Baseball’s shifting culture set to play out in All-Star Game

Colorado Rockies' Nolan Arenado follows the flight of his RBI-single off Seattle Mariners starting pitcher Mike Leake in the third inning of an interleague baseball game Sunday, July 15, 2018, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
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Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — David Ortiz can now laugh, sort of, at the shifting culture of baseball. For Mike Trout, Nolan Arenado, Bryce Harper and most every other All-Star hitter, dealing with different defensive alignments is just part of the game. Tune in Tuesday night and there’s no telling where fans will see fielders at Nationals Park. Especially in what’s become merely an exhibition — why not try a five-man outfield? Count Joey Votto among the boppers who’d love to do away with infielders clustered on the grass.

“From someone who’s really been dinged by the shift, I would welcome it,” the Cincinnati first baseman said Monday. “Once they started shifting more without question, I adjusted my approach and you have to or else you get burned by it because .290 turns into .250 turns into .220 like nothing.” But the career .312 hitter can see why Major League Baseball might want to avoid delving into rules to define defensive positions. “I like the idea of a dynamic ballplayer. It’s really hard to shift against a really fast left-handed hitter for a multitude of reasons,” he said.

“Removing the shift may lend itself to the left-handed pull hitter that hits flyballs, groundballs and strikes out a ton. I’m not sure if Major League Baseball is excited about that.” To Ortiz, these overloaded infields are reshaping the sport. Not in a good way, either. “It seems crazy, it seems like it’s taking some fun part of the game away,” the retired Red Sox slugger said Sunday before managing the Futures Game. “It seems like there are 20 guys playing defense against you,” Big Papi said, playfully estimating shifts took “like 500 hits away from me.”
There’s been talk that baseball, concerned that less action in the field could translate to fewer fans in the stands, might consider a rule regarding shifts.

Perhaps it would mean only two infielders on each side of the diamond. Or possibly they’d all be required to stay on the dirt. “Maybe something where you can only shift a couple guys each inning,” Arenado offered. Of course, Max Scherzer, Jacob deGrom, Luis Severino and other aces might see it a bit differently. “I am extremely pro-shift, especially against lefties because I pound lefties in and then change-ups away,” Dodgers right-hander Ross Stripling said. “I know there are pitchers that don’t like it as much. When you think about the shift it’s easier to remember the ones that hurt you than the 10 that helped you.”

As for the debate about shifts damaging the game, “certainly I understand it,” he said.
“We were just talking about this the other day and we looked up the research a little bit. It’s led to way less singles, but more walks and more doubles,” he said. No manager employs more shifts than AL skipper A.J. Hinch of Houston, so look for second baseman Jose Altuve and shortstop Manny Machado to be moving around when Paul Goldschmidt, Matt Kemp and the other NL stars come to bat. “The shift has transformed the game,” Astros third baseman Alex Bregman said. “We did it a lot last year and won the World Series, so I guess it works.”

Despite all the top talent at the plate, All-Star Games rarely turn into run-fests. They’re often limited by the strong stable of pitchers each team brings, boosted by dominant relievers such as Craig Kimbrel, Josh Hader and Kenley Jansen ramped up to throw one inning apiece.
The AL won last year 2-1 at Miami on Robinson Cano’s homer in the 10th inning. Not since 2007, in fact, have both teams scored more than three runs in a game. That’s the trend across baseball these days. Going into the break, there have been more strikeouts than hits in the majors. The overall batting average is .247 at the break, and it could dip to the lowest figure in nearly a half-century.

“I think offenses are down because of the shift. I see a lot of guys hit balls hard up the middle that are usually hits that are outs,” Trout said. The decrease on the scoreboard has increased calls for more radical changes — outlawing shifts, lowering the mound, forcing relievers to face more than one batter. “This is a game of adjustments. Everybody is constantly making adjustments to you,” Atlanta outfielder Nick Markakis said. “You’re going to want to cry about it and not have the shift any more? I think it’s silly.” No one has suggested cutting the bases to 88 feet or stretching the mound-to-plate distance beyond 60 feet, 6 inches.

Meanwhile, home runs continue to rise at a record rate. Strikeouts, too. Harper, a six-time All-Star at 25, is caught in the vortex. Set to play in the showcase at his home ballpark, he’s batting only .214 with 102 strikeouts, along with 23 homers. How can a batter beat the shift?
“You can’t,” Harper said. “If you hit a ball in the hole, then you’re out. If you hit a ball up the middle, you’re out.” “If I have a kid, I’m not going to tell him to stay through the middle anymore because if you hit a ball up the middle, you’re out,” he said. “I guess guys could bunt down the first base line or third base line if they shift you the other way. But you don’t get paid to bunt. If you hit it over all of them, that’s how you beat it.”