David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
The Rays didn't invent the defensive shift. Sticking infielders in unconventional spots as dictated by a hitter's tendencies -- in a ploy to neutralize or frustrate -- hardly is a new concept.
But no team used this era's advanced statistical metrics more often or more aggressively during the past few years to position defenders. And now that the rest of baseball has caught up with Tampa Bay's progressive thinkers, it's only natural that those same minds are figuring out ways to make the shift obsolete.
With offensive production down across the board, something has to be done, and unlocking the shift would be a good place to start. Through Friday, MLB's cumulative batting average was at .251, its lowest level since 1972, when it was .244. And scoring? That's dipped to 4.13 runs per game, according to baseball-reference.com, the weakest output since the league-wide mark was 4.12 in 1992.
Joe Maddon, as the spearhead of the Rays' organizational philosophy, tends to process this analytical stuff more than most. And the Tampa Bay manager doesn't believe the shift can be outsmarted on the fly. It's going to take time, and the end result will transform how baseball is played.
"I think it's incumbent upon players to work on different skills that prevent other teams from wanting to do that," Maddon said. "And I think a lot of that's going to have to do with when you have them in the minor leagues. Your perception of your hitters, to teach them a more complete game of offense.
"Whether it's utilizing the whole field as a hitter, bunting, hit-and-run. I think speed might come back to being more in vogue because speed will definitely hinder a lot of that stuff too. I just think the industry is trending in one direction, so what do you do to combat it? And for me, it's very difficult to teach a major-league dog new tricks."
That's the whole point. Offenses around the league have flat-lined because this generation's hitters can't adapt -- or don't want to.
Which makes us wonder if MLB eventually could step in and draft a rule outlawing these types of shifts to jump-start run production again, not unlike what the NBA did in creating an "illegal defense" rule to kill zone coverage (it's since been curtailed to a degree).
It would be easy to do. Simply mandate that a team must have at least two infield defenders on each side of second base. They could be positioned anywhere inside those boundaries, obviously, but an extra man would be illegal.
The idea has not really been discussed yet, according to a league source. But if scoring continues to suffer, it's not as if there haven't been precedents to this.
After MLB produced only 3.42 runs per game in 1968, the pitcher's mound was lowered from 15 inches to 10, and the impact was dramatic. The following year, the scoring average jumped to 4.07. Only three times has it dropped below 4.00 after the '69 season -- and not since 1976.
Now that MLB already has expanded replay, and Rule 7.13 to prevent collisions at home plate, why not legislate more runs into the game? The league benefits from new technology to get calls right, but those same advances also assist teams in destroying some of the sport's entertainment value.
Should Bud Selig look to the rulebook again to create his own version of a stimulus package for baseball?
"Listen," Maddon said, "I am so not into over-legislating anything. I'm not into that. I much prefer the natural evolution of the game. Where it's gone to right now, it will come back. It will come back somehow."
Of course, there have been other factors driving down run production, which has been in persistent decline since the height of the so-called "steroid era," a period that stretched from the mid-'90s into the early 2000s. Obviously, banning PEDs figured to have a negative effect on power numbers, with home runs sliding from an all-time high of 1.17 per game in 2000 to this year's 0.89. During that same 14-year period, slugging percentage has plummeted from .437 back then to its present .390.
When Mets hitting coach Dave Hudgens was axed May 26, many saw the firing for what it was: a cosmetic move that likely wouldn't have much effect -- if any -- on the team's overall success.
The Lamar Johnson era has looked fairly similar. On the date Hudgens was fired, the Mets were 22-28 and six games out of first place in the NL East. They were hitting .237 with a .310 on-base percentage. Since then, the Mets are 16-20 and have slipped to 10 games back. The OBP (.313) and batting average (.239) both inched upward some, but the Mets' .228 average with runners in scoring position ranks 11th in the National League.
"The conclusion I would draw at this stage consistent with what I suggested at the time we made the change is that sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't," general manager Sandy Alderson said. "It doesn't mean there won't be some change in the future that one can measure, but at this point, we haven't seen an uptick. I don't think that has anything to do with L.J. I think it has more to do with the players that we have."
Well, at least Alderson was honest about it. When Maddon was asked this past week about the culpability of hitting coaches, he echoed Alderson's response. Maddon believes that firing one -- aside from reasons of personality issues or a coach going "rogue" -- is more about management trying to find a scapegoat for bigger issues.
"If you want better results," Maddon said, "get better hitters. It's pretty easy."
With Greg Logan