We are not going to wait until the offseason to address the infestation further draining action and joy out of the game?
We need to make the first half of this season the true final four and install a rule that bans an extra outfielder.
Teams deployed a fourth outfielder at a pace three times greater in the first week of the 2022 season than it was used last year. It’s still less than 1 percent of the time. But as it has its intended result — the further draining of the already diminishing doubles and triples — more copycats are coming.
In the Monday-Thursday four-game series between the Blue Jays and Yankees, four outfielders were used on nearly 8 percent of the 1,079 pitches thrown. The Yankees did it on occasion against Matt Chapman and Lourdes Gurriel. The Blue Jays did it on 80 percent of the pitches thrown to Joey Gallo and Anthony Rizzo.
And they didn’t do it because it doesn’t work. On Tuesday, Chapman hit a ball to left-center that has been a double for 100-plus years. But in a four-outfielder alignment, the left fielder, Aaron Hicks, hardly had to move to record an out. The next night Rizzo did a terrific job on an 0-2 pitch from Jose Berrios to dart it to the gap in the opposite field. But there was not a gap. There was George Springer a step in front of the warning track for an out.
Lefty hitters have heard for most of the last decade that if they don’t like the infield shift to hit the ball the other way (as if that is an easy task against greater velocity and movement on pitches than ever). Now, even if you do hit it to the opposite-field gap, there is more frequently an outfield shift in place, too.
“You want more offense,” Francisco Lindor said, “but when you hit it in play, it is an out.”
MLB surveying shows fans love action plays, such as doubles and triples. But already in recent years more and more teams have taken to aligning their outfielders deeper and pinching toward the gaps. Why? Because the goal is to limit extra-base hits. The pitching is so good these days that it is hard to get three singles before a team makes three outs in an inning, and even if it does, that is just one run. The pinch is toward the gap with teams daring hitters to try to pull balls down the line, especially against the current high-octane velocity. Plus, if you pull a ball, it can always go foul. In the gap, is in the gap.
In the past two years, doubles have been at their lowest percent per game since 1992. The past two years have produced the lowest percentage per game of triples ever. Some of that is the caution on offense not to risk an out on the bases — and one less swing for a homer — by trying to leg out three bases. But a lot of this is defensive alignment.
Now, four outfielders are being deployed to further reduce doubles and triples. This only is going to encourage players to swing more for the fences, because there are just fewer hits, especially extra-base hits, to be generated when the ball is in play.
For those screaming to bunt more, sure, yeah, bunt a bit more and see if you can get the opponent out of the defense. But does anyone really want to see lots more bunting? And would the defensive team be pleased — especially in The Bronx — if Gallo and Rizzo are limiting themselves regularly to singles or outs by bunting rather than swinging for the short porch?
When the relationship between offense and defense has gotten out of whack in other sports, rules are imposed particularly to uplift the kind of offense that fans want to see. So NBA defenders can’t use their hands to check an offensive player, but NFL offensive linemen can use them way more liberally to hold. The two-line pass was abolished in the NHL to defang the neutral zone trap.
Some attempt at juicing offense was included in the recently signed collective bargaining agreement with the advent of the universal DH. But banning shifts has been mainly tabled to next year. But it doesn’t have to be.
The competition committee annually meets in November to discuss adjustments. But there is no rule that precludes the committee from meeting ad hoc to address an issue. At this moment the new committee — which will be made up of four active players, five executives and an umpire — has yet to be constituted. This should motivate both sides to get to naming that group. Because if that committee recommends a change to the Commissioners’ Office and MLB Players Association, the new collective bargaining agreement allows a rule to be implemented 45 days later. So, in theory, a new rule can be installed as soon as June if the competition committee met now.
And why not meet now? This problem is not going away. It only threatens to get worse. We already have gotten used to what were always base hits up the middle or line drives to short right field being turned into outs by infield shifts. Should we get used to line drives to the gap also being disarmed?
Short of banning 95 mph-plus fastballs, no one rule is going to reverse the lack of action plays. But the reality of the current game is that very smart front offices are going to keep finding ways to limit offense. The best way (perhaps the only way) to truly counter it is going to be (like the other sports) with rule changes (plural). Ultimately, a shift is just a zone defense. And some ban on the zone is going to be needed.
At Double-A, HIgh-A and Low-A, the defensive team this year must have at least four players on the infield dirt with at least two on both sides of the bag. MLB and the union probably want to collect more data from the minors before implementing such a dramatic rule. But I don’t think there needs to be more of a delay to at least enforce four infielders on the dirt, even if you want to continue to allow the shift. Do we really want to watch a full season of inevitably fewer extra-base hits before reacting?
If the ball is hit hard on a line to the outfield — if the hitter has done his job, in other words — he should be rewarded as much as possible short of it going right to one of three outfielders or an outfielder making the kind of athletic play that also improves the entertainment value of the game.