Is the Shift Killing Offense in MLB?

Last week, Tom Verducci wrote a story at Sports Illustrated suggesting that perhaps Major League Baseball should consider some kind of “illegal defense” rule to reduce the effects of shifting, which has grown significantly in popularity over the last few years. In the article, Verducci notes that shifting has disproportionately hurt left-handed hitters, and is part of why offense is down so much over the last few years.

But I’m not actually sure that is true. Sure, shifting hurts some players, but just for fun, take a look at the league batting average on balls in play for each of the last 30 years.

Season BABIP
1985 0.281
1986 0.286
1987 0.289
1988 0.282
1989 0.283
1990 0.287
1991 0.285
1992 0.285
1993 0.294
1994 0.300
1995 0.298
1996 0.301
1997 0.301
1998 0.300
1999 0.302
2000 0.300
2001 0.296
2002 0.293
2003 0.294
2004 0.297
2005 0.295
2006 0.301
2007 0.303
2008 0.300
2009 0.299
2010 0.297
2011 0.295
2012 0.297
2013 0.297
2014 0.299

The rate of hits on balls that defenders could theoretically turn into outs is about the same now as it was for most of the 1990s, when home runs were plentiful and every team could score five runs per game. In fact, as shifts have become more prevalent over the last few years, the overall rate of hits on balls in play has gone up, not down.

Offense isn’t down across Major League Baseball because fewer in-play balls are getting past defenders. Offense is down in Major League Baseball because the league average strikeout rate is 20.3 percent, the highest it has ever been. If we want to change some the game to bring offense back to baseball, the strike zone is the first place to start.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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Aaron (UK)
8 years ago

If shifted sluggers are starting to use all fields, you’d expect to see BABIP increase but at the expense of SLG, so reducing offense overall (quite apart from the impact of K%).

8 years ago
Reply to  Aaron (UK)

This was my thought as well. Offensive value of balls in play might be measured best by something other than average.