Baseball’s shifting culture set to play out in All-Star Game

Published 4:49 pm Monday, July 16, 2018

WASHINGTON — David Ortiz can now laugh, sort of, at the shifting culture of baseball. For J.D. Martinez, Nolan Arenado, Aaron Judge and every other All-Star hitter, dealing with different defensive alignments is just part of the game.

Tune in Tuesday night and no telling where fans will see fielders. Especially in what’s become merely an exhibition — why not try a five-man outfield?

To Big Papi, these overloaded infields are reshaping the sport. Not in a good way, either.

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“It seems crazy, it seems like it’s taking some fun part of the game away,” the retired Red Sox slugger said Sunday at Nationals Park, site of this week’s All-Star action.

“It seems like there are 20 guys playing defense against you,” Ortiz said, playfully estimating shifts took away “like 500 hits away from me.”

His idea: “So I would take my chances, if MLB wanted to. Just saying to play normal, like the game is supposed to be played since Day One, just to see how that plays out.”

Of course, Max Scherzer, Jacob deGrom, Luis Severino and other aces might see it a bit differently.

Besides, no manager employs more shifts than AL skipper A.J. Hinch of Houston, so look for second baseman Jose Altuve and shortstop Manny Machado to be moving around when Bryce Harper, Freddie Freeman and the rest of the NL boppers come to bat.

And remember, despite all the top talent at the plate, All-Star Games rarely turn into run-fests. They’re often limited by the strong stable of pitchers each team brings, boosted by dominant relievers such as Craig Kimbrel, Josh Hader and Kenley Jansen ramped up to throw one inning apiece.

The AL won last year 2-1 at Miami on Robinson Cano’s homer in the 10th inning. Not since 2007, in fact, have both teams scored more than three runs in a game.

That’s the trend across baseball these days. Going into the break, there have been more strikeouts than hits in the majors. Batting averages are in the mid-.240s, possibly on track to be the lowest in nearly a half-century.

The decrease on the scoreboard has increased calls for more radical changes — outlawing shifts, lowering the mound, forcing relievers to face more than one batter.

No one has suggested cutting the bases to 88 feet or stretching the mound-to-plate distance beyond 60 feet, 6 inches.

Meanwhile, home runs continue to rise at a record rate. Strikeouts, too.

Former star outfielder Torii Hunter is no fan of the fanning zone.

“A lot of guys really don’t care about strikeouts and it’s kind of our fault in the front office,” he said. “We don’t tell them, ‘Hey, don’t strike out. Try not to strike out.’ And people don’t really care about strikeouts anymore. But they are very pivotal because if you strike out, nothing happens. You’re walking back to the dugout, you can’t make the guy create an error. Anything can happen if you make contact.”

Longtime pals, Ortiz and Hunter managed against each other in the All-Star Futures Game on Sunday. There were no shifts in the minor league showcase.

There’s been talk that Major League Baseball, concerned that less action in the field could translate to fewer fans in the stands, might consider a rule regarding shifts.

Maybe it would mean only two infielders on each side of the diamond. Or perhaps they’d all be required to stay on the dirt.

“I think taking a hit on a play with somebody diving is different than sitting down and waiting in the right field grass or the left field grass,” Ortiz said.

“I heard MLB is trying to do something about it, but I doubt that they do something different because it seems like, percentage-wise, winning and losing the games, how a manager positions his players, it seems like they’re getting the benefit of winning,” he said.