Maybe you won’t be surprised to hear that The Scrapbook wishes Keith Olbermann had never gotten into political commentary. But don’t misunderstand: The problem isn’t his terminal case of Bush Derangement Syndrome, or his feud with Bill O’Reilly, or his unintentionally hilarious and pompous policy pretensions. No, it’s that he took way too much time away from sports journalism, at which he excels, especially when it comes to baseball.
For instance, last week Olbermann took on what seems to be a growing consensus among the baseball commentariat: The defensive shifts that clubs are employing more than ever this year are killing hitters. Maybe, some say, it’s time for a rule against illegal defenses that, for instance, would prohibit a team from putting three infielders on the right side of second base.
Olbermann is having none of it. As he explains, the game’s powers-that-be are forever trying to tilt the playing field to favor the hitter. In the 1880s, they moved the mound back from 50 to 60 feet, in the 1960s they lowered the mound, they’ve periodically juiced the ball, and in 1972, says Olbermann, they “released the designated kraken”—by which he means the designated hitter rule that allows pitchers never to have to take a turn at bat in American League games.
What’s most absurd about the whole debate, notes Olbermann, is that shifts have been around for as long as the game has been played. Most famously, Cleveland Indians player-manager Lou Boudreau stacked the right side of his infield whenever Ted Williams came to the plate. But even long before that, as Olbermann discovers in a neat bit of investigative baseball reporting, the shift was used by the skipper of Brooklyn’s National League team, Bob Ferguson. The New York Clipper documented what seems to be the earliest of shifts, in 1879, and described what it looked like to fans without the benefit of the video highlight.
Smith (3B) stood at left-short, Ferguson (SS) covered second. Crane (2B) was deep right-short, and Latham (1B) covered first well back, while Cassidy (RF) was ready for a right-field assistance. Pike (CF) at right-centre, and Powers (LF) at left-centre. The moment a right-handed batsman took his place, the field was moved around to the regular positions to suit the probable hitting.
It’s not defensive shifts that are hurting offense this season, explains Olbermann. Rather, it’s the fact that hitters have forgotten their trade and are striking out more than ever—more than 20 percent of the time this year, compared with a little less than 15 percent in 1990, and 8.2 percent in 1930. Hitters and their enablers ought to stop whining, Olbermann argues. He’s right, and what a pleasure it is seeing him once again as the adult in the room.