Crash Bag, Vol. 78: Ted Williams Shift

The other night, when I was watching a Cardinal (I believe Carlos Beltran), hit a screaming line drive straight into the Ted Williams Shift for an out, I remarked that if I were dictator of baseball, I’d outlaw the shift, which generated this response:

@SamMillerBP: “Why?”

Fair question.

Currently, the rules governing where you can place your nine fielders are extremely anarchic. Your pitcher has to be on the rubber and your catcher has to be in the box behind the plate, but the other seven guys can go anywhere in fair territory. I’d change the rule to read like this: each team must have exactly four infielders, all of whom must be on the infield dirt, with two on each side of second base, when the pitch is thrown.

I’m not entirely sure what the practical implications of this rule would be. You could still play a hitter to pull, just not as extremely as you can now, and you could still put the outfielders wherever you like. It’s also worth noting that if I became dictator of baseball, this wouldn’t be the first thing I did or anything. But it’s on the list.

The reason I want to either eliminate or severely reduce the shift is no more profound than that it annoys me personally. Because here’s how it works: the defense takes the batter’s tendencies into account and makes a decisive move that is not only obvious to the batter before the pitch, but it cannot be undone before the batter decides to hit. The batter knows it’s coming and has a chance to adjust for it, but once he does, the defense can’t change its mind before the ball arrives. Let’s draw this out as an extensive-form game.

Shift

 

That’s what I learned from two semesters of game theory in grad school, by the way, in one MS Paint drawing. The hitter knows the defense’s strategy, plus the potential payout functions for each of his own strategies, and can adjust accordingly well before the pitch arrives without the defense having any ability to adjust for it. If the defense shifts, he can just dribble a ball the other way and beat it out. If the defense doesn’t shift, he can just pull the ball to right field as he would ordinarily. It wouldn’t work every time, but it’d work more often than hitting into the shift would.

Making such a drastic, obvious and irrevocable tactical decision as this is like playing poker and turning your cards over before the betting starts. Sure, your opponent won’t always beat you if he knows what cards you’re holding, but he’ll have a marked advantage. In any other sport, coaches and batters would have figured this out and adjusted within a game of the first shift, and by the end of the week, we’d have returned to our previous equilibrium.

Well the shift–and not just shading to pull, either, but full, balls out, three infielders on one side of the bag shifting–is alive and well and nobody’s tried to hit around it routinely even though they’ve been doing it for 100 years. This is a level of self-destructive stubbornness that I have trouble…I was going to say understanding, but it goes beyond that. I have trouble believing this is going on, even as I watch it unfold (because I’m a Phillies fan and watch Ryan Howard hit a lot) four times a night, 100+ times a year.

My parents have a kitten who has a habit of walking into the bathroom, nudging the door closed and pulling a drawer open so you can’t open the door. She then realizes she’s trapped and meows and meows, too stupid to realize that she could just nudge the drawer closed and slip out the door.

So why do I want to outlaw the shift, Sam? Because at a certain point it gets too annoying to rescue the kitten over and over, and you have to just leave the bathroom door closed.

Reducing the defense’s ability to shift would also incentivize hitting the ball hard (I’d rather incentivize directional hitting by having players go the other way when the shift comes, but as I’ve said, that dog apparently won’t hunt) and keeping the infielders on the dirt would probably lead to more ground balls sneaking through, which leads to more hits, more baserunners and possibly more double plays, all of which are exciting to watch.

@VojirEsposito: “who do you think receives a longer/higher AAV contract: Choo or Ellsbury?”

Ellsbury, for three reasons:

  1. Ellsbury is a year and change younger than Choo.
  2. Ellsbury is a legitimate center fielder, while Choo is only a center fielder because the Reds played him there. Though to be fair, Choo wasn’t as bad as everyone had feared, but I wouldn’t sign him this winter and expect him to play center field for the next four or five years.
  3. Choo’s a very good all-around hitter, but his party piece is his on-base ability. Ellsbury isn’t quite the on-base guy Choo is, but he does almost everything else better, including posting three seasons of 50 or more stolen bases, one of which was his 52-for-56 campaign this year. Whoa. I need a cold shower. It’s not as lopsided as the Trout-vs.-Cabrera argument, but it’s rooted in the same principles.

@joshjurnovoy: “Can you describe what your reaction will be if the Phillies draft Joey Pankake next June?”

@Eric_Lindros: “how will the Phillies louse up the monetary advantage afforded by the pending TV deal?”

Well I don’t know that it’s a huge monetary advantage, nor do I think the Phillies are going to louse it up. The Phillies have an extremely inefficient team-building methodology. It’s not that you can’t build a winning team through free agency, backloading extensions for established homegrown players and eating salary on other teams’ failed salaries (the Yankees and Dodgers have won a bunch of games recently doing precisely that). It’s that you have to spend a lot of money to make it work. The cheapest way to build a winning team is to scout and develop amateurs well and cut bait on players at precisely the right time. The more you deviate from that strategy, the less efficient your expenditures are, and the more you have to spend.

