At the start of every recent season, baseball fans get inundated with a number of articles and commentary bits that can be summed up as "OMG! Shift!" It seems the off-season has the effect of erasing from peoples' memories the fact that playing three or four infielders on the right side against left-handed pull hitters and increasingly on the left side vs. righties is something that most teams do. Each year it gets treated like it's a brand new phenomenon.
Last week, Joe Girardi got in on the action, echoing a sentiment that's gained some traction over the past couple of years: that MLB should impose a rule mandating a "traditional" defensive alignment. After Wednesday's 3-2 loss in Texas, the manager told reporters:
"It's an illegal defense, like basketball. Guard your man, guard your spot. If I were commissioner, they would be illegal...I just think the field was built this way for a reason, with two on one side and two on the other."
There are a few things wrong with this statement. First, it's not an illegal defense because it's well, not illegal. Second, Girardi seems to be likening shifts to a zone defense in basketball, where a defender handles an area of the floor instead of a specific man, preventing stars from playing "iso ball," but zones have been legal in the NBA since 2001.
Off as Girardi's facts are, so, too, is his logic. While zones are allowed, the NBA does have several rules - three seconds and hand checking, for example - designed to make things "fair" for the offense, which is a nice way of saying the game wouldn't be exciting enough without such arbitrary stipulations. The NFL has a list of around 847 things that defensive players can't do to receivers and quarterbacks. One thing that makes baseball unique - and for my money better - is that its design lets hitters, pitchers, and fielders mostly decide things on their own. Nasty breaking balls aren't illegal because they're too tough to hit. Steals are OK even if you're really fast. Outside of balks, throwing your glove at the ball, and new rules to avoid collisions at home and second, you can pretty much do whatever helps you win.
It wouldn't make much sense, and it would be incredibly unfair, to legislate against certain players' weaknesses. Power hitters already have enough going for them, like massive contracts and the ability to change games with one swing. Do they really need their value artificially propped up even further? The 90's and early 2000's spoiled us with what seemed like an endless parade of .320, 40-homer guys, but historically hitting for average and power has been something reserved for true elites. Most hitters have always had to sacrifice hits for dingers. Instead of asking that shifts be banned, the Yankees should be thinking about how to better adapt to them.
Girardi's comments reek of sour grapes as in "they should change the rules because the rules are hurting me." Since the beginning of 2015, the Yankees have faced 1,778 shifts, which is by far the most in baseball. Thanks to Fangraphs' shift split data we know there's a good reason for that. In 2015, they posted a .257 BABIP and a 52 wRC+ vs. shifts, both worst in the majors. So far this season, those marks have improved to .280 and 61 respectively, but still rank 19th and 23rd. Yankee hitters tend to make things easy on shifting infielders, pulling the ball 45.7 percent of the time in 2015 - highest rate in baseball - and 44.3 percent this year - second highest through Sunday's games.
Needless to say, the Yankees and their hitters are in a tough spot when it comes to shifting. They're a team who likes to pack their lineup with lefty pull hitters for the clear benefits that Yankee Stadium's dimensions provide, but those are the same kinds of hitters who get shifted on. They're faced with an unhappy decision between giving up BABIP points to try and hit through and over shifts or attempting to go against their instincts and shoot for the opposite field.
That's a choice that's not as simple as the Michael Kay "why doesn't he just go the other way?" lament you hear nightly on YES. As Mark Teixeira, arguably the most beleaguered shift victim there is, has steadily maintained, he isn't getting paid to slap the ball to left. The shift only takes away singles, so if he or Brian McCann goes to the plate with that approach, where a single is the best possible outcome, then the defense has already won. That's not to mention that infield shifts are part of an overall strategy where a pitcher works to force a power bat to pull the ball on the ground.
Teixeira and McCann are guys who can still be productive even when hitting for a low average, but knowing what teams like to do against them the Yankees could have be more proactive in diversifying their lineup with more hitters who hit to all fields. In recent years they've brought in other pull-happy players like Carlos Beltran and Chase Headley who also get shifted on more often than not.
The other shortcoming on display here is that while Yankee hitters have been notoriously stymied by shifting infielders, their own attempts at employing the shift haven't gone especially well. This year, they've allowed a .337 opponents' BABIP against their shifts, which is the sixth highest in baseball. In 2015, it was .322, second highest. That's not from lack of trying. The Yankees have shifted 1,382 times since the start of last year, which makes them one of the shiftiest teams in the game. They're either choosing the wrong hitters at the wrong times, or their pitchers just aren't executing the way they should. Either way, Girardi should look in the mirror on this and not for an unneeded rule change.