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Editorial: Shift Happens

As of this writing, St. Louis Cardinals infielder Matt Carpenter is hitting .164. That’s bad. Cards outfielder Dexter Fowler is hitting .154. That’s worse. A quarter of the season is now in the rearview mirror, so this can no longer be discounted as a small sample size. 

This is not, however, one of those columns where we just complain about the futility of professional athletes. We are not being naysayers. We come bearing solutions.

Before we can offer that solution, we must define the larger problem. In the last decade, a terrible plague has taken over the national pastime. That plague has a name, the infield shift. That plague also has a face. Like most terrible things, the shift can be blamed on the Chicago Cubs and their manager, Joe Maddon. Sure, Maddon first started deploying the shift when he was with the Tampa Bay Rays but, since only like 200 people have ever seen the Rays actually play baseball in person, Maddon’s concept did not truly take off until he joined the Windy City’s Baby Bears club.

Let’s talk about the shift for a second. Typically, a baseball infield features two players to the left of second base and two players to the right of second base. When a batter is prone to hitting the baseball primarily to one side of the field, the shift deploys an extra infielder to that side of the field so that there are now three players on one side and a single player left on the other side of second base. Seems simple enough, but just like with tax policy or health care reform, there are massive unintended consequences. Baseball players decided that since they could not hit the ball through the shift, they would attempt to hit the ball over the shift. This theory gave rise to something known as the launch angle of a swing. When we were kids, this was known as taking a massive uppercut and was frowned upon. Why was it frowned upon? Because an uppercut swing is more likely to end in a swing-and-miss than a majestic, towering, home run. Back then, strikeouts were bad. 

Today, however, strikeouts are not bad – apparently. Due to the prevalence of the shift, the baseball intelligentsia has decided that a strikeout delivers an equivalent result to a ground ball or line drive or really anything that does not leave the park. It is an all or nothing philosophy that makes the overall game of baseball less interesting. The games take longer, fewer overall runs are scored, there are far more strikeouts and the brilliant defensive play has been largely removed from the game.

The shift has to go.

Major League Baseball, however, is unlikely to change the rules in order to get the shift out of the game. So it is up to the players to make the shift meaningless, which brings us back to Carpenter and Fowler and our solution to the problem. Forgive the simplicity of this solution, but here it is: BUNT THE STUPID BASEBALL!

Players who bunt the ball against the shift reach base successfully more than 60 percent of the time. Bunt the baseball. Why is this so hard? 

Is it because players are so proud that they feel as though bunting is somehow cheating? The defense is the one who changed the rules, and they are handing you a base hit. Bunt the baseball. 

Is it because professional, middle-of-the-order hitters do not actually remember how to bunt? Practice bunting the baseball and then, bunt the baseball. Is it because bunting means that you will not get an extra base hit or a home run? When you are hitting less than .200, it might be time to take the pride argument down a notch. Bunt the baseball. 

Carpenter and Fowler are facing the shift in nearly half of their at-bats this year. Do the math: full-time players average about 600 at-bats per season, half of that means they will face the shift in 300 at-bats. Players successfully bunt against the shift 60 percent of the time. That means the defense is handing you 180 base hits per season, though one would hope they would get rid of the shift long before that.

Seriously guys, shift happens but you can stop it. Bunt the baseball.

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