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OC Register: Eliminate shifts? One retired player has a less intrusive idea for solving MLB’s batted-ball problem

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When MLB owners convened for their summer meeting on Wednesday, two elements of on-field play topped their list of talking points: infield shifts and pace of play.

From the beginning, Commissioner Rob Manfred wasn’t afraid to say he would consider banning shifts. Unlike limiting how often teammates and coaches can visit the pitcher’s mound, this isn’t a solution looking for a problem. It was a tacit acknowledgment of how one small strategy can impact the game. Beyond the occasional ground-ball single, shifts have helped rob baseball of its very nature, and maybe some marquee players too.

High-average hitters who once made careers pulling the ball through the infield – Albert Pujols comes to mind – now see their effectiveness hinge on their capacity to hit a home run. Can’t hit the ball where the fielders aren’t standing? Hit it over their heads, the thinking goes. Can’t do either? It’s been argued that the shift ended the career of former Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard entirely.

Yet shifts aren’t an adapt-or-die proposition. Witness Pujols, who still regularly occupies the middle of the Angels’ lineup. From 2001-10, Pujols batted .331. Since then, as shifts became more popular, his average is .267. Adapt, die, or resemble a ghost of the hitter you once were.

If you want to explain how baseball has changed in your lifetime, just look at how hitters have adapted to infield shifts. John Thorn, MLB’s official historian, once wrote that “putting the ball in play was a presumed ability of even the weakest hitter.” That was true of baseball in the mid-1800s, and the presumption lasted long into the modern era.

In 2018, roughly 35 percent of plate appearances have ended in a walk, strikeout, or home run. The ball is being put in play less than ever. Fielders have much less work to do. Aesthetically, baseball is simply a different sport than it has been for most of its history, and now defensive shifts are being targeted as the culprit.

Manfred recently explained why. The commissioner told The Athletic that “when the shifts started and started to pick up, people said, ‘They’re going to learn to hit the other way. They’re going to bunt.’ We just haven’t seen those changes. It evolved a different way.

“Because we have not seen the natural correction, because the trends seem to be persistent,” Manfred continued, “I think we’re at the point in time that we do need to think about and really analyze hard some potential changes.”

A couple weeks ago I ran Manfred’s remark past a retired player. He had his own theory why today’s hitters were not simply hitting the other way, or bunting, to beat the shift. The beauty of his theory is that it came with a simple, logical solution – something entirely within MLB’s power to execute. It didn’t involve carving the playing field into artificial “zones” to prevent defensive shifts entirely.

The solution? Widen the outside edge of the strike zone.

“(Retired umpire) John Hirschbeck would call a strike six inches off the plate if the catcher didn’t have to move his glove to catch it,” the player told me. “We knew if he was going to be the umpire, we’d have to go up swinging. Hitters aren’t talking like that now. They don’t have to.”

The player requested anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the owners’ discussions around the topic. Expanding the strike zone, he said, could be among the solutions being considered this week by MLB.

To widen the strike zone would undo years of what the league once considered progress. About 20 years ago, MLB adopted electronic pitch-tracking technology to help “grade” umpires’ strike zones. By collecting empirical proof of every umpire’s mistakes, MLB’s ultimate goal was to standardize the strike zone around the rulebook definition.

As pitch-tracking technology advanced, television viewers got a better, longer look at each pitch than the umpires. The umpires eventually got better, too. The league achieved its goal. A pitch that was an inch off the outside corner was called a ball – most of the time, at least.

This came with an unforeseen consequence. Because hitters didn’t have to protect against the outside strike, most of them discovered they could barrel up any ball that might be in their strike zone. As the retired player told me, now “hitters are going up there with the mindset, ‘go up there and bomb it. I can pull everything. I don’t have to respect the ball off the plate.’”

He believes that expanding the outside corner would require hitters to react the same way he did: hitting more pitches to the opposite field or at least trying to foul off the outside strike, waiting for a pitch he could barrel up.

“Everybody thinks the pitcher’s expanding the zone. They’re not,” the player said. “The umpire expands the zone. Hitters are looking in their hitting zone. They only time they expand the zone is if they get fooled on the pitch or the umpire is making them look outside.”

He believes the shrinking strike zone might have led to other unintended consequences.

Here’s one: Why are finesse pitchers like Jamie Moyer, Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux a dying breed? They relied on an ability to bend every strike zone to their will, often by causing the umpire to expand his zone horizontally. The strategy worked well enough for each of them to pitch well into their 40s. Glavine and Maddux are in the Hall of Fame.

A more rigid strike zone might explain why finesse pitchers are declining, but with so many other variables in play, it would be difficult to prove.

The retired player also thinks a wider strike zone could hasten the average time of each game. More strikes, he said, usually means faster games. But baseball has seen other small changes since he retired that could dilute this equation. Manfred might determine that expanding the strike zone is at least worth a shot at solving his time-of-game bugaboo, too.

Fortunately, we gain thousands of data points every year to draw firm conclusions about batted balls. We know that the percentage of opposite-field hits declined substantially between 2008 and 2010, then failed to rebound to its early-2000s levels. This, despite the opposite side of the infield being vacant more this decade than last.

The strike zone looks like an awfully logical variable. It could be MLB’s next target.

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