A vote against the proposal of illegal defenses


Offense is down in Major League Baseball, and we’re not just pointing a bat at the Padres, who scored eight runs Wednesday, or as many as they had in their previous three games.

The four-plus runs per team per game all major-league teams are averaging is the lowest since 1992, and the .250-something batting average is the lowest since 1972, when pitchers still batted in the American League. That’s enough to make some — i.e., hitters or their advocates — think we’re in a crisis..

Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci says the primary reason offense is down is defensive shifting, and that it’s time to at least think about (emphasis his) banning them.

OK.

Is that long enough? The answer is no. No. And no again. Let’s pile objections on to the idea of calling illegal defenses like Earl Weaver piling dirt on to home plate.

Verducci is right that defensive positioning is a big reason why offense is down. But it’s not the only reason. It’s also down because teams carry 13-man pitching staffs and have relievers for every situation but not pinch-hitters, and because strikeouts are up, either because pitchers are throwing harder or batters keep swinging harder. The Yankees’ Brandon McCarthy was clocked at 95 mph last week; either 95 is the new 90, or the radar guns are juiced.

But Verducci’s answer seems to be if hitters are doing something wrong, let’s help them. This is as logical as a judge looking at a repeat offender and suggesting the answer to his trespasses is to change the law. Batters shouldn’t be rewarded for their failings and what baseball needs isn’t more regulation. Logic and analysis created the advantage for the defenses; let offenses do likewise to counter it.

From Verducci’s piece:

“I recently asked a veteran major league hitting coach what can be done to inject more offense back in the game. His first response was to address the new defensive positioning.

“ ‘The shifts,’ he said. ‘Get rid of them. You need to come up with a definition of illegal defense. I know you’ll say, ‘Well, you’re a hitting coach. Of course you would (say that).’ But it’s something that has really changed the game.’ ”

He’s a hitting coach. Of course he would say that. If the anonymous hitting coach wants to change the game back, he should lobby less and coach more, and urge all those left-handed pull hitters to push the ball the other way. Or bunt even. Or suggest to his manager that they construct a roster that can counter the relievers thrown at them.

But if a number of hitters are only using half the field, whose fault is it that averages are down? Stubbornness, it should be obvious, is not a virtue when there are three infielders on one side of the field.

Robinson Cano is hitting .332, Corey Dickerson is hitting .336 and slugging .594, and Michael Brantley, hitting .321 and slugging. 512, is having his best season. They’re all left-handed. Any guesses why they’re hitting for higher averages than David Ortiz, Chris Davis, Brian McCann, Jay Bruce and Shin Soo-Choo?

If someone develops a bad habit, do we enable it? Or encourage them to break the habit?

There’s a hint of panic in Verducci’s endorsement even of the debate. But it’s a predictable response. Forty years ago fear of a lack of offense brought us the designated hitter, 20 years ago it brought smaller, retro stadiums and the epidemic of PEDs. And every 20 years or so if the players aren’t juiced, the balls are. All remedies either specifically legislated by MLB or subtly winked at.

The real fear on the part of MLB isn’t the lack of offense but the lack of fans. Attendance is down this season by more than 400,000 fans, according to baseball-reference.com (or 291 per game), and the presumption is that it’s because of less scoring (it couldn’t have anything to do with the time of games, cost of tickets, cost of concessions, cost of parking or the technological advances which make every game available on any mobile device for less than a night at the park? Could it? Think about it: For about what it would cost to take a family of four to a major league stadium for one night out of 81 home games, you can watch the entire season — every game, home and away, of every team — on a mobile device. Nah, that couldn’t be it.)

So baseball blames the declining attendance numbers on declining offense. Too bad for its case it’s doing so in the same summer the World Cup drew a record audience when the U.S. and Portugal played to a 2-2 tie. That wouldn’t be a high-scoring game in baseball even this season, unless you’re a Padres fan.

If you want to improve offense, Keith Hernandez told foxsports.com, get rid of four teams. Which four? The four with the lowest attendance (that would be Miami, Tampa Bay, Cleveland and the White Sox)? Should we hold a plebiscite? Interesting idea, but the players association might have a problem getting behind an idea that would eliminate 100 jobs.

Or maybe we could try what Keith Olbermann sarcastically suggested (Olbermann’s response to the idea of banning shifting: “Tough shift.”). Get rid of closers and setup men. The Tigers have, and it’s certainly creating offense in their games.

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