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Will Major League Baseball ban defensive shifts?

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Defensive shifts have been used more frequently by forward thinking baseball managers. Now, commissioner Rob Manfred suggests they might be banned from the game.

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There has been a shift in baseball strategy recently. More and more clubs are deploying defensive shifts against some hitters who tend to hit the ball to one side of the field. Now, new baseball commissioner, Rob Manfred, said in an interview with ESPN that he might be in favor of banning shifts.

The second set of changes (in addition to "pace of the game" issues)  that I would look at is related, and that relates to injecting additional offense in the game. Things like eliminating shifts, I would be open to those sorts of ideas. ... We have really smart people working in the game, and they're going to find ways to get a competitive advantage. I think it's incumbent of us in the commissioner's office and to say, 'Is this what we want to happen in the game?"

Some forward-thinking baseball strategists have found that some hitters pull the ball so often, that it would be beneficial for their club to align their players to adjust to where the ball is actually likely to be hit. Some baseball executives don't like this shift in favor of defense over offense. They don't want managers being able to outsmart unskilled hitters.

A natural reaction on the part of a team with hitters who have trouble beating the shift might be to have their players become better at hitting the ball to the opposite field. This would no doubt come at the expense of power, and might lead to a greater use of contact hitters instead of sluggers. Or so they fear.

Dave Cameron of fangraphs.com did some research into the impact that defensive shifts were having on offense in baseball, and found they had little or no impact on the overall batting average on balls in play (BABIP). Offense is down because of an increase in strikeouts and a decrease in walks, according to Cameron's study.

What began as an infrequent use of strategy, used mainly against left-handed power hitters, such as the Red Sox's David Ortiz, is now used more often against both left and right-handed hitters who tend to hit the ball in one direction or the other.

Other than having the pitcher stand on the mound, and the catcher in his designated area behind the plate, baseball rules have never dictated to a manager where the other players on the field must stand, as long as they are in fair territory. Using a designated hitter in national league games would do more to increase offense than banning baseball's version of the zone defense.

Prohibiting a player from standing on the wrong side of second base would change all that. Never mind that such a rule would be prohibiting a team from positioning players in an alignment that gives them the best defense, some executives just don't want too much defense in the game.