Of course, this only matters if they go over the luxury tax. If you’re trying to keep your payroll at $190 million (or whatever the luxury tax cutoff is), dumping $40 million on Jonathan Papelbon and Ryan Howard is quite a handicap. If money’s no object, you can just buy the next good guy.

@Fotodave: “what is a realistic expectation for the phillies offseason? Train wreck?”

Train wreck probably isn’t going to happen. That might be optimism, or that might be my resolve having been broken, or that might be the result of knowing the team’s going to lose 85 games no matter what happens, so the stakes are lower now.

I have no idea what to expect. I know I’ve been a downer on the Phillies’ front office for years and years, but I’m not sure which direction they’re going this offseason, whether it’s going to be a patient rebuilding year or that part in Sunshine where they wrap themselves in insulation and try to jump from ship to ship through 30 seconds of hard vacuum. I’d bet on at least one inexplicable free agent contract, given way too early in the offseason to a player who’s extremely unlikely to be worth it, but that could wind up being the mildly disappointing Placido Polanco deal, or its equivalent. Apart from that, who knows?

@RobertDemmett: “Explain your rationale for choosing an EPL team”

I was never anti-soccer, but I never followed it closely until 2006, when I watched just about every minute of the World Cup. France made a memorable run to the final, thanks in part to Thierry Henry, who lit a fire of love in my heart. So when I decided it was time for me to follow the EPL, I picked his team, Arsenal. Not only did they have Henry, but they had a cool name, cool colors and were championship contenders not through brute economic force, but through clever scouting and development of young players and their exciting, aesthetically pleasing style of play. They checked all the boxes.

Since then it’s been nothing but misery, but I don’t regret following Arsenal, because most things in my life make me unhappy, so soccer making me unhappy doesn’t bother me that much.

@Living4Laughs: “Michael Carter-Williams?”

That was a hell of a debut, right? I’ve been an MCW skeptic from the day he was drafted, but I’m open to being proven wrong.

By the way, I challenged my Liberty Ballers colleague Michael Levin to a wager about the over/under of the Sixers’ win total and we’re trying to determine stakes that are neither expensive no illegal. Suggestions are welcome.

@KevinBors23: “which city’s entire set of sports teams do you dislike the most?”

Probably New York’s. Counting the Jets, Giants and Islanders, New York City has eight major league sports teams, of which I actively despise three and harbor significant dislike for four more. These Islanders are kind of fun, but that’s a drop in  the bucket of hatred. No other city except for Pittsburgh is home to more than one team for which I have serious, abiding, permanent dislike.

@SethAmity: “what is the worst thing all Philly fans have implicitly been a part of”

Whenever people talk about Philadelphia fans being the worst, I roll my eyes and think of a line from Munich. Eric Bana and his men are staying with a PLO group in a safe house, and one of the Palestinians delivers this line: “My father didn’t gas any Jews.” Obviously nobody accuses Philadelphia sports fans of something like that, but the snowballs, the booing Santa Claus, the ill treatment of Donovan McNabb and Eric Lindros, the racism, the violence, the vomiting on children…our reputation isn’t good. And I don’t care. Nothing’s going to change that reputation now. But all Philadelphia fans have never done anything. We’re an extremely Balkanized community, separated along racial and class lines, separated by who likes the NHL and who likes the NBA, by who likes soccer and who doesn’t, and by which Big Five team we follow.

So to answer your question: “Fly Eagles Fly.” It’s just such a profoundly stupid song, first in that an NFL team has a sing-along when they score, and second in that the lyrics, even by fight song standards, are infantile. I’ve sung along with more substantive songs while watching Barney as a five-year-old, though I guess “Fly Eagles Fly” has to be written like that if you’re going to get the overwhelming majority of Eagles fans to understand it.

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4 comments

  1. nahmean

    November 01, 2013 09:29 AM

    I was just thinking about ‘Fly Eagles Fly’ this morning. It’s dumb from the very first line:

    Fly Eagles Fly on the road to victory

    Fly? on the road? Sounds like how several of the local hawks have met their demise. Just a bad idea all around.

  2. max

    November 01, 2013 01:09 PM

    “I’ve sung along with more substantive songs while watching Barney as a five-year-old, though I guess “Fly Eagles Fly” has to be written like that if you’re going to get the overwhelming majority of Eagles fans to understand it.”

    zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzinggggg

  3. DDH

    November 03, 2013 12:53 PM

    For what it’s worth,
    The original title of the song was “Fight Eagles Fight”.
    I have a program from the 1960 Championship game with the lyrics printed.Somewhere along the line the words were changed.
    Perhaps your crack research department can supply some more definitive info.

  4. Yehoshua Friedman

    March 24, 2014 02:33 AM

    Teams should be allowed to shift all they want. The onus is on hitting coaches to get batters to respond to the shift. Presumably baseball players are sentient beings, and ballclubs should avoid signing players who lack that minimal intelligence. Players have to be coachable.

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