Friday, August 24, 2018

Infield shifts and limiting rules

Scoring is down in baseball this season (and has been on a downward trend in recent years). Some of the declines is being attributed to the increasing use of defensive shifts, especially against left-handed pull hitters, with teams situating four defenders to the right of second base and placing the second baseman in the shallow right field, where he is close enough to field a grounder and throw out the runner. SI's Tom Verducci shows the effects and offers an "illegal defense" rule--prohibiting teams from placing three infielders on one side of the field (so the shortstop could be only as far as even with second base) or requiring infielders to have one foot on the infield dirt (removing the rover in short right field).

In devising a framework to explain the Infield Fly Rule and other rules that seek to limit or eliminate strategic moves within a sport, I distinguish true limiting rules from aesthetic rules. True limiting rules are designed to avoid or eliminate extraordinary cost-benefit imbalances on plays, while aesthetic rules are designed to ensure the beauty of the game. For example, the I/F/R and the rules on uncaught third strikes are true limiting rules; Offside in soccer or rules designed to limit end-of-game fouling in basketball are aesthetic.

I had thought of the possible responses to shifts as aesthetic because the cost-benefit disadvantage was not unavoidable if the batter could and would learn to hit away from the shift. But the stats Verducci musters give me pause. There appears to be a structural disadvantage for left-handed hitters, something baked into the game that works against these players and that cannot be overcome, at least without altering the game. And while playing the second baseman in shallow right field is not as obviously contrary to expectations as intentionally not catching a fair fly ball, it is out of the ordinary for what we understand of the game.
So the need for an "illegal defense" rule may be not a question of making the game look good, it may be a question of its basic situational competitive balance.
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