Does Major League Baseball need an ‘illegal defense’ rule?

by Paul West

In every sport, there’s some offensive or defensive tactic which, while it makes sense for the sake of its desired end, is a distortion of the game and requires some regulation.

Defensive shifting is part of sports, but how much is too much? (Photo courtesy of MLB)

Sure, you could make it legal for NHL defenders to ice the puck whenever there was pressure in their zone; but that would detract from the more exquisite, thrilling aspects of hockey. This is why the NHL only allows icing for teams defending against power plays.

Sure, they could eliminate the defensive three-second rule in NBA basketball; but that would allow outsized rim defenders to make it virtually impossible to score in the paint without getting fouled. Eliminating the rule’s offensive counterpart would lead to skill-deficient dinosaurs pounding and shoving their way to baskets, like the cage match schlock brought to us by the likes of Pat Riley and Mahorn/Laimbeer.

Limiting the type and amount of pre-snap shifting in NFL football is the only reason defenses have a chance (no, the way to give defenses a chance isn’t to go back to letting them pile-drive and clothesline people).

Similarly, allowing MLB defenses to put six out of seven fielders on the right side of second base is effectively shrinking the field for left-handed batters, in a way which distorts the virtues of the game.

Now, here’s where you might say, ‘if the whole left side is open, just bunt–or learn to hit the other way!’ To which I would reply: you’re right. I would love it if excessive shifting was rendered passé by power-hitting lefties pushing mediocre bunts into vacated left sides, until defenses played something resembling a baseball configuration. I also agree that the best hitters use more of the field anyway, which is why Joey Votto and Robinson Cano are more dangerous than a dead-pull two-outcome lefty. But even elite hitters have lost at-bats to shifts which look like local kids jockeying for baseballs during a home run derby. For all of the preposterous initiatives to improve ‘pace of play’ and facilitate scoring, why not an ‘illegal defense’ rule?

Shifting is clearly an integral part of baseball, and I would never advocate against it; but ludicrous alignments such as the one the Houston Astros just used against Joey Gallo could be taken out of the game without diminishing the defense’s right to strategic positioning, or rewarding hitters who use more of the field. Moving your third baseman off the line, outfielders into the gaps, or shortstop behind second base is the defense’s right, just as it’s a point guard’s right to force an opposing guard to their left (or right) if they know that guard’s handles are uneven. But unlike basketball, where you can punish a double-team without turning the game into a shadow of itself, in baseball even a skilled hitter can be unfairly and unreasonably restricted by a stacked defense–with their most reliable recourse being to bunt and jog, for which hoops has no equivalent. Bunting is a strategic maneuver best reserved for speedsters, weak hitters looking to advance runners, and those facing a pitcher who’s locked in; making a great hitter–or even a dangerous limited-outcome slugger like Gallo–bunt in his first three at-bats to force defensive realignment just drains the spirit of the game.

One way to prevent absurd shifting while still allowing defensive flexibility would be to limit the number of fielders on one side of second base, to, say, five total fielders. This way, defenses would at least be forced to shift the infield or outfield, but not both to such an extreme. Another solution would be on-field zoning, like the circle in basketball or the crease in hockey. But baseball would then no longer have to deal with some of its best hitters having at-bats virtually nullified by the type of shifting for which there’s little equivalent in other major sports.

Shifting is part of the game, but there’s no reason it can’t be regulated.

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