Will new shift rules affect players like Jeff McNeil?

We are roughly a month away from pitchers and catchers, which means only a month away from seeing how the new MLB rule will affect Jeff McNeil.

This was the foundation of an MLB.com article by Mike Petriello about how the shift rule is coming to a baseball field near you this spring. The end of the full infield shift or having  only two defenders on each side, for those firmly in the 21st century, will seem strange; not allowing something that helps the defense against hitters. For old people like me, this is a return to normal. 

Or at least the bulk of the 20th century deep into the 1980s, when hitters went for both average and power. Hitters like Mets' general manager Billy Eppler said he was looking for during a Zoom conference last week.

“I like power. I like contact. I like on-base,” said Eppler. “I am kind of greedy. I like it all.”

Liking and wanting it all is an apt description of the 1990s in film, music and sports, especially baseball. Video games emphasized power. Drugs switched from cocaine and amps to anabolic steroids. Brady Anderson hit 50 home runs and got paid. No one thought that less than a decade later, Barry Bonds would shatter every record. 

But it was the influx of power that led to three true outcomes - home runs, walks and strikeouts. Pioneered by Christina Kahrl, one of the co-founders of Baseball Prospectus, an organization devoted to sabermetrics and the numbers of baseball.

A sport with so many numbers, games and history was prime for the picking. Picking prime numbers like 0 and 1 coded the technology that allowed analytic ideas to flourish,  which sprouted into areas that were once closed off. An Old Boys Club that only recently had allowed in those that didn’t look like them.

There’s so much more to all of this, but the essential is hitters weren’t rewarded for hitting to all fields and taking pitches the other way. They were asked, expected and then demanded to always hit every pitch as hard as they could.

As if they held back on the power boost heading into a curve on Mario Kart and then “Here We Go!” A generation has grown up playing with the animated version of the players on the field, wondering why the live versions couldn’t match the numbers they produced at home. 

At least that seemed to be the mentality behind the lack of MLB hitters like Jeff McNeil, who finds ways to put his bat on the ball.

Gary Cohen made an effort to point out the power or MPH on many of McNeil’s singles to the opposite field or against whichever defensive alignment he faced.

There were many times McNeil “hit ‘em where they ain’t” to quote Baseball Hall Of Famer William ‘Wee Willie’ Keeler. Born in Brooklyn in 1872, ‘Wee Willie’ had a lifetime average of .345. In 1897, he batted .424, the highest for a left handed hitter in baseball history. McNeil led the league last year with a .326 average; so numbers might not link them, but the tool used to produce those numbers does.

Keeler used one of the shortest and heaviest bats in MLB history - 30 inches and 46 ounces. McNeil’s bat size is average - 34 inches and 30 ounces; but unlike most, he uses a bat with no knob. The wood widens towards the end, providing more control according to the man with a career .307 average.

So how do I think outlawing the shift will affect McNeil? I’m reminded of an old Dave Matthews Band song titled  “Pay for What You Get”. One line is crooned repeatedly and fits well here.

“I’m fine. How are you?”

As fans, we were fine with McNeil, Nimmo and others using all parts of the field, something the GM doesn’t seem to mind.

“I think that fits our scheme and our ballpark, so I think there’s reasons we should feel good about our offense,” said Eppler, “(and) where it’s going to rank.”

Returning the core of a team that ranked 2nd in the league in team batting average and OBP, 4th in hits and 5th in runs scored should benefit from the new rules and that’s the truth.

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