About those coming rule changes . . .

Mike Hargrove

Mike Hargrove—the Human Rain Delay might lead the Show in unpitched strikeouts starting next year if he was playing major league ball now.

Hands up to everyone screaming blue murder about the rules changes coming to baseball in 2023. Now, listen up. They might actually be not as grave as you think. Might.

It’s probably a good thing that Mike (The Human Rain Delay) Hargrove (first baseman) and Pedro Baez (relief pitcher) don’t play now. The new pitch clock rule would have Hargrove leading the Show in batting strikeouts with about half of those coming without pitches being thrown, and Baez would likely lead the Show in pitching walks without throwing pitches.

Starting next year, pitchers get fifteen seconds to throw to the plate with the bases empty and twenty to throw with anyone on base. Hitters better be in the batter’s box ready to swing after eight seconds on that pitch clock.

They’ve used the pitch clock in the minors for a few years now and, well, if you don’t count the unconscionable contraction of the minors a couple of years ago nobody’s proclaimed the end of the world as we know it yet.

The bases are going to get a little bigger, too. The bases have changed since the game was first organised, unless you never knew they began as large stones, changed to wood posts, and then to pure sandbags before somebody thought to make them the filled canvas squares that were familiar to one and all until about three decades or so ago. Stop snarling, Boring Old Fart. Then, pick up a copy of Peter Morris’s A Game of Inches, and learn that baseball was never quite as static as you let yourself be led to believe.

Why enlarge the bases even a relatively small amount? (From fifteen-inch squares now to eighteen-inch squares starting next year.) MLB’s Competition Committee thinks they’ll cut down on baserunning injuries (to name one, future Hall of Famer Mike Trout missed about half a season one year after incurring a thumb injury sliding into base) and raise the prospect of basepath theft in the bargain.

“In Triple-A, the first season of larger bases didn’t make much of a change on its own—but in the lower levels, bigger bases combined with rules about pickoffs saw large increases in steals per nine innings,” noted ESPN’s Jesse Rogers. “Even combined with the disengagement rules, though, MLB doesn’t believe either change will lead to teams being unable to control the run game.”

The infamous defensive overshifts will be verboten, too. Starting next season, teams will be required to keep four infielders on the infield dirt, including one each on either side of second base. This won’t exactly eliminate pure defensive shifting—you can still position a shortstop almost behind second base itself or a second baseman almost directly behind the pad, and move your first and third basemen accordingly against pure pull hitters—but you won’t see those walls of infielders on one side or a shortstop in short right field or a second baseman in short left, for a couple of examples.

But how to enforce? “If the hitting team reaches base and runners advance on a ball hit under the violation, the game proceeds without penalties,” Rogers wrote. “If the play has any other consequence—an out, a sacrifice, etc.—the hitting team can decide either to accept the penalty—which would add one ball to the hitter’s count—or decline it, and the play would stand.”

I wish he hadn’t said “sacrifice.” I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: deliberate sacrifices waste outs, your most precious commodity when your guys are at the plate. You can look it up, too: in six known “bunt situations,” only once do you have an absolute better chance of scoring after than before that bunt (men on first and second, nobody out), only once  otherwise do you have an even scoring chance before and after (man on second, nobody out)], and all four others you have less chance to score after than before that bunt.

Unless you’ve got the next Brett Butler on your team (that half-pint center fielder dropped 337 bunts in his long career and 85 percent of them were for base hits), you should be fined heavily for wasting outs and scoring probabilities with bunts.

These three new rules won’t be as drastic as the continuation of the free cookie on second base to open each extra half inning is and will remain. The players on the Competition Committee were outnumbered 6-4, but I’d love to know if they pushed to get rid of Manfred Man at all. It’s a ridiculous rule that probably did nothing to cut down the time of a game, which was of course the critical factor in devising the aforementioned new rules. (It’s also another of the extremely few reasons to waste an out with a bunt: you’re handed a man on second going in, you have an even chance of scoring after bunting him to third, go for it. Make Manfred Man look like anything but a pretty flamingo.)

But will they really cut down on the times of games? From where I sit the jury’s going to have a long deliberation. And two things that would really cut down on the times of games don’t even seem to have been topics. You don’t need me to tell you that eliminating broadcast commercials a) between half-innings and b) during pitching changes in jams would probably do more to cut the times of games than any of the foregoing changes—especially if they’re married to thing two: eliminating the eight warmup pitches on the game mound for relievers coming in in the middle of those jams.

