The shift in Major League Baseball is going to disappear next season like Shoeless Joe walking into an Iowa cornfield. And no team may 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 its last 25 games to the Dodgers, are 21 games behind them in the National League West, and are looking for any way to shrink that gap.
The Dodgers use the shift almost as often as their fans at Dodger Stadium wolf down Dodger Dogs—moving fielders on 10,593 of their 19,980 pitches tossed.
Fans watch the Dodgers hop and skip around the infield—like flipping the shortstop and third baseman from the left side to the right on consecutive pitches—53% of the time. That ranks just behind the Toronto Blue Jays, who’ve used it 11,062, or on 53.4% of their 20,717 mound tosses.
Roberts is concerned because his use of the shift has worked. His club has utilized the shift to lead the league with 44 defensive runs prevented.
“I think it’s going to affect us most because we’re one of the better clubs right now using the rules that govern the shift,” Roberts said.
That will change next season when two players—and only two players—must be stationed on the infield dirt on either side of second base. Not a foot can be placed on the outfield grass, 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 abide by,” Roberts said. “I believe we’ll re-assess our roster, and positioning within that new structure to prevent runs at an elite clip.”
Don’t cry too much for the Dodgers, who just clinched their ninth division title in the past 10 years and have 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 .717 winning percentage and won the World Series.
The new infield alignment is just one of a bevy of rule changes MLB plans to institute next season, including a pitch clock, a limit on pickoff throws with a runner on base during a particular at bat, and bases that are three inches larger.
The hope is that the composite affect will quicken the pace of each game and allow an increase in offense.
The league batting average is .243 this season, the lowest since 1968 when the then 20 MLB teams batted .237, precipitating lowering the mound from 15 inches to 10 and shrinking the strike zone. In 1973, the American League adopted the designated hitter to increase offense, a rule that was finally codified in the NL for good 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 regularly utilizing the shift.
Analytics gurus in just about every baseball operations department began to copy the Rays, and the overall MLB-wide batting average tumbled as shifts increased.
It makes senses. Teams use computers to identify tendencies indicating 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 that will accommodate that shift.
Thus, a line drive up the middle that might have been a base hit is easily gloved for an out. Infielders have position cards in their back pockets for reference about where to play on every pitch.
“I’m going to like this as a hitter,” Padres infielder Brandon Drury said this weekend. “I’ve hit a lot of balls up the middle this year that have been caught. I’ve gotten a few hits through the open hole on the other side of the infield, but not nearly as many as those that’ve been taken away.”
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—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 run away with their division titles. Low payroll is no longer a criteria for trying too catch up with the rest of the league by overusing the shift.
The Dodgers and Astros have represented their leagues in the World Series six times since the Astros defeated the Dodgers in a 2017 seven-game set that was tainted by Houston’s sign-stealing scandal. Both teams have won once. The Dodgers have the top payroll in MLB this season at $265.2 million while the Astros are eighth at $183.1 million, according to Spotrac.
That’s a lot of winning and a lot of infield shifts. The 30 MLB teams shifted thus far this year on 34.3% of all 636,006 pitches thrown through Sunday night.
That stat will disappear along with the shift, which before the last decade’s proliferation 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’ll be harder and more challenging next year for players in the infield, which will show true defense and range and arm strength, particularly on the left side of the infield,” Roberts said. “We’re very mindful of it, and I think it’s still good for the game.”
It’ll be different for all the current players, none of whom have played an inning without the shift.
Max Muncy, who plays various infield positions for the Dodgers, said he doesn’t know if he’s ready for it.
“To me, it would be nice to play in a more restricted spot, but I have fun moving around,” he said. “We all have a position card. The guys upstairs run their data and tell us the best position to play in.”
That won’t change, he added. “They’ll micromanage us next year even though it’s on one side. No doubt about it.”