RANTING AGAINST SHIFTS IS FUN BUT, SERIOUSLY, DOES BASEBALL NEED TO DO SOMETHING?

 Bob Dutton

Bob Dutton

   TACOMA, WA. — The attention surrounding the Mariners’ decision to yank Felix Hernandez out of their rotation made it easy to overlook the biting commentary that outfielder Jayson Werth directed last week at baseball’s mushrooming devotion to employing defensive shifts.

   Deservedly so.

   The King’s rapid decline from dominance is easily viewed, at least here in the Pacific Northwest, as a modern Shakespearean tragedy. For years, he was pretty much all that made the Mariners relevant. Now, he’s a liability in a pennant race.  

   But if Hernandez’s career now teeters on his ability (and willingness) to transform himself while marooned as a mop-up reliever, Werth’s own notable 22-year professional career appears over after a lackluster 36-game remedial tour earlier this season at Triple-A Tacoma.

   Say this for Werth: He’s going out swinging.

   “They’ve got all these super nerds in the front office that know nothing about baseball,” Werth ranted to Philadelphia broadcaster Howard Eskin in a recent podcast. “But they like to project numbers and project players.

   “I think it’s killing the game. It’s to the point where (they should) just put computers out there. Just put laptops and what have you, just put them out there and let them play. We don’t even need to go out there anymore. It’s a joke.”

   Oh, there was more.

   “These kids from MIT, Stanford, Harvard, wherever they’re from,” Werth said, “they’ve never played baseball in their life. When they come down to talk about stuff like (defensive shifts, and you ask), `Should I just bunt it over there?’ They're like, `No, don’t do that. We don’t want you to do that. We want you to hit a homer.’”

   There was still more, but you get the idea.

   This is a high-quality rant in that it’s highly entertaining. As a reporter who endured countless Bull Durham/Jeteresque cliche-fests over the years, I enjoyed hearing someone unleash their inner Lee Elia.

   For all that, it’s still a rant, although it’s one worth examining. For while Werth is unquestionably wrong in the micro sense, his larger point is one that many agree with.

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   Mike Franco and I discussed the impact of defensive shifts last Friday in our weekly radio chat. You can give us a listen at 8:30 a.m. every Friday on KLAY (1180 AM) or via online stream at www.klay1180.com

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   First of all: Defensive shifts aren’t new. The age-old decision, say, of whether to have the third baseman guard the line or play off the base is a shift. A no-doubles alignment in the outfield is a shift. And so on.

   All the “super nerds” are doing is refining the concept. Instead of having, say, the middle infielders move a few steps to their left against a left-handed pull hitter, they now shift to more exact locations as determined by spray charts.

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   Not simple spray charts either. Defensive positioning is now based on pitch, pitch location, count, game situation and numerous other factors that a computer or a laptop can crunch in milliseconds.

   By the way, I think Werth is using the word “nerds” in the same manner as I do, i.e., smart people doing things on computers that I’m incapable of doing.

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   Anyway, it works. Not every time but, over the long haul, the numbers are indisputable. Think of a casino, where the house might take a hit now and again but, long term, we all know the house wins.

   Similarly, analytics show that rather than trying to foil the shift by, to use Werth’s example, bunting the other way, a club will, over time, score more runs by trying to hit the ball over the shift. That gets you into launch angle and exit velocity.

   Again, the numbers don’t lie.

   Where it’s harder to knock Werth is in his conclusion: “It’s just not baseball to me. We’re creating something that’s not fun to watch. It’s boring.”

   The argument here is that analytics threaten to reduce the game to an Adam Dunn/Dave Kingman roulette of walk/strikeout/home run. Maybe that appeals to you but, if that’s what happens, I’m with Werth: That’s not fun to watch.

   So what now?   

   I’m not sure we’re yet at the point where legislated change is needed but, even if you disagree, any call for an outright ban on shifts is impractical. What are you going to do? Mark the field with X’s to show where each defender must stand?

   While baseball’s reputation is one of being glacial to change, it has a long history of acting to keep the game in balance. Two examples designed to bolster scoring: Lowering the mound in 1969 and the introduction of the designated hitter in 1973.

   Some suggestions on modifying shifts are already circulating, including a requirement that, when the pitch is delivered, two infielders be positioned on each side of second base and/or all infielders have at least one foot on the infield dirt.

   There are other possibilities, and they’re worth discussing. If you can do it and be as entertaining as Werth, so much the better.