Go ahead and scream. All better? Now listen up. Again. (I’ve argued this before.) When you bring a pitcher into a jam, unless you’re bringing him in because your incumbent was injured, you shouldn’t even have to think about the new man warming up on the game mound.

He might have thrown anywhere from one to three or even four innings worth of pitches getting to where you could bring him in in the first place. Warm up? He’s coming in hotter than a Las Vegas summer. It takes less time for him to get from the bullpen to the game mound, most of the time, than it does to run those ridiculous “this call to the bullpen” commercials.

You brought him in to get you out of that jam. He’s nuclear hot already. Let him get right to work. Your reliever’s not going to have less men on base behind him or a less pesky hitter at the plate after he throws those eight useless warmups, is he? (Oops. Better not give Commissioner Rube Goldberg any more bright ideas!)

Crazy Joey Gallo?

Joey Gallo

Calling for baseball to go to law to ban what he can’t traverse isn’t Joey Gallo’s best play.

I don’t recall any banners at Yankee Stadium making the connection last year, but Joey Gallo—the all-or-nothing corner outfielder/designated hitter the Yankees landed from the Rangers just before the trade deadline—shares a name with one of New York’s most legendary organised crime figures.

Some seeing Gallo’s recent comments on baseball’s defensive overshift epidemic (some think it’s a pandemic) might be inclined to hang the same nickname upon him as was once attached to his Mob namesake two decades before Gallo was born.

Crazy Joey Gallo the mafioso bragged about leading the four-man crew who assassinated  Murder, Incorporated boss Albert Anastasia one minute (“You can just call us the Barbershop Quartet,” Gallo is said to have quipped about the foursome who whacked Anastasia in his barber’s chair) and applied himself to studying letters, philosophy and watercolour painting during eight years in prison the next.

“Upon his return to Brooklyn in 1971,” wrote Selwyn Raab in Five Families: The Rise, Decline, and Resurgence of America’s Most Powerful Mafia Empires, “Gallo could quote and discuss the nuances of Balzac, Kafka, Sarte, Camus, and Flaubert . . . His pseudo-intellectual trappings were a con man’s camouflage.” (Balzac: Behind every great fortune lies a crime.)

Gallo was once described by a fellow inmate as “articulate and had excellent verbal skills being able to describe gouging a man’s guts out with the same eloquent ease that he used when discussing classical literature.” Picture him if he’d lived to become a godfather himself. The Renaissance Don.

Crazy Joey Gallo the Yankee hit man executes opposing pitchers with long-distance bombs every 15.1 plate appearances. But he strikes out every three plate appearances and draws walks every seven. When the coronavirus pan-damn-ic throttled baseball for half of 2020, Gallo set up a batting cage in his home. He did much swinging but might have been served equally by doing more serious thinking.

“I get the defensive strategies,” Gallo told The Athletic‘s Hall of Fame writer Jayson Stark. “I do. I am 100 percent not against that . . . But I think at some point, you have to fix the game a little bit. I don’t understand how I’m supposed to hit a double or triple when I have six guys standing in the outfield.”

This year’s edition of The Bill James Handbook shows a table indicating that, last season, 51 percent of all batted balls were hit right into the defensive overshifts. Baseball Prospectus writer Russell Carleton determined that lefthanded hitters such as Gallo saw more pitches with the overshifts on than without . . . for the first. time. ever.

The shifts took game-wide hold in this century (the Rays in 2008 began the contemporary trend) because they work, at least against batters at the plate who can’t hit other than dead pull and think they can or need to hit six-run homers with every swing. But they’re not a 21st century schizoid plot. Joe Posnanski gathered the evidence into mostly one place in 2014.

Decades before Hall of Famer Lou Boudreau deployed it against Hall of Famer Ted Williams, the New York Giants deployed it against the Phillies’s Cy Williams, who hit a ton in his home Baker Bowl (its field resembled Fenway Park in reverse, right down to its metallic, high, short-distance right field wall) but only ounces on the road. (In 1923, Williams led the Show with 41 home runs . . . but his OPS was 1.042 at home and .838 on the road.)

Thanks to Posnanski resurrecting a Fleer baseball card showing it, this was Boudreau’s shift on the Splinter:

The Boudreau shift on Ted Williams

The once-notorious Williams shift.

People who think pull hitting is purely a choice should ponder Posnanski’s observation, drawn from more tons of research than the tons Williams hit despite the shifts.

