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New commissioner Rob Manfred: MLB could consider eliminating defensive shifts

Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Rob Manfred's tenure as commissioner of Major League Baseball isn't even 24 hours old and he's already proposing radical changes to the sport.

Manfred, who replaced Bud Selig on Sunday as baseball's new commissioner, says he's considering eliminating defensive shifts in an effort to inject more offense into baseball.

"Things like eliminating shifts, I would be open to those sorts of ideas," Manfred told ESPN in an exclusive interview. "We have really smart people working in the game and they're going to figure out ways to get a competitive advantage. I think it's incumbent upon us in the commissioner's office to look at the advantages produced and say, 'Is this what we want to happen in the game?'"

Related: Bud Selig changed the game

Though offense has been in steady decline across the league, Manfred's proposal to ban such forward-thinking strategy is sure to be met with resistance. Teams have long employed some iteration of the shift, but it wasn't until recently that the strategy began catching mainstream acceptance.

The Tampa Bay Rays are considered among the more aggressive teams at using the unorthodox realignment, sometimes out-shifting their opponent by a 2:1 ratio. The sabermetric-inspired shift relies on balls in play data to isolate a hitter's weaknesses and force them to adjust out of their comfort zone.

For instance, teams frequently stack the right side of the infield against David Ortiz to counter the Boston Red Sox slugger's pull-heavy approach.

Proponents of the shift argue defensive realignment isn't to blame for the downward trend in offense over the last two decades. Eno Sarris of FanGraphs points out that while the use of shifts has increased in recent years, league average rates of balls in play have remained virtually unchanged.

Strikeout rates, meanwhile, are at an all-time high and hitters are walking more infrequently than ever before.

Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports, however, offers credence to Manfred's proposed notion after polling a pair of saber-friendly executives.

Another hot-button topic Manfred discussed was pace of play. Manfred said he supports the idea of a pitch clock and suggests it's only a matter of time before the game is on a time limit.

"The fact that we had the guts to do it in the Fall League ... even the most traditional baseball people went to games and said, 'You know what? These games do feel different, and they feel better,'" Manfred said.

Manfred said his other priorities include growing the sport from a grassroots level, embracing technology without inferring with tradition, and fostering a greater bond between the players and league executives.

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