'Damn, that should be a hit': MLB players sound off on the infield shift -- before it could disappear forever

AP Photo/Tommy Gilligan

Anthony Rizzo shook his head, a slight smile on his face, as he stood next to his locker in the New York Yankees' clubhouse. He'd been asked for his opinion on ... the infield shift.

"Looking at the shift doesn't bother me," he said. "But hitting into it does."

Rizzo, a left-hander who is pulling the ball 52.6% of the time this season, has had the defensive alignment used against him for most of his career. But recently, other teams, including the Toronto Blue Jays and Detroit Tigers, have taken things a step further by employing four outfielders against the 12-year veteran.

"The four outfielders, I kind of like, because it gives you room to hit a ground ball and get a hit," Rizzo said. "Then again, I hit a couple balls in the gap against the Blue Jays and I'm headed right to the dugout."

His sentiments sum up the yin and yang of a word that many hitters -- and baseball purists -- think should be four letters long. Many a hitter has cursed the trend that has caused them so much angst, ever growing in an era that has seen the use of analytics become commonplace across the sport.

"It's a credit to how smart the game has become," Rizzo's Yankees teammate Joey Gallo said. "And a credit to how good pitching is, because hitters are starting to need help now. Offense is at an all-time low."

That help might be on the way -- as soon as next season.

The league is working toward a rule that would regulate the shift -- and, for the first time, mandate where players besides the pitcher and catcher can stand on the baseball diamond. The expectation is to require two infielders on each side of second base before the pitch is thrown -- potentially with all four of them prohibited from starting on the outfield grass.

"The best rule changes are ones that provide the most benefit to the style of play with the least amount of intrusion on competition or disruption to the game we love," league consultant Theo Epstein said in an email. "Ultimately, the new joint competition committee will determine whether the benefits of banning extreme shifts are worth the new 'intrusion' of limiting where teams can position their fielders within fair territory."

It's hard to find a player -- batter or even pitcher -- who isn't for some regulation.

"That's the way we saw it for a long time," Rizzo said. "All those people in the Hall of Fame, they were playing under their circumstances. Our circumstances are that a ball up the middle is not a hit. It was for them."

Ted Williams famously did face the shift. So did Boog Powell and Willie McCovey. But until recently, the alignment was rare enough that it made a lasting impression when employed.

"I remember playing the Cardinals when Tony [La Russa] was there and one day they had a second baseman almost up the middle on me," Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. "I smoked a one-hopper up the middle and he made the play and I was like, 'Damn, that should be a hit.'

Over the years, technology has allowed for more precise data to be gathered on where batters tend to hit the ball. As a result, defensive setups that put fielders in those spots have increased dramatically over the past decade.

"Joe Maddon and Tampa, they were at the forefront," free-agent hitter Mitch Moreland said. "I remember my debut in 2010, I hit two balls in the 4-hole for hits. That would never have been hits later in my career. It got extreme over the next few years."

In 2021, Moreland ranked seventh among all MLB hitters, getting shifted against 90.2% of the time (minimum of 100 balls in play), according to ESPN Stats & Information research. It led to an OPS 63 points below his career average, and now he's still looking to catch on with a team.

Perhaps the player with the most to gripe about is Texas Rangers outfielder Kole Calhoun. He has faced more shifts than any other hitter over the past two seasons -- in 96.7% of his at-bats -- and the potential hits lost have weighed on him.

"When I first came up, you could be having a bad day and roll a ball over in the 4-hole, and now you're 1-for-4," Calhoun said. "It doesn't let you fall into as deep a slump as what could possibly happen in today's game, your 0-for-20s and 1-for-30s ... You can kind of salvage your day with something that's kind of easy for every hitter. That's not there anymore."

Moreland and Calhoun are among the many who have been most shifted against, but neither has become the face of frustration on the subject. That title is reserved for Gallo, who has a .204 career batting average and has faced the shift in 91.4% of his at-bats since the start of the 2021 season. He's hitting just .176 this season.

"Growing up, we never had that," Gallo said. "It's tough to adjust to it because it wasn't a thing in the minors. ... Over time it's gotten more extreme and more effective. From a hitter's standpoint, it's something that could be changed."

Adding offense isn't necessarily the only end goal when it comes to regulating the shift. As the sport decides what its future will look like, perhaps no rule change could have a bigger impact on the visuals of the game.

"An anti-shift rule would restore a traditional aesthetic and make the game more familiar and relatable for fans who grew up knowing intuitively where the shortstop and second baseman play and what a sure base hit looks like off the bat," Epstein wrote.

Even pitchers -- who certainly benefit from the defense the shift provides -- can cede to that point.

"I don't ever feel sorry for hitters. My biggest complaint about the shift is, how do you explain that to kids?" said Chicago Cubs reliever David Robertson. "What's the point of having a shortstop if he can't play shortstop? What's the point of having a second baseman if he can't play second?"

Epstein also pointed to a "premium on range and athleticism for infielders" that would return with the shift's departure.

"In last year's Double-A and AFL anti-shift experiments, infielders loved playing with more freedom and room to roam -- and we saw lots of athletic, rangy plays that you don't see quite as often in a shift-heavy league with infielders bunched up," he wrote.

So far this season, in the lower levels of the minors where shifts are regulated, the batting average on balls in play by left-handed hitters is up eight points. At Triple-A -- where shifts are not banned -- it is up only three points. Some might debate just how much offense will be added, but there's little doubt among those who play or manage that it will have an effect.

"Everybody wants you to go the other way," Gallo said. "I don't think people who say that realize how hard the game is. They wouldn't step in the box and do it, I'll tell you that much."

"I've heard this countless times, especially from talking heads," Reds slugger Joey Votto, who has seen a shift in 82.2% of his at-bats over the past two seasons, agreed. "Uncle with the 'Why don't you learn how to hit the ball the other way?'

"It's opportunity vs. cost. I can attempt to hit the ball the other way or put the ball in play in lieu of taking shots at hitting the ball out or off the fence. And because homers were so much more available over the last few years, you would be a fool to take shots at hitting the ball the other way or trying for soft contact."

Epstein notes that regulating the shift won't impact the increase in strikeouts that baseball has seen as average velocity climbs, and it will change a part of the game that has been in place since its inception. But there are also some counter arguments to consider.

"[And] Banning the shift would most benefit a certain subsection of hitters -- three true outcome left-handed hitters -- who don't exactly align with or further the industry's stated goals of increasing the amount of balls in play and athleticism on the field, " Epstein said.

The league hasn't made any final decisions, but it's more likely than not there will be changes in defensive alignments come the 2023 season.

"Much as I would have fought this truth when I worked for a club, it's better when games are won or lost by players making big plays ... rather than by front offices developing just the proper algorithm to make sure that third infielder on the right side is positioned exactly where the ball is going to be hit," Epstein, the former Cubs and Red Sox executive, said.

The league isn't done experimenting, either. In the second half of this minor league season, it's also likely baseball will try a "dead zone" behind second base, meaning the second baseman and shortstop will have to be a certain distance from the base as the pitch is thrown. Chalk would be used to indicate where they need to stand.

It might be a radical look but it will be a welcome change for those who have to step into the batter's box against the shift and those who watch it on a nightly basis.

As Gallo put it: "I think it opens up a whole new f---ing world for hitters."

ESPN's Alden Gonzalez contributed to this report.