Williams did try to adjust somewhat with the help of [Hall of Famer Paul] Waner. He backed off the plate some, and he did hit a few more balls the other way. But not many. He could not stop being Ted Williams. If he needed a reason to pound balls the other way, he had one long before Boudreau shifted. After all, in left field at Fenway Park stands the greatest incentive for lefty opposite field hitting there is: The Green Monster. The wall made Wade Boggs a star and made Bill Mueller a batting champ. Williams, though, didn’t take much advantage of the Green Monster. He hit like he hit.

Beyond that, I doubt the shift took away 15 points of batting average from him or anything like it. It probably didn’t take away any points in the long run. From 1939-1946, Williams was a .353 hitter. From 1947 to 1957—even with his career again interrupted by war and with his body aging—he was a .348 hitter. The shift maybe have had its subtle effects on his hitting. I suspect it had a much larger effect on his psyche and on the story people told about him.

From 1947 through 1957, according to my Real Batting Average metric (total bases + walks + intentional walks + sacrifice flies + hit by pitches, divided by total plate appearances), Ted Williams was (wait for it!) a .750 batter. He also averaged 47 strikeouts and 153 walks per 162 games during that span. Even though, as Posnanski observed, “the shift became his constant companion.” Taking a mere five points off his hitting average.

In other words, once he accepted the overshift as part and parcel of his way of life in the batter’s box, Ted Williams pretty much remained Ted Williams. He wasn’t the only all-but-dead-pull hitter of his time, either. According to one Joe DiMaggio biographer, Maury Allen (in Where Have You Gone, Joe DiMaggio?), when the righthanded Hall of Famer was offered the thought that he might put a few more home runs on his resume if he tried aiming toward Yankee Stadium’s fabled short right field porch, he dismissed the thought in a huff.

“I could piss those over that wall,” the Clipper harrumphed. “That’s not hitting.” That kind of stubbornness wasn’t born with the three-true-outcomes generation.

Hall of Famer Stan Musial became a pull hitter after a few major league seasons. But he once observed, “[O]nce in a while you’ve got to give in to the pitcher,” he once said. “You just can’t, you know he’s out there thinking just like you are, and he has some idea about what he might want to do of course, and so a lot of times you’ve got to go with the pitch [hit it to the opposite field]. Which most hitters can’t do.”

The shifts finally came into game-wide play because they work against hitters who can hit only one way, whether consciously or by natural inclination. Did you really think a team was just going to line themselves up against a wall to be machine-gunned without even thinking about doing something to keep the assassins from bringing their guns to bear?

I suspect the opposite syndrome might take hold, in time, if a team is bedeviled by a guy who’s killing them hitting almost strictly the other way. Try to imagine lefthanded, other-way shooting Boney Boxorocks—or even Hall of Famer Wade Boggs (who probably should have seen such shifting: almost half his hits went up the middle or the other way to left)— seeing the opposite of the Williams/Gallo shift: third baseman, second baseman, and first baseman crowding the left side of the infield, shortstop out a few feet onto the left field grass.

Gallo the Yankee is no Teddy Ballgame, Yankee Clipper, or Man. Formal rule changes in baseball, as in legislation, are undertaken and consecreated best after long, careful thinking and not under the lash of hysteria. Citizens demand those making law make it without thinking longer term. Baseball players such as Gallo think much the same style. But they might wish to go to their own batting minds first. They might want to think about . . .

Yep, I’m going there yet again. The bunt.

I’ve argued even recently that there are only two or three times a team should even think about bunting, and one of them is if you should be fortunate enough (or your analytics-overdriven team fell asleep on draft day) to have the next Brett Butler in your lineup. (Butler dropped 337 bunts in his long playing career, and 85 percent of them were for base hits.) Sacrifice bunts, I repeat, waste outs with almost no real scoring return for their trouble.

But if you see the defensive overshift on, you should be crazy enough to think with the pitcher even more. He’s not going to try throwing you something away when he knows he’s got more protection against a pull hit than a gangster with a bought-and-paid-for cop by his side. But pitchers make mistakes, too, from the merest raw rook to the most well done Hall of Famer in waiting.

When he makes a mistake to your outside, and if you’re not half as prideful as Ted Williams, just drop your bat to bunt, then just tap the ball onto all that delicious, open, free real estate. Even if they left the corner baseman at his base, or have that corner outfielder playing only a few feet short of the infield dirt, they’re not going to reach that ball in time to get you out. Bartolo Colon could beat such a bunt out.

