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New commissioner Rob Manfred interested in eliminating defensive shfits

How might that impact the Rays?

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Brand new Commissioner Rob Manfred sat down with ESPN's Karl Ravech on Sunday and spoke about ways to advance the game of baseball. After concluding the topic of a pitch clock, which would be implemented with the hope of improving pace and leverage of game, Manfred turned his gaze to offense.

One way to bring offense back into prominence, according to Manfred, is to eliminate the defensive shift, and keeping a traditional alignment of two infielders on either side of second base:

Rob Manfred: "For example, things like eliminating shifts -- I would be open to those sorts of ideas."

Karl Ravech: "The forward-thinking, sabermetric defensive shifts?"

RM: "That's what I'm talking about."

KR: "Let's eliminate that?"

RM: "Mmm-hmm."

KR: "So all of the work that the Cubs and/or Angels and/or whoever has done, you're willing to say, 'I appreciate that, good idea, but it's killing the game in a sense'?"

RM: "Yeah ... I mean, we have really smart people working in the game. And they're going to figure out way to get a competitive advantage. I think it's incumbent on us in the commissioner's office to look at the advantages that are produced and say, 'Is this what we want to happen in the game?'"

You can watch the full exchange on this topic here:

The worry here is that front offices and managers are outsmarting the game. It's the job of those in charge to find the best advantages possible, but at the detriment of runs scoring? Where's the line?

Many of baseball's best hitters have a severe penchant to pull the ball, and taking away that observation from teams is essentially telling front offices they're thinking too much, and making the game too difficult for the stars on the field.

The Rays have been among the ranks of forward thinking teams to deploy the defensive shift, under the guidance of Joe Maddon, with a maddening effect on sluggers with the Yankees and Red Sox. In fact, despite there being only 40 recorded cases of the shift in 2010, you can trace the Rays' use of the stacked defensive alignment as far back as the World Series in 2008. Here's one such example against Chase Utley:

Photo credit: Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Is it right to rob teams of the best use of their players? There might be more to the story.

As much as the Rays have benefited from deploying the shift, so too might they benefit should it be removed from the game. Since 2011, defensive shifts have multiplied by a factor of 564, according to Jeff Sullivan's recent analysis of the most "shiftable" teams in baseball. The results of his search for the most shiftable team, with the most pull hitters? Why that would be the Tampa Bay Rays.

Team Projected Pulled GB%
Rays 60.7%
Yankees 60.3%
Indians 59.1%
Astros 58.6%
Blue Jays 58.5%

Regarding the Rays, what I don't have is good data for Steven Souza, who's likely to be a regular outfielder. From what I can tell, Souza doesn't appear to have exceptional pull or spray tendencies. Eight of the remaining 11 players expected to hit most often have posted pulled grounder rates of at least 60 percent. Only James Loney comes in a little below the league average. Evan Longoria leads the way, at 67 percent. Barely behind him, new acquisitions Rene Rivera and Asdrubal Cabrera.

The Rays are a team that will be very susceptible to the shift next season, just as much if not more than many of their rivals. Maybe players like Souza and Loney can work to balance that lineup, but for the most part, this appears to be a real weakness for the Rays in 2015.

To answer the question on Souza, a likely everyday corner outfielder next season, here is his heat map from last season:

That's a solid distribution throughout the field of play. Shifts would not be expected to have a big impact on Souza at the plate either way. For comparison purposes, here's Longoria's distribution:

Here we see the most frequent pull hitter on the most frequent pull hitting team, where there is a significant advantage to be had by moving toward the left side of the infield.

As the shift has gained prominence over the last three years, we have not seen a frequent defensive shift against Longoria, something that is less likely to occur if he comes to bat with men on base, distracting shiftable infielders. That said, we may see more and more shifts against the Rays' best hitter, and removing that ability might help sustain Longoria's production.

Would banning the shift be a silly, reactionary way to gain more offense? Yes. Would it create unintended consequences as well? Yes, in the long term it would put a premium on infielders who can play "out of zone." Would it be a bad thing for the game? For purists I would say yes, but in general I'm not sure I would be bothered, and apparently some GM's would agree:

The Rays would benefit as much as any other team might from banning the shift, just as they would in deploying the defensive maneuver.

The goal here seems to be improving the entertainment value of the game. In that regard, I'm all for the Commissioner's forward thinking.

In fact, I find it refreshing.