The future of baseball part IV: the rest

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May 22, 2017 by jessepell

Defensive shifts in Major League Baseball could soon have regulations. (Courtesy of Denis Poroy/Getty Images)

Written by Jesse Pelletier

This segment concludes my four-part foretelling of baseball’s future. The first three parts looked into my favorite (and least favorite) trends from hitting and pitching, while this piece will explore the notable rest. I’ll start with fielding, an otherwise boring topic if it weren’t for…

The Shift

Fewer trends have developed as quickly as the defensive shift; there were five times as many shifts in 2014 as there were in 2010. The shift has been prevalent in a less organized fashion for the greater half of a century, but the availability of spray-chart data has changed the way the shift is executed.

Older shifts for left-handed batters simply shifted everyone evenly towards the first base side. The third baseman would play approximately where the shortstop plays, the shortstop somewhere between second base and where the unshifted second baseman would play, and the second baseman in shallow right field.

So what about the shift is changing? To start, today’s shift tends to keep the shortstop on the left side of second base while the third baseman plays to the right side of second base. This makes sense as it allows at least one fielder to still play his true position. More and more shifts are executed like this, and I expect the exact share to approach 90% in the next two years.

Joe Maddon predicted in 2014 that the shift would be the norm and a traditional defensive alignment would become an anomaly. It’s hard to disagree with Maddon. I see the shift being the norm by 2020, perhaps being executed on 85-90% of left-handed pull-hitter plate appearances. This is bad news for Commissioner Rob Manfred, who has said he would consider adding rules against the shift.

Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon, probably saying “Ha! Rules against the shift? What a joke, Manfred!” (Courtesy of Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune)

Adding rules against the shift is never going to happen. Ever. If it is going to be illegal, it has to be quantifiable. How do you quantify a shift? Do you tell a fielder that he can’t deviate from a traditional defensive alignment by more than eight feet to either side? And how do you quantify where the traditional defensive alignment is? Perhaps we just say that the shortstop and third baseman have to stay on the left side of second base? And if we start seeing lines in the infield bounding where the infielders can be before the bat hits the ball I will be done with baseball. Mark my words.

The approach to beating the shift has evolved in a way that seems backwards to me. I would’ve guessed we’d be trying to hit around the shift, and that’s what everyone else was thinking in the shift’s early days. Now, prominent hitters including Albert Pujols, Moises Alou and Adrian Gonzalez have spoken against this idea. After Pujols failed to beat the shift with a bunt in 2003, Alou told him not to embarrass himself like that. Ouch.

I really thought I’d be writing about how we would see more opposite-field hitting in the future, and now I’m not so sure I can honestly say that. Those aren’t just your average hitters bashing the opposite field approach. I think some hitters will be able to pull it off, but I don’t think it will be the norm. If it ever did become the norm to hit opposite field, kids would have to come up through the system having learned it from a young age. It could be ten to twenty years before the average hitter has that skill set.

The Replay

Replay didn’t exist for most of baseball’s history. Now, we’re seeing multiple replays in every game. Every stolen base, every close play at first and every time a runner may have popped off the base we see a coach challenge.

On the one hand, it eliminates some mistakes made by umpires. I’m all for that. On the other hand, it takes a lot of time. In an age where everyone is so concerned with making the games shorter, it’s interesting that replay is being used in more and more scenarios. Plus, at a certain point, why do we even have umpires besides the one behind home plate? We’re just reviewing everything anyways, right?

I, like many of you, am not in favor of exclusively using replay. Umps might occasionally get calls wrong, but the amount of time it takes to review every play and make an irreversible decision would take much more time than reviewing only a few plays more closely. The umps gotta stay and replays can stay, too.

If replays take so much time, how do we make the game shorter? There have been a lot of ideas, but how about we just take less time between pitches? My guess is the automatic intentional walk eliminated about a minute from the average game. The average time between pitches is probably 30 seconds. Cap it at 20 seconds and I bet you shave ten minutes from every game instantly. Does a pitcher really need 30 seconds or more to decide what to throw? And does a batter need to step out after every pitch? I really don’t think your batting gloves need to be adjusted again, just saying.

You could eliminate commercials between the top and bottom halves of each inning, but something tells me that will never happen. If they really cared that much about shortening games, maybe it would. However they decide to shorten games, my guess is that it won’t be from reducing the use of replay. And I’m fine with that.

The Interleague Schedule

Mike Piazza (left) and Roger Clemens (right) exchange words after Clemens threw a broken bat piece in Piazza’s direction during the 2000 World Series. (Courtesy of Don Emmert/Getty Images)

I never heard anyone publicly announce that interleague play would expand. It just sort of happened, and it’s one of my favorite developments of recent years. The NBA, NHL and NFL were all doing this long before the MLB adopted it. NFL teams only play 16 games and they still play outside their conference! Why was baseball never doing it?

Who knows. I don’t even care to know because it doesn’t matter. It’s growing now and it’s the way it should be. With each team playing about 50 series per regular season, there is plenty of time to play each team in the same division five times and have room left to play the other conference. It’s how we get those potential World Series matchups and same-city rivalries like the Subway Series.

Interleague play is approaching the equilibrium point. I’d love to see non-divisional matchups be cross-conference as often as in-conference, but something tells me we won’t quite get there for some amount of time. After all, isn’t the point of conferences just to structure the playoffs? I get that teams should play more games within their divisions, but who cares who they play outside the division?

The good news is that we’re already closing in on conference balance at a decent pace. As an example, the Boston Red Sox play in seven interleague series this year. That’s about one per month. My projection is eight more years before interleague play doesn’t even deserve a name. Perhaps wishful thinking in the eyes of some, but I see no reason it won’t happen.

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