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The shift doesn’t always go your way

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“I guess if I had my druthers, I would do away with it,” Dave Roberts said of defensive shifts

Manny Machado robs Matt Beaty of a hit from short right field on Monday night.

The Dodgers shift more than 28 of 30 MLB teams, moving the defense for 55.7 percent of plate appearances against them. Only the Mets (56 percent) shift more often.

Manager Dave Roberts, who at various times has extolled the virtues of shifting, explaining that the strategy is deployed because, generally, the benefits outweigh the cost. But on Tuesday, Roberts seemed to change his tune.

“Sometimes I think we end up kind of talking out of both sides of our mouth, as far as trying to promote offense but allow for other things that suppress it,” Roberts said. “I guess if I had my druthers, I would do away with it.”

This came after Monday’s game, when third baseman Manny Machado caught a line drive in shallow right field, 232 feet from home plate off the bat of Matt Beaty. Roberts also referenced “a one-hop bullet up the middle” off the bat of Will Smith in the sixth inning, turned into an out by Ha-seong Kim near second base.

Roberts said he would prefer either two infielders required on each side of second base before the pitch, or if shifted, every infielder must be on the dirt as the pitch is delivered.

On one hand, Roberts might have a point. Batting average on balls in play across the majors this season is .290, the lowest since 1992. That’s down from .292 last year, after a run from 2004-2019 that saw BABIP fluctuate within a narrow range from .295-.302.

But it’s not all because of the shift. Rob Arthur at Baseball Prospectus in early June wrote about how defenders in general have been playing deeper in the last few years, from third basemen to outfielders:

An analysis of fielding since 2016 shows that batted balls that used to be dropping for hits have become outs instead, thanks to a new alignment that pushes outfielders closer to the wall. The result is that, even ignoring the impact of the shift entirely, the league’s improved positioning has taken away hundreds of extra-base hits.

But mostly, I think Roberts was just reacting to a couple plays that went against his team. The question was broached by asking about Machado’s positioning so deep in right field.

For what it’s worth, Double-A is experimenting this season by requiring all infielders to play no deeper than the outer boundary of the infield dirt. Through Monday, the 10-team Double-A Central — former the Texas League, where the Dodgers’ affiliate Tulsa plays — has a .308 BABIP, compared to .314 in 2019, without those restrictions.

MLB’s stated goal for the change in Double-A was to increase BABIP, and depending on how the first half goes might also require two infielders on each side of second base in the second half of the season.

Perhaps opinion of the rule changes will shift by then.

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