I wasn’t happy when Rob Manfred got the nod as Bud Selig’s successor and the new Commissioner of Major League Baseball. I can’t say I was livid, exactly, because my default disposition is awfully laid back and some element of surprise is nearly always required to get me really roused to anger. I wasn’t happy, though, because if there’s one thing baseball needs, it’s a creative leader, and Manfred is nine kinds of not that. He proved it Saturday, when he told Karl Ravech of ESPN he is open to banning defensive shifts.
Next, he’ll start putting hard caps on how much money teams can spend to acquire amateur talent! Argh!
Baseball isn’t dying. If baseball ever does die, though, the reason will be that it has not allowed its teams the creative space to make the game as varied and interesting as it ought to be. While we like to think of the game as a fertile ground for strategy and analysis, you know what game is actually the king of strategic contests? It’s the same game that also delivers the physicality and uber-commercialized pageantry baseball doesn’t have. It’s football. Football has very few limitations on which players can play where, and what they can do once they’re there, and most of the football field comes into play on most plays, so no one is ever left unused. There are at least five elements to a football play, from beginning to end:
- The two teams huddle, receiving a play call from the sidelines. Most teams have dozens of possible plays, all prepared tirelessly in advance, so that the players know exactly where to go and when, because the week between each game makes possible an extraordinary level of coordination and choreography.
- The defense checks on the offensive personnel in that huddle, to determine the package of players (linemen, linebackers and defensive backs) they should use to match up correctly.
- At the line of scrimmage, both sides infer as much information as possible from the alignment of the other side. The defensive front checks the stances of the offensive linemen, takes note of the side on which the tight end (if any) lines up, as well as whether any running backs line up behind or to the side of the quarterback, and if to the side, on which side. The quarterback scans the defensive backs, determining their depth at the start of the play, trying to gauge the most likely coverage responsibilities each will have based on how their alignment leaves them prepared to cover the whole field. The quarterback must also watch the linebackers and linemen, to read any forthcoming blitz and find out where it’s coming from. The defensive backs rearrange themselves according to the location of any wide receivers, but do so in the way least likely to give away their intended coverage.
- At the snap, everyone acts, and everyone reacts. Two defensive linemen might cross one another as they rush the passer, or one might drop back into coverage as a linebacker blitzes. The offensive line must make quick reads and communicate, so they can switch blocking responsibilities or double-team where able. The safeties and cornerbacks try to read the play immediately, but must do so while keeping step with their assigned man in coverage.
- The play unfolds. This phase, and this one only, is almost purely physical.
In baseball, there just isn’t the same level of nuanced decision-making or coordinated planning to do. The strategic elements that are part of the game are discrete choices made in small amounts of time, which makes them fascinating. However, there aren’t that many of them. Off the field, there are a few more layers of complexity, in roster construction, service-time manipulation and general player movement, but nothing as bizarre as restricted free agency or cap numbers. All in all, I like that. Football’s transaction rules are maddeningly muddled, and the game itself has been so carefully choreographed for maximum efficiency that games now have all the joy of a day at a car factory, watching machines build other machines.
Baseball without defensive shifts is baseball without the flexibility to do anything more than pitch, hit, catch, throw, pitch, hit, catch, throw. People think defensive shifts are a radical novelty, but astute fans have paid attention to defensive positioning for years, and teams have been having meetings to plot out their slightly varied alignments against each hitter before every series for decades. Shifts are just the evolutionary form of these small steps left or right that each player used to make between each at-bat. They work mostly because pitchers throw harder today, which forces batters to build their swings differently, sacrificing bat control for bat speed. If Manfred really wants to save the hitters, he should put a cap on the velocity of an average fastball. Unenforceable, you say? Good luck enforcing any realistic shifting rule, either. (And anyway, Strawman, that was a rhetorical suggestion. A cap on velocity would be a similarly disastrous idea.)
In sports, I’m a libertarian. Every rule that isn’t absolutely necessary to the structure, equality or safety of the game should be abolished. Off the field, players should move in as free a market as possible, while making allowances for competitive balance. On the field, players should have the freedom to begin each play absolutely wherever they wish, so long as doing so doesn’t imperil anyone. Variety and novelty keep us coming back to see more baseball games. Abolishing defensive shifts, like stopping teams from spending money they can’t spend well in free agency on younger talent instead, is a counterproductive, counterintuitive, curmudgeonly way to govern a game that must remain nimble in order to continue to thrive. I expected nothing more from Rob Manfred, but I had hoped for more. That hope dimmed with his comments this weekend.Next post: EW Rewind: Episodes 21 and 22
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