I hate the shift. But I hate it more that MLB’s trying to get rid of it

Detroit Free Press

Carlos Monarrez | Detroit Free Press

There’s an old joke. Two people are eating at a restaurant. One says, “The food here is terrible.” The other replies, “Yes, and the portions are so small.”

I thought of that joke Thursday when Major League Baseball announced several rule changes in the minors this season, including eliminating the shift at the Double-A level. I’ve always kind of hated the shift because it seemed to give the defense an unfair advantage based on analytics. But I hate it even more that baseball is trying to legislate it out of the game.

What it boils down to for me is that this rule is messing with one of the oldest axioms in baseball: Hit it where they ain’t. Because that’s the essence of baseball.

What’s bothered me more about the shift is baseball’s general unwillingness to thwart it by doing crazy, outlandish things like using the bunt. Yes, I said the B-word, which is definitely one of the worst four-letter words you can use in pro ball.

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In this era of highly specialized roles, it would practically be an affront to ask a power hitter to bunt. Clutch my pearls! No, sir! Instead, just have him hit it to a second baseman standing in shallow right field. Ah, much better.

MLB also will implement other changes in the minor leagues, which it now controls entirely, like larger bases and a pick-off rule designed to improve the game through more action and better pace of play.

There’s no telling if any of the rules will make it to the majors. But the fact MLB is already thinking about it worries me because I’m pretty sure the data will tell league officials what they already suspect: Killing the shift will raise batting averages, which have been on the decline, going from .270 leaguewide in 2000 to .248 and .252, respectively, in the past two full seasons of 2018 and ’19.

Look, I’m not a “get off my lawn” traditionalist. I like several of the changes MLB has made, especially instant replay because I think it’s more important to get a call right than to try to finish a game a few minutes early. And this is coming from a sportswriter who’s had to cover a rain-delayed doubleheader.

I’m also not against trying new things, although the modern obsession with analytics is pushing my comfort zone. Every time I hear discussions about launch angle and exit velocity, my inner George Brett wants to charge out of the dugout at someone.

I’m also not a Luddite and I understand technology gives us better information on batting pitching and batting tendencies that guide offensive and defensive strategy.

But now it feels like MLB is trying to put the genie back in the bottle by telling teams: “OK, we know you have this information but you can’t use it.” It feels like a regression that way.

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Tigers manager A.J. Hinch has broughtwith him the shift he used extensively with the Houston Astros. He gave a surprising answer about the shift rule when he said Friday morning he applauds the league’s effort to find out what impact eliminating the shift will have.

“Listen, I think it’s a hot topic on whether the shift is good or bad for the game in itself,” he said. “Obviously, I like to deploy it and I have for a number of years. But whatever’s best for game is ultimately — we’re here as stewards of the game, so I think we have to challenge what we do in order to come out of it with the best product for the fans. So I understand.

“We do spend a lot of time and energy in trying to optimize where we play our infielders and how to take away hits. I do like that part of the game, but if that’s not the best for the game — the game’s bigger than me, the game’s bigger than any manager, any organization — then we need to pay attention to that.”

That’s a thoroughly well-reasoned, measured and fair answer. And he’s right. The game is bigger than any one person or team. But I also hope the game is bigger than any one era. Just because our on-demand, fiber-optic, content-flooded lives move faster than ever, does that mean baseball has to equally as fast?

One of the reasons I love baseball is because of its deliberate pace and its subtle strategy. The shift is part of a methodical cat-and-mouse game, which played out in the Tigers’ 6-4 win Wednesday over the Philadelphia Phillies, when left-handed hitter Didi Gregorius tried to beat the Tigers’ shift with a bunt, only to have Matthew Boyd throw him out.

That’s the way it should be. It should be settled on the field. It shouldn’t take a season-long forensic analysis by baseball math nerds to come up with enough evidence supporting a legislative act that gives Gregorius a better chance of reaching base.

It should just be your best against my best. My strategy against yours. May the best person win. After all, isn’t that the whole point of competition?

Contact Carlos Monarrez at cmonarrez@freepress.com and follow him on Twitter @cmonarrez.

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