The second most precious commodity a team at bat has behind outs to work with is baserunners. If outs to work with are rhodium, baserunners are platinum. Let a few batters fed up with the overshifts think about bunting onto the open expanses they’re gifted, and the shifts will fade back on their own. Teams won’t deploy what won’t work.

Crazy Joey Gallo the self-styled renaissance racketeer didn’t live long enough to become a Renaissance Don. In likely retaliation for ordering the hit attempt that left Don Joseph Colombo “vegetabled” (in mob parlance) in front of the don’s own family, the renaissance racketeer was hit in front of his own family ten months later.

Crazy Joey Gallo the Yankee might live a longer, healthier baseball life if he forgets asking baseball to whack defensive shifts with its law and, instead, helps sends them toward a death due to natural causes. The causes of hitters doing some real thinking at the plate while playing, still, the thinking person’s sport.

The shifts aren’t as shifty as you think

2018-12-24 JoseBerriosChanceSisco

Chance Sicso (bunting) making Jose Berrios (pitching) and the Twins very, very angry that he exploited their foolish shift while his Orioles were seven runs down.

Hark back to April Fool’s Day, and a game between the Twins and the Orioles, in which the Orioles were in the hole 7-0 in the ninth and their catcher, Chance Sisco, came to the plate against the Twins’ Jose Berrios, who was two outs from a one-hitter. The hit belonged to Sisco himself, in fact, a third-inning double. Now, with one out, and the Twins smothering the right side of the infield while leaving the left side unoccupied, in a defensive shift, Sisco bunted the first pitch toward third base.

He was as safe at first as a baby in its mother’s arms. Berrios walked Chris Davis unintentionally to follow, and Manny Machado lined one to center for a followup hit to load the bases, but Jonathan Schoop popped out foul to catcher Mitch Garver ambling toward first base before Berrios struck Adam Jones out swinging to end the game with the 7-0 win and settle for a mere 2-hitter. And Berrios was distinctly unamused over the denouement when talking to reporters after the game.

“I don’t care if he’s bunting,” the right-hander began, before exposing that promptly as a lie. “I just know it’s not good for baseball in that situation. That’s it.”

The exact situation was the Orioles seven runs down, their catcher at the plate, facing a defensive overshift the logic behind which was obscure enough, in light of a pitcher two outs from a shutout, against a team doomed to a season of sub-mediocrity. Sisco ended up with a .288 on-base percentage for the season and a batting average for the year seven points below his playing weight. Writing elsewhere, I wondered at the time whether the Twins thought Sisco was supposed to take it as an April Fool’s Day joke and then thank the nice Twins for the laugh by hitting it right into their packed right side making his out like a good boy.

Twins second baseman Brian Dozier, subsequently traded to the Dodgers mid-season, was a little more blunt than his pitcher. “Obviously, we’re not a fan of it. He’s a young kid. I could’ve said something at second base but they have tremendous veteran leadership over there.” I thought then and still believe that it’s to wonder whether the Twins’ tremendous veteran leadership thought for a moment that overshifting with a 7-0 lead against a sub-mediocre hitter was less criminal than the kid seeing a big fat hole into which to hit and doing just that.

There are those who think that way even as they join the argument now animating against baseball’s defensive shifting trend on the grounds that it’s choking offense in a generation where nobody seems to teach anyone about hitting the opposite way. If Sisco did as the Twins ordered, instead, and hit right into that packed first base side of the field, I’d have hoped as I also wrote at the time, that the Orioles’ tremendous veteran leadership would take him aside afterward, convene a kangaroo court, convict him for not making the Twins pay for such a foolish overshift, and fine him carfare, dinner, and drinks for the entire team.

Those who think the defensive shifts threaten to put baseball on life support should be counseled that, in the big picture, the shifts really aren’t as shifty as you fear. Overall, teams put those shifts on 17 percent of the time in 2018. When they did, the hitters got a lot smarter about them than when the shifts began crawling back into the game. FanGraphs conjugated that the five teams who shifted the most averaged 11.9 shifts a game and surrendered 3.3 hits against those shifts for a .277 batting average against them. The five teams who shifted the least, FanGraphs says, averaged five shifts a game and surrendered an average hit and a half against those shifts for a .300 average against them.

But Commissioner Rob Manfred talks yet again about limiting or banning shifts, and Major League Baseball Players’ Association executive director Tony Clark talks about players having no known position (his words) one or the other way about the shifts, though they’re “willing to talk about it as part of a much broader conversation.” How about letting some facts get in the way? Baseball’s .244 batting average for 2018 had far less to do with defensive shifts and far more to do with hitters trying to hit six-run homers most trips to the plate. Or hadn’t you noticed or remembered the yammering about metastasizing strikeouts, of which there were more than there were hits last season?

Now, let’s be a little more real: a strikeout is only one out, and I don’t think you’d prefer to see hitters grounding into more double plays, but it wasn’t the shifts suppressing hitting in 2018. And there isn’t a shift on earth that can prevent walks, of which there were about three per game in 2018.

Which takes us back to another early April game, in which Cleveland’s Corey Kluber, who may yet find new employers for 2019, had a no-hitter in the making against the Angels as he opened the fifth with one out, a 2-0 lead, and Angels shortstop Andrelton Simmons coming to the plate. The Indians didn’t put a full shift on against Simmons, but third baseman Jose Ramirez played so deep in the infield there might as well have been a blue plate special sign sitting around his neck. And Simmons accepted the gift heartily, dropping a bunt right up the third base line.

All the hustle on the planet wasn’t going to get Simmons out at first. Kluber struck out Luis Valbuena to follow up, though not without a little hiccup when he wild pitched Simmons to second before nailing the strikeout. The next Angel hitter was American League Rookie of the Year-to-be Shohei Ohtani. On 1-1, Ohtani caught hold of Kluber’s up-and-away fastball and drove it over the left center field fence. The purists to whom the Sacred Unwritten Rules are as canonical as defensive shifts seem to be blasphemous screamed bloody murder, never mind that the game a) wasn’t even close to the ninth inning at the time of Simmons’s bunt and b) the game needed thirteen innings before the Angels’ Zack Cozart hit the game-ending home run.

Simmons committed no crime other than spotting a big defensive hole, something that should be second nature to him considering his own prowess playing shortstop, where he’s one of the best and the smartest in the business. If he’s at the plate with a chance to help his team get on the scoreboard in the fifth inning, neither he, nor you, should give two that the other guy may have a no-hitter in the making that isn’t as close to being consummated as it would be in the eighth or the ninth.

If Kluber’s defense made a mistake and gave Simmons a little too open a place to reach, whether it’s a complete overshift to one side or a big fat infield alley up the third base line, they should have spent less time raging against that rat bastard at the plate than getting it into their heads that — forget that good hitting beats good pitching, smart hitting beats it a little more often. With a lifetime .269 hitter at the plate, who doesn’t earn half the living with his bat that he does with his glove, but who gets what extra base hits he gets with his legs as much as his bat, Kluber should have wondered instead why Ramirez played Simmons as though that .269 lifetime average suggested the prospect of (lifetime .267-hitting) Mike Schmidt-style destruction.

Nobody but a purist or a Yankee fan feels terribly sorry for Joe DiMaggio losing so many home runs to Yankee Stadium’s cavernous left center field, when the right-handed-swinging DiMaggio rejected opposite-field hitting where he might have parked quite a lot of those lost bombs otherwise. “I could piss those over that wall,” DiMaggio huffed, when someone suggested he try going with more outside pitches. “That’s not hitting.” Tell that to Ted Williams, who finally got the a-ha! against what was then known as the Boudreau Shift.

If the shifts didn’t really suppress hitting in 2018, what on earth is the problem? Are Manfred and Clark trepidatious about encouraging organizations to teach batters how to go with the pitch again and quit just trying to pull everything whether or not it can be pulled? Are they, too, in thrall enough to the Sacred Unwritten Rules that they’re unwilling to say Sisco and Simmons showed what to do against the overshifts, so kiwtcherbeefin’ about smart hitters outsmarting smart defense?

They could also tell teams like the Twins and the Indians not to come crying when their guys lost one- or no-hitters regardless of the inning because they were fool enough to overshift with the chance of a smart hitter taking advantage of a big fat open spread. And they could throw in something about the courtesies due through the SUR rendered null and void when you leave a batter a hitting region large enough to send an earth mover unobstructed. But that would deprive Manfred and Clark of one of baseball’s older sub-professions, calling the repairman to fix what isn’t broken.

This essay was published in slightly different form by Sports Central.