Must baseball “change or die?”

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Pete Beatty of Vice Sports has a thought-provoking column up about how baseball cannot become hidebound and beholden to purists if it wishes to maintain its vitality and relevance into the future.

As a general proposition, I totally agree. While I think changes should be made prudently and deliberately — testing things out at the minor league level first, trying the least obtrusive means of solving a problem first before going with more radical innovations, etc. — I think change in the game can be good and should not be rejected simply because something new or different is being proposed. This applies to baseball and everyday life.

But I do take issue with one of the examples Beatty offers in the service of his argument: the suggestion by Rob Manfred that baseball may consider a rule against defensive shifts, which we have discussed around here a few times already:

While Manfred only indicated a willingness to consider a ban on extreme defensive realignments, baseball traditionalists immediately freaked out. Of course, that baseball superfans don’t care for (even the suggestion of the possibility of future) change is less news than a law of nature—if you revise it, they will complain.

While I agree with Beatty’s notion that innovation should be explored and embraced, the shift thing is not an instance of innovation being shouted down by purists. Quite the opposite, actually. Extreme defensive shifting is innovation. No, it’s not a rule change and yes, it’s been around a long time — Boudreau shifted on Williams back before your daddy was born — but the degree to which it has been employed in recent years is most definitely an innovation. The people who are angry about it are hitters and fans who somehow think it unsporting that the fielders aren’t standing where they have come to expect them to stand over the past 150 years of baseball history.

Indeed, the attitude of those who would seek to ban the shift is far more akin to one of the very examples Beatty holds up as silly, antiquated and quite properly changed in the name of innovation:

In fact, one of the few baseball traditions older than traditionalism is the sport’s track record of reinventing itself. If you think Daisuke Matsuzaka takes too long between pitches, it’s probably for the best that you missed game 3 of the Atlantics versus Excelsiors series in 1860, when the starting pitchers combined for 665 pitches in three innings. In the seminal 1845 rules of baseball, there were no such things as called balls and strikes. Batters were free to lay off as many bad pitches as they wanted.

Unsurprisingly, the golden era of 100-pitch innings didn’t last long, because it made baseball no fun to watch or play.

That old, thankfully abandoned rule was all about hitters demanding that they be given a ball that they can properly drive and the notion that it was unsporting and wrong for a pitcher to attempt to frustrate the batters’ intention. When one thinks about it, that’s not unlike a lumbering lefty’s lamentations about grounding the ball to the far right of second base and, somehow, quite unsportingly, being thrown out on a 6-3 play.