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Infield shifts and keeping score

by Matt Smith

One of my tasks during March is to review the six volumes of my Baseball Basics for Brits series.

It doesn’t look like there are many factual changes that need to be made, but looking at the sixth volume about keeping score of baseball games did remind me of an article published on MLB.com just before Christmas about infield shifts.

Over the past five seasons, the use of infield shifts in MLB has moved from being a rarity applied to special cases to standard practice.  Managers have moved their fielders for particular occasions for years (bringing the infield in, shading the outfield a certain direction etc), but the infield shift is a bit more drastic than that.

Most games will produce at least one at-bat where the manger shifts his infielders around, leaving one side relatively open so that the bulk of the fielders are in an area that the stats show the particular batter is more likely to hit the ball to.

It’s a conundrum for people who keep score as in baseball every player is assigned a specific position and this is used to identify them when they make an assist, put-out or error.

The practice of moving fielