The shift in Major League Baseball will disappear next season, like Shoeless Joe walking into a cornfield in Iowa. And no team could be more affected by that change in defensive dynamics than the Los Angeles Dodgers, their manager Dave Roberts said.
“I hope it does” [affect them]said Padres manager Bob Melvin, whose club has lost 21 of the last 25 games to the Dodgers, has 21 games behind them in the National League West and is looking to narrow that gap.
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The Dodgers use the shift almost as often as their fans at Dodger Stadium beat the Dodger Dogs – moving fielders on 10,593 of their 19,980 pitches thrown.
Fans watch the Dodgers skip and skip through the infield — as the shortstop and third baseman spin from side to side on consecutive pitches — 53% of the time. That’s just behind the Toronto Blue Jays, who have used 11,062, or on 53.4% of their 20,717 mound throws.
Roberts is concerned because his use of the plow has worked. His club has taken advantage of the shift to lead the league with 44 prevented defensive runs.
“I think it’s going to affect us the most because we’re one of the better clubs right now using the rules that dictate the shift,” Roberts said.
That will change next season when two players – and only two players – have to be stationed on the infield dirt on either side of second base. No foot can be placed on the grass in the outfield, eliminating the current softball style of playing the second baseman in short right field.
“There’s a new landscape, a new structure that we all have to adhere to,” Roberts said. “I believe we will reassess our roster and position ourselves within that new structure to avoid runs on an elite clip.”
Don’t cry too much for the Dodgers, who have just won their ninth division title in the past 10 years and won 100 or more games for the third time in the past four seasons. In 2020 during the 60-game COVID season, they had a win rate of 0.717 and won the World Series.
The new field lineup is just one of many rule changes MLB plans to make next season, including a pitch clock, a pickoff limit with a runner on base during a given at bat, and bases that are three inches larger. .
The hope is that the compound effect will speed up the pace of each game and allow for an increase in offense.
The league’s batting average is .243 this season, the lowest since 1968 when the then 20 MLB teams hit .237, lowering the mound from 15 inches to 10 and narrowing the strike zone. In 1973, the American League adopted the designated batter to increase offense, a rule that was finalized in NL this season.
League-wide batting was .264 in 2008, the year the Tampa Bay Rays went to the World Series with a dirt-cheap payroll and then manager Joe Maddon used the squad regularly.
Analytics gurus in just about every baseball activities division started copying the Rays, and the overall MLB-wide batting average dropped as the squads got bigger.
It makes sense. Teams use computers to identify tendencies that indicate where a batter is likely to hit the ball. An infielder is moved to a spot and a pitcher is instructed to throw to a point in the strike zone where that shift is possible.
So a line drive down the middle that could be a single is easily gloved for an out. Infielders have position cards in their back pockets as a reference as to where to play on each field.
“I’m going to like this as a batter,” Padres infielder Brandon Drury said this weekend. “I hit a lot of balls through the middle this year that were caught. I got a few hits through the open hole on the other side of the infield, but not nearly as many as the ones that were taken.”
The Houston Astros, the best team in the AL this season, are second behind the Dodgers with 39 infield runs saved. They use the shift on 50.4% of their pitches thrown – the third most in MLB.
Of the top 10 teams in that category, eight are vying for a spot in the expanded 12-team playoff format, and the Dodgers and Astros have both walked away with their division titles. Low payroll is no longer a criterion for trying to catch up with the rest of the competition by overusing the service.
The Dodgers and Astros have represented their leagues in the World Series six times since the Astros defeated the Dodgers in a seven-game set in 2017 that was tainted by the Houston tick theft scandal. Both teams have won once. The Dodgers have the highest payroll in MLB this season at $265.2 million, while the Astros are eighth with $183.1 million, according to Spotrac.
That’s a lot of winning and a lot of infield shifts. The 30 MLB teams have shifted so far this year on 34.3% of all 636,006 pitches thrown Sunday night.
That stat will disappear along with the shift, which before the proliferation of the past decade was used only on rare occasions by moving three infielders to the right side against a particularly potent left-handed power hitter like Ted Williams or Barry Bonds.
“It will be harder and more challenging for infield players next year, who will show real defense, range and arm strength, especially on the left side of the infield,” Roberts said. “We’re very aware of it and I think it’s still good for the game.”
It will be different for all current players, none of whom have played an inning without the shift.
Max Muncy, who plays several infield positions for the Dodgers, said he doesn’t know if he’s ready.
“For me it would be nice to play in a more limited space, but I like to move,” he said. “We all have a position map. The guys above check their data and tell us which position we can play in best.”
That won’t change, he added. “They will micromanage us next year, even if it is on the one hand. No doubt about that.”
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