FanPost

Baseball is Boring

Hi folks. Thanks for being part of the best part of the internet. Been hanging around here for a few years now, learning the new stats from the chats, commenting lightly for a year or so, and now finally feel smart enough to put something into a Fanpost (we'll see if this turns out to be true).

The title of this article really should be Why Baseball has Seemingly Become More Boring. It's a subjective subject to begin with, and the post is meant to be provocative and a tad seditious, so maybe there's no need to soft-pedal it. Anyway, around these parts there seems to be a fair bit of grumbling about the Cardinal's "bad brand of baseball" over the past three years or so. Starting in 2016 things seemed to get pretty boring and frustrating, and trend that might appear to be changing for 2018, but it's still too early to tell.

Of course, it's not just Cardinals fans that are grumbling. The "three true outcomes" brand of baseball that has taken over as hitters embrace the launch angle revolution and seek to get PAID, is by most accounts, not that fun to watch. At least compared to the long gone days of Whiteyball.

With base-stealing at an all time low (thanks nerds), strikeouts at an all time high, homeruns dominant, relief pitchers throwing gas, (and in the Cradz case throw in a healthy dose of TOOTBLANs) there is just very little activity on the base paths these days. It feels like the days of sustained rallies and move-the-runner-over baseball are over. Again, it's subjective, but I personally found that former version of baseball much more interesting to watch. Apparently many folks agree as the rumblings of some sort of rules change to either A) bring more action back to the game or B) tilt the run-scoring environment towards the hitter are becoming louder.

Over the weekend I posted a comment in reference to John LaRue's excellent VEB article The Cardinals Have Been Shift Out of Luck stating that the Infield Shift be banned. The pitchforks quickly came out (well two pitchforks anyway) which is what inspired me to do some further research and write this Fanpost. If you are in the camp that "something must be done" to fix baseball, banning the Shift seems like low-hanging fruit. It's not that fun to watch and is a relatively new development (actually it goes back to 1920, but it was mostly a rarity until Joe Maddon started to use it regularly in 2009), a lot of long time baseball folks have no love for it, and it forces batters to try to modify their approach, which they don't like much either.

The arguments against banning the Shift seem to center around the tenet that "hitters will evolve" and the game will normalize over time as the Shift becomes less effective. Already, some say, little leaguers are being taught to bunt more, and instruction on spraying the ball to all fields is taking hold in the minors. Makes sense. Maybe that will be the case. I understand the Traditionalist thought process: don't monkey with it, the league will adapt, the environment will normalize as hitters adjust and adaptations take hold. Unsurprisingly, Maddon himself is in this camp "For the same reason I'm Republican when it comes to finances, let the market work its way out. You don't need extra rules and regulations in the clubhouse. The players will work it out. It'll lighten up as players start to make the proper adjustments." he's quoted as saying in January 28, 2015 MLB news article.

But if you are in the camp of "something must be done", and let's not kid ourselves, baseball has made a lot of rule changes over the years in an attempt to preserve the balance in the run-scoring environment (strike zone changes, lowering the mound, juicing then unjuicing then re-juicing the ball, etc), then banning the Shift seems like a reasonable thing to think about.

So let's go ahead and think about it. While there are many types of "shifts", some obscure and some common, mostly we are referring to the Infield Shift (or the Boudreau Shift - named after Indians manager Joe Boudreau who famously devised it in between games of a double-header in the 1946 World Series to try to stop the on-fire Ted Williams) when one of the shortstop or third baseman moves over and stands on the right side of the field. But if you're reading this you know that. So when we're talking about "banning" the Shift, we are really talking about writing a rule that states something like "No more than two infielders may stand on either side of an imaginary straight line that stretches from home plate to second base out to a point beyond the outfield wall until the batter makes contact with the ball" or some such verbiage.

Sounds easy right? Well, not so fast. As with most things in baseball, it's complicated. See, the current rule actually reads:

1. RULE 5.02 (c) Except the pitcher and the catcher, any fielder may station himself anywhere in fair territory.

Wow, so there aren't actually defined "positions" beyond Catcher and Pitcher! Who knew? That means that anybody can stand anywhere really, as the Dodgers famously did in their "Wall of Infielders" stunt against Seth Smith of the Padres on August 30, 2014 with the bases loaded to try to prevent the Padres from walking off in the 12th here. (And, it worked, at least to get the ball in to home to prevent the run scoring on that particular play. The Padres eventually won on a walk off Yasmani Grandal single.)

Anyway, so changing the rule would be complicated and frought with unintended consequences, but assuming they get the wording right, would it actually work? In other words, would baseball games be any more action packed or fun to watch as a result?

I did a little research to try to find out, and the results were surprising, at least to me. Maybe the folks with the pitchforks will get to use them after all. Let's take a look.
Remembering that nobody really Shifted until Maddon started doing so on a regular basis in 2009, here are the league-total Shift counts starting in 2011 when the rest of baseball really started to take notice:

Season

Total shifts

Pct. Change

2011

2,350

n/a

2012

4,577

94.8

2013

6,882

50.4

2014

13,229

92.2

2015

17,826

34.8

2016

28,130

57.8

2017

26,705

(-5.0)

Now that's dramatic.

For purposes of this article, I'm going to take a small sample of 2015-2017 and call those years the Peak Shift Era. Clearly, we are early in this particular era and the prevalence of the Shift is already starting to come down as teams figure out when, and when not to Shift and hitters adapt. Again, maybe this will all work itself out, but these three years seem like the best sample given how new the phenomenon is and how rapidly it was adopted across most teams (ahem, Cards -€” I guess our pitchers don't like it or something).

Next, I took team offensive counting stats of the Modern Era (since 1900) and divided them into three groups: all of the Modern Era (1900-2017), Lowered Mound Era (1969-2017) and Peak Shift Era (2015-2017). I've left 2018 out of all calculations to simplify the averages.

Here's what we find:

Year R/G H 2B 3B HR RBI SB CS BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
AVG Modern Era 4.40 8.92 1.51 0.31 0.67 4.04 0.64 0.27 3.19 4.79 0.26 0.33 0.38 0.71
AVG Lowered Mound Era '69 - '17 4.44 8.86 1.62 0.21 0.92 4.19 0.65 0.30 3.29 6.15 0.26 0.33 0.40 0.73
AVG Peak Shift Era ('15-'17) 4.46 8.69 1.71 0.18 1.14 4.25 0.52 0.21 3.09 8.00 0.25 0.32 0.42 0.74
PSE vs. Modern Era 101% 97% 113% 57% 171% 105% 81% 75% 97% 167% 97% 98% 109% 104%
PSE vs. Lowered Mound Era 101% 98% 106% 86% 125% 102% 80% 68% 94% 130% 98% 98% 104% 101%
PSE Cards Avg Vs League Avg 101% 100% 105% 115% 100% 101% 73% 95% 108% 101% 100% 102% 101% 101%

A couple of things jump out right away: number one being that there are actually very slightly more runs per game in the Peak Shift Era than in either of the two previous eras. That puts a big hole in my hypothesis. There are, however, very slightly fewer hits, and overall lower on-base percentage - two facts which could be a result of the Shift but aren't necessarily related, and do contribute to Boring Baseball. We do see some correlation, but not obvious causation, and some data actually pointing the other way.

The real WOW! in this data set is the remarkable increase in homers and strikeouts. We all knew it, but seeing the data really put an exclamation point on just how dramatic this change has been, especially over the last three years. Over the Peak Shift Era, homers are up 171% vs. the Modern Era average, and strikeouts are up 167%. That's insane.

Clearly, the increased homers and strikeouts can MORE than explain the slightly less hits, walks and lower OBP we've seen over the last three years. We really don't even have to bring the Shift up to account for the changed offensive environment. Given the magnitude of the impact of the three-true-outcomes/launch-angle-revolution/swing-for-the-fences/whatever-you-want-to-call-it change in the game, it seems pretty obvious that the Shift isn't likely a major contributor to Boring Baseball, or at least it's impact pales in comparison to the real problems.

So we've come full circle. Baseball is getting more boring, but the Shift probably isn't the culprit. The real problem is the the go-yard-or-go-home mentality of today's hitter. Some folks are starting to agitate for rule changes. I'm not sure what kind of rule change would fix Boring Baseball that wouldn't anger the Traditionalists WAY more than banning the Shift. Moving fences or? or? or? Squinting it's hard to imagine a rule change that would actually work, without tons of unintended consequences, or finding the momentum amongst the various constituencies to actually make the change.

So what to do? Well, I guess we wait for baseball to normalize, just like it always has, and presumably, always will.

That's the fun of it, right?