathy, nor does an ambiguous apology merit a pat on the back (let alone something as enthusiastic and approving as a standing ovation). Over the last week, there seems to have been a few missed opportunities to speak out about the importance of inclusivity and support for minorities, women, and members of the LGBTQ+ community; instead, far more emphasis has been placed on reassuring Hader’s teammates and Major League Baseball at large that the tweets “don’t resemble the person [he] is now.”

It’s certainly possible that the fans in attendance on Saturday were both excited to see Hader return to the mound and cognizant of the long road he has ahead of him as he continues to make amends for his past actions. But that kind of nuanced reaction gets easily misconstrued, and it’s clear that Hader took the applause as a sign that Milwaukee’s fans had forgiven him for the tweets and were ready to move past them.

“It means a lot,” Hader told the media after his performance. “Having Milwaukee’s support, just knowing that they know my true character. Just forgiving me for my past, because that’s not who I am today.” He added that he’s not entirely sure he’ll receive such a quick and generous understanding from fans once the team hits the road on Thursday. Hopefully, he’s right.