The Atlantic League Utilizes the No-Shift Rule for the First Time

One of the most popular idioms in the English language is “guinea pig.” It’s simple — we’ve probably all used it — and yet it means so much. To be a “guinea pig” is to be the subject of something new or different. It can be as simple as being the first to try a new toothbrush, and range to something as weighty as testing a new drug.

In baseball terms, the Atlantic League is serving as Major League Baseball’s guinea pig this season. In a deal struck in early-March, the two organizations agreed to change certain rules for the Atlantic League’s 2019 championship season as a way to test said modifications before MLB considers implementing them itself.

One of the more contentious rule changes was the prohibition of the infield shift. The rule itself, as explained in the press release, was simply the requirement of “two infielders to be on each side of second base when a pitch is released.” If the rule is broken, “the ball is dead and the umpire shall call a ball.”

Well, last Thursday, the Atlantic League’s Opening Day, the anti-shift rule was utilized in a game between the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs and the Sugar Land Skeeters. Former big leaguer James Loney (remember him?) was at the plate in the bottom of the fourth inning. On the first pitch from Blue Crabs righty Daryl Thompson, Loney hit a soft ground ball to second baseman Angelys Nina, who easily threw him out at first to begin the inning.

If my description was not quite satisfactory, let’s take a look at the play in GIF form:

As you can see, it’s your pretty standard 4-3. There’s not much to it. But then, confusion hits. The umpires gather behind the pitcher’s mound to discuss the previous play, and the game takes a pause in the action. Blue Crabs manager Stan Cliburn asks for an explanation, and rightfully so:

When the umpires reach their conclusion, they award Loney first base. As you can see in this next screenshot, there is a chalked line drawn behind second base as a way to help enforce this rule:

In their decision, the umpires concluded that, prior to the play, there were not two infielders on both sides of second base. If we take a second look at this, I’m not entirely sure where the violation occurred. Clearly, shortstop Edwin Garcia is on the left side of that line, as shown in the screenshot here:

What I think happened is that because Nina was in shallow right field, the umpires decided that he did not “count” as a second infielder on the right side. That looks like the only reasonable explanation. You can see Nina in shallow right field in this screenshot here:

The broadcast booth joked about how to score that play, which is a fair question, and it appears that in the game log, an error was charged to Nina. A better conclusion, in my opinion, would have been to treat this as if it was a catcher’s interference (that’s what the broadcasters suggested). That way, Loney’s on-base percentage wouldn’t be penalized for a rule violation, as it wouldn’t have counted as an at-bat. In actuality, though, he got an 0-for-1 for the play.

But, as I have since realized, I don’t think that play was scored correctly at all. It shouldn’t have been an error. In fact, it shouldn’t have been the end of the at-bat at all. As you can see in the upper portion of this piece, the rule states that if there is a violation, “the ball is dead and the umpire shall call a ball.”

So, while the violation itself seems a bit iffy, the conclusion doesn’t seem right, either. The umpires should have asked Loney to go back into the batter’s box, and his count should have gone from 2-1 to 3-1. The whole “should this be treated as at-bat?” question would thus go away, and Loney would then have completed the plate appearance as usual.

This works in all counts. Even if a violation occurs on a 3-1 count, the batter would just be awarded ball four and, along with that, a walk. No official scorer confusion is necessary at all, if the violation is indeed enforced correctly.

Granted, the umpires deserve some leeway here. It was only Opening Day, after all. And if the rationale behind this call was that Nina was not in the infield, and therefore only one infielder was on the right side of second, I can understand that. But, what doesn’t make sense to me is how this was ultimately enforced, and I think that’s something the league should look into before this becomes a common occurrence.

I suppose I should mention that I am not a fan of this rule. I am interested, though, in the rule’s effects, and as the Atlantic League serves as a guinea pig this season, it’s clear that so does MLB. The rules just need to be enforced correctly to understand the true impact.

We hoped you liked reading The Atlantic League Utilizes the No-Shift Rule for the First Time by Devan Fink!

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Devan Fink is a Contributor at FanGraphs. You can follow him on Twitter @DevanFink.

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intelati
Member
Member
intelati

What’s a SS called if he’s on the grass?

Infield Fly rule.

That was definitely a bunk call (on both the call and the implementation of the rule)

Doug Lampert
Member
Member
Doug Lampert

Yeah, we’re going to need a definition of “infielder” for this rule to work. I don’t like the rule, but I also don’t see a violation on this play.

mrenick1974
Member
Member
mrenick1974

exactly, and the rules committee or whoever came up with this proposal should have had enough foresight to see this as an issue. This should have been defined before the rule was ever brought to the table.

Number20
Member
Number20

When teams submit their line-up cards, they designate what position each person is playing, right? The second-baseman is an infielder, wherever he fields the ball. Unless there is a longer description of this rule, I think they inferred an additional limitation that wasn’t apparent to anyone before.

mrenick1974
Member
Member
mrenick1974

I wonder if “infielder” is actually defined or it is just a label we have attached to those players who traditionally play on the dirt. If infielder has never been assigned a definition then you can’t just create a rule that dictates where an undefined player must play.

intelati
Member
Member
intelati

“An INFIELDER is a field who occupies a position in the infield.”

Now, there isn’t a definition of infield in the same chapter…

Also, just a few rows down is a commnet “… could have been handled by an infielder – not by some arbitrary limitation such as the grass, or the baselines….”

Number20
Member
Number20

The thing that stands out to me about the infield fly rule is this part:

“The pitcher, catcher and any outfielder who stations himself in the infield on the play shall be considered infielders for the purpose of this rule.”

So, a right-fielder playing so shallow that he is positioned where a second-basemen might play is treated as an infielder for this particular rule, but he’s still an outfielder for other purposes? Similarly, it would seem that a shortstop playing so deep that he is located where a left-fielder might play is still an infielder.

dcweber99
Member
dcweber99

“What’s a SS called if he’s on the grass?”

Tim Lincecum?

LHPSU
Member
LHPSU

Do you get to swap infield/outfield designations if you’re playing on turf?