Monday, January 26, 2015

An unworkable fix to a nonexistent problem

Rob Manfred is now officially commissioner.
Sunday was Rob Manfred's first day as commissioner of baseball, and he opened the day with a notion apparently designed to make me miss Bud Selig: Banning defensive shifts.

Manfred didn't get detailed in his interview with ESPN's Karl Ravech on how this was supposed to work,  but the rationale is that runs scored have dropped the past few years as the shifts have become more commonplace, and he believes the fans want more runs.

Which they might. I don't necessarily need to see more runs, but I'm far from being representative of the masses. I would like to see more action, which is not exactly the same thing. I'd like to see fewer strikeouts and fewer walks, more balls in play and more baserunning. That might not result in more runs; it may well result in fewer runs.

I do believe this: The rise in the shifts that trouble Manfred (or, perhaps, that trouble certain people around Manfred)  and the rise in plate appearances that don't result in balls in play that concerns me, have a common cause: Sabermetrics.

Baseball's strategists know more about their game now than they did 30 or even 15 years ago because they have increasingly become open to the insights of the bookish outsiders. Those who reject analytics put themselves at a competitive disadvantage, and they increasingly fail and will continue to.

If the shifts have indeed disrupted the game's equilibrium -- which, as I'll get into shortly, is doubtful -- that equilibrium will recover. Hitters will either learn to "hit 'em where they ain't" or go the way of Jason Kubel, whose inability/unwillingness to adjust helped force him out of the game. ,

The rise in strikeouts is the more likely cause of a drop in offense. The prevailing belief of sabermetricians for decades was that strikeouts are just outs, that there was no real disadvantage to them. Indeed, because strikeouts rise with home runs and walks, a team actually benefits from having players who do all three things. I put it thusly some 20 years ago when complaining about Tom Kelly's obsession with making contact: Strikeouts are the exhaust of the power engine. You want home runs, you're going to get strikeouts as well.

That was a useful insight as long as nobody was acting on it. But last year the strikeout rate exceeded 20 percent. (It was 12.5 percent in 1980). The researchers told teams that they were too worried about hitter strikeouts; teams stopped considering that when evaluating players; strikeouts rose; and now offense is declining.

I suspect the shifts will, in time, work against the strikeouts. The shifts are employed largely against power hitters, pull hitters. If they are forced to go the other way, they'll have to cut down their swings. They'll make more contact. Hit a few balls into the vacated gaps, the defense will stop shifting,

There's no need to order fielders to stand somewhere that they know the hitter isn't going to hit the ball. The game will solve the problem, if there is a problem, itself.

1 comment:

  1. Then you might as well disallow OFers to play shallow in the 9th inning when the winning run is on 3rd...or disallow the intentional walk on the notion that MAYBE the hitter will do some damage (assuming he makes contact) Why stop there? Disallow trying to throw anyone out who has the audacity to try and steal a base... Do not allow anyone to strike out either as that is an advantage for the defense.. Etc. etc.