Joe Maddon isn’t exactly the godfather of the defensive shift in baseball – even Ted Williams tried hitting through an unbalanced infield alignment – but he played no small role in its current ubiquity.
First as bench coach for the Los Angeles Angels and then as manager of the Tampa Bay Rays, Maddon has long been a sultan of the spray chart, leading a revolution that peaked in 2020, when defensive shifts were deployed in 34% of plate appearances, up from 14% just two years earlier.
It’s little surprise, then, that Maddon was guardedly skeptical about rules experiments Major League Baseball will test in the minor leagues this year – “It goes against my fabric a bit,” he says – but remains bullish on another method to enhance action in a game desperately seeking it.
Deadening the baseball.
MLB sent a memo last month to all 30 teams noting it will loosen the tension on the seams of the baseball and also double from five to 10 the number of ballparks that will store its baseballs in a humidor. This comes two years after a 2019 season that saw a record 6,776 home runs hit and cap an explosion in the home run rate per game – from 0.86 in 2014 to a record 1.26 in 2017 and 1.39 in 2019.
Call that the crescendo of the “three true outcomes” movement – where hitters aim for walks and home runs, strikeouts be damned – and defenders are optimally positioned to prevent anything in between.
Combine that with a preponderance of pitchers nearing 100 mph on the radar gun blowing hitters away at the top of the strike zone and the game became, well, rather stationary.
Yet powerball was how teams saw they could gather wins and players saw they’d get paid.
Maddon, now in his second year as Angels manager, figures making it harder to go yard will disincentivize the swing-from-your-heels approach. And from there, many of the game’s apparent problems will self-correct.
“Just by changing the ball, you change the game,” Maddon, a three-time Manager of the Year, said Friday morning. “If the ball doesn’t travel as far, a lot of the things you’re looking for will occur. Hitters will adjust, pitchers will adjust, defenses will adjust. All the things you’re looking for will happen, even to the point where analytics change, with people running teams (changing valuations) based on what the players’ capabilities are because the ball doesn’t go as far.
“Three true outcomes – that kind of gets old. That’s where I think the game kind of lacks. If in fact the ball is different, hitters will think differently, pitchers will think differently, speed will be more prominent – the game will almost come back to what we grew up knowing.”
Maddon isn’t shy about rules changes he finds distasteful, such as the three-batter minimum for relief pitchers – “I still don’t like that” – and a general disdain for instant replay. The automated strike zone that will be tested for the first time in affiliated minor league ball this year, he says, would bring even more unintended consequences: Robot umpires, robot players and managers.
“I think perfection is a boring concept. I think the lack of perfection is what makes this game so interesting,” he says. “I do like the infirmities, the fact some mistakes can be made. That’s emotion.
“We’re seeking perfection, and I think that’s where the game has lost its luster, according to some people.”
No emotion. Stationary players. Little wonder, then, that MLB will workshop a bevy of rules tweaks to stimulate movement. Many of them will be tested in the lower minors and have a remote chance of adoption – such as a limit on pickoff attempts.
Killing the shift? It certainly flies against Maddon’s rugged individualism. Yet he can envision, with a less lively baseball, a future where hitters adjust their swing paths to send that high heat into an opposite-field gap rather than aim for the upper deck, shift or not.
If habits change, value will follow.
“Anything you want to see in this game, compensate,” he says, “and you’ll see players make the adjustment.”
The Angels, he says, are already pivoting that way. Maddon proudly noted that five of the nine starters in Thursday’s Cactus League exhibition grade as average or above average runners. That number figures to grow in their projected 2022 lineup, with Albert Pujols’ contract expiring and the dynamic Jo Adell better suited for a full-time role.
“Now that’s exciting to me. You want to know what’s exciting to me? That is,” he says of a lineup that more resembles his hope to build a “1985 baseball” culture and talent base.
“That, to me, is what promotes fans wanting to watch you play and promotes a style of play with action and movement that everybody’s looking for.”