Red Sox Against Banning Defensive Shifts


The Boston Globe‘s Alex Speier had an interesting report, yesterday, on the possibility that Major League Baseball wants to ban defensive shifts to increase scoring. Boston Red Sox third base coach and infield instructor Brian Butterfield is completely against that idea.

The issue stems from new MLB commissioner Rob Manfred, “in his first interview in his new job, [whom] offered a candid, off-the-cuff suggestion that it might be appropriate for his sport to look at whether regulating shifts was an appropriate response to a drastic decline in offense.” He has since retracted that statement, citing that further evidence would need to be researched before any kind of rule changes would take place. Either low runs is a matter of fact in today’s baseball or there are rules that need to be implemented at a later date.

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For Butterfield, the idea of changing the rules to help the hitters score runs is ridiculous. “Whenever I see people talk about pace of play and more points or more runs, it bothers me. I like defense. It bothers me. When they even talk about a possibility of saying you can’t stand in a certain place, I’m not in agreement with that at all. I think it’s up to the offensive player to make the adjustment. It’s up to the hitter to make the adjustment with three men to the pull side.”

Speier also notes expert research on how much the shifts have impacted runs and, possibly, team wins. “John Dewan of Baseball Information Solutions (one of the foremost analysts of defense and shifts) estimated that shifts are responsible for about 195 runs saved per team across baseball – which would represent roughly 5.4 percent of the decline in runs scored over the last decade.”

Those are the numbers, and there are more in Speier’s article. But, let’s look at the human element to all of this talk about defense and lack of scoring. Why do we like baseball in the first place?

Do NASCAR fans love watching cars turning left a thousand times a race? No, they like watching the intricacies of the race, knowing, at any moment, a driver can find a way to sneak past other fast cars to cross the finish line ahead. Do NFL fanatics love watching running backs earn two or three yards, each time they carry the ball? No, they like watching the possibility of the RB making his way to daylight, through his offensive line, to move the ball far down the field or even score.

True baseball fans are built the same way. When that friend, who shall remain nameless, asks you why watching grown men in pajamas, scratching themselves, spitting out sunflower seeds (if not worse), trying to hit a ball and failing two-thirds of the time, is so fascinating, what is your reply? You tell this sad, pathetic, uninformed miscreant, who claims to know you, that one crack of the bat can mean a base hit or home run that changes the game’s outcome. The duel between the pitcher and the hitter is one of the most symbolic forms of life that we have in our culture. The pitcher listens to his commanding officer and delivers the aerial assault to the plate, while his reinforcements surround the enemy’s attack as best they can. Victory is won only through a game of inches, in the air and in the field.

Where’s the strategy or drama of human interest if home runs or other forms of scoring are made easier. Where’s the allure of anticipation and suspense? If base hits and home runs are flying around all day, scoring becomes boring and commonplace. Dirk Hayhurt, a former pitcher and best-selling author on baseball, has been publicly negative on the subject of the home run derby, during the annual All-Star festivities. He said on Twitter:

Granted that Hayhurst likely would have a bias, considering his career was made strictly by trying to stop scoring, but he has a point. We like runs batted in when it means something. For many people, watching the derby is awe-inspiring in how far they can hit the ball, not the fact that the ball was placed on a silver platter for the hitter to feast. Those people expect home runs, and are disappointed when one of the players burns out too quickly to hit them.

The same can be said for scoring. The point of a shift is to take away the pull-side of a batter, forcing him to either hit a home run or bash the ball to the empty side of the field. It’s not a home run derby; it’s the regular season. These games count, making every run count. If scores are close, usually assured when relatively low, it makes for more suspense. The pull-hitters are now challenged, which, considering they are supposedly superior at swatting baseballs than the rest of us, they should be able to handle hitting to all fields. Making athletes do what is unexpected of them is what makes great theatre, whether on television or live at the game. Those are the moments that we remember and try to relive again in our backyards as children and our rec leagues as adults. Those moments are what make baseball stars matter to us.

According to, Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz loves to pull the ball, but as he hit .381 to right field, last season, he also hit .310 to opposite field. While he clearly is more successful by pulling the ball, Ortiz has shown how beating the shifts can create intense drama, like in the 2013 postseason and winning the World Series. Did he just give up against the onslaught of defensive shifts opposing teams provided him? No. He took the bat and punished teams for trying their strategy. That’s what baseball is about.

If Butterfield wants to apply shifts, let him. He has one of the biggest impact players of all time on his team, whom would benefit from the ban. Yet, you don’t see Ortiz complaining for a ban. So why punish defensive coaching? It’s a method, just like pull-hitting, that creates drama for people to watch. Nothing in life that’s worth anything is ever easy, so why should scoring in baseball?