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An argument against banning the shift

One argument, anyway.

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San Diego Padres v Cleveland Indians Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images

The defensive shift has been executed in baseball since its conception. Why should a ban on the concept emerge just now— over 150 years after baseball’s invention? And I know I sound like some conservative fan who hates any sort of change, but it’s true. As Fred Lynn responded when Joey Gallo complained about hitting against the shift, “They shifted against Ted Williams and didn’t he hit .406?”

The facts

The first fact about the application of the shift in recent years is that it has been disproportionately applied based on the handedness of batters. In 2021, the shift was applied about 31 percent of the time overall, but it was only applied 16 percent of the time against right-handed hitters as opposed to nearly 53 percent of the time against lefties. In 2020 and 2019 the righty/lefty shift split was 22 percent and 51 percent, and 14 percent and 42 percent, respectively. This constant disparity brings up the main point about why banning the shift would be bad for the game of baseball: It would cause an increase in monotony by leading to a greater hits advantage for left-handed players.

One might respond to that by asking: So what? The banning of the shift, yes, would most likely create an uptick in hits per game, a metric that has been consistently dropping on a per year basis in recent years. But what happens when this increase predominantly benefits left-handed hitters? Though it can’t be said that left-handed hitters and right-handed hitters are exactly equal across the board with the shift in play, they present relatively similar numbers, with lefties posting a .313 wOBA on average (based on per team metrics), and righties posting a .326 wOBA. But without being shifted on, on average players improve their wOBA (as long as sample sizes are large enough to collect reliable data).

For example, in 2021 Juan Soto had 288 plate appearances where a shift was on. In this sample, he maintained a .390 wOBA. On the other hand, in Soto’s 343 plate appearance’s without being shifted on by the opponents' defense, the Nationals star put up a .446 wOBA. Obviously, both of these numbers are well above an average wOBA for a player with the shift on or with it off because Soto is one of the best hitters in baseball regardless of the situation, but it still shows a significant increase in the metric when the shift is removed.

Though we cannot make a conclusion off of one players’ change in metrics between circumstances, this is a significant change and is relatively maintained across the board when the shift is on versus when it is not. In the case of right-handed-hitters, such as Mike Trout, Salvador Pérez, and Ian Happ, it is more common that a smaller change is seen when there is a shift in play versus when it is not (or, in Trout’s case in 2021, where his wOBA saw a decrease when the shift was off).

The consequences

All of this goes to say that the shift is disproportionally applied to, as well as disproportionally affects, different players in the game based on their handedness. With the ban on the shift, it is likely that lefties will see a relatively noticeable change in their batting statistics (applied differently across skill levels, of course). Though it is likely that the ban may improve all hitters’ numbers, in our current sample, lefties most often see drastic changes within their statistics with the shift applied and without it.

If the shift were to be banned, and it looks like that will happen in some fashion as soon as 2023, it would create a greater likelihood of left-handed players having a possible one-up on the rest of the league. With less strategy to combat the tendency of the direction of hits, we would see more pulled single through the infield, and less defensive strategy overall. And with this, comes a greater monotony within the game, not one of stifling defense, but one of constant lefty singles that are unlikely to have a grand impact on runs per game.

Now with the last point in this article, I am really going to sound like a baseball purist, but please do not accuse me of such. That said, the fact of the matter is that getting rid of the shift also gets rid of a strategical aspect that has been a constant throughout its many years. If players are confined to certain zones within the infield, how will we see something as miraculous as Mookie Betts’ catch where he moved a single step from where his position card told him to be? Or something like Dustin Pedroia’s crazy back-ups of first? For me, it’s like the three-batter minimum rule. Why take away an aspect of strategy that has always been present, and is an ingrained concept in the mind of every player.

With this change in the shift, I really believe that it takes more strategy and entertainment away from the game than a monotonous line of singles could possibly provide, which is why a potential change that could be implemented by the start of the 2023 season would be detrimental to the equality of production in baseball, its entertainment value, and the whole game in and of itself.

A visual representation on how this can affect Red Sox players

For your viewing pleasure, I have inserted splits for Red Sox players in 2021 against the shift and without it, to give a possible visual on what the elimination of the shift could mean for Boston. The numbers are from Baseball Savant.

Image from Baseball Savant

Notice how almost the entirety of the top-ten most shifted on players are lefties? Yeah, that’s not a coincidence.