Braves third baseman Austin Riley knows there’s a fine line between good strategy and overkill when it comes to defensive positioning, which is why he’s fine with plans to restrict shifts starting next season.
“I’ve been a guy that’s always been a believer of keeping the game the way it is and not doing the extremes,” Riley told me during All-Star week in Los Angeles.
That said, Riley has found himself in “basically right field” for certain hitters, and has fielded his share of hard-hit balls there that became outs instead of hits solely because of good positioning.
Still, Riley is fine with new rules that will take away that defensive option starting in 2023, though he’s also fine with some limited shifting.
“A big thing for me would be to keep all the guys in the dirt, whether you’ve gotta keep two guys on one side of second and the other two on the other,” he said. “If you want to move them all over, that’s fine. But I think the biggest thing is keeping them in the dirt.”
Riley’s preference is essentially what MLB will mandate next season. Under the new rules approved Friday, two fielders must be in the dirt on either side of second base at all times, though teams are free to position defenders wherever they want within those parameters.
MLB says the change will “return the game to a more traditional aesthetic” by “encouraging more balls in play, giving players more opportunities to showcase their athleticism, and offsetting the growing trend of alignments that feature four outfielders.”
Translation: MLB wants more offense. But just how much more it generates is debatable. At least in players’ minds.
“I’ve had my jam shots and singles that would’ve been out at second base (without the shift),” Riley said. “But also, they’ve been playing me straight and I’ve hit some balls right up the middle that’ve gotten through. From a hitting standpoint, it’ll probably even itself out.”
From a hitting standpoint, it’ll probably even itself out.
Meanwhile, teams continue to greatly utilize the shift. As of Friday, teams have employed a shift in more than 34 percent of all plate appearances, according to Baseball Savant.
Right-handed hitters are shifted against 20 percent of the time, resulting in a .320 wOBA. Left-handed hitters are shifted against nearly 56 percent of the time, resulting in a .300 wOBA. For context, league-average wOBA in all scenarios is .310. So, shifting provides a benefit against lefties, but not an overwhelming one. Against righties, its value is very debatable.
Astros right fielder Kyle Tucker, a lefty, sees the potential upside of restrictions, though he still wasn’t sold when I talked to him during All-Star festivities.
“I’ve been grounding out a lot over to second this year,” he told me, seemingly contemplating the potential benefits to his stat line. “But it’ll probably help, probably have some more hits getting through. We’ll see.”
Pitchers might see things differently, but it likely depends on the pitcher. Atlanta’s Max Fried had no strong feelings when I asked him in Los Angeles.
“If it’s gonna help some offense and get things better for the game,” Fried said, “then I’m open to it.”
In general, the teams that shift the most are playoff contenders. As of Friday, the three teams that shift the most are the Blue Jays, Dodgers and Astros. But the success of the shift is about more than positioning. It’s also heavily influenced by pitchers executing their pitches and fielders having the range to reach balls hit in their direction.
My sense is that most players range from mildly indifferent to mildly in favor of shift restrictions. Some would-be hits that’ve been outs the past couple of years — liners up the middle or into short right field — will again become hits, as they were for most of the game’s history. And would-be outs that’ve been hits — such as weak grounders to an unoccupied shortstop position — will again be outs.
I know it’s hip to love the shift, and I know why teams do it (because it works!), but I will admit that I don’t love seeing a third baseman in short right field. Seeing an infielder that far out of his normal placement just seems to be against the spirit of baseball defense.
Get off my lawn, OK?
But I also don’t love MLB’s new restrictions. I’m fine letting fielders position themselves anywhere on the infield dirt, in any pattern the team desires — as long as they stay on the dirt.
Perhaps it really will even out, as Riley suggested. Or maybe it will lead to too many hits that could’ve been outs and too many losses that could’ve been wins, prompting yet another change somewhere down the line.
But as with all things in baseball, the unpredictability of each at-bat is what keeps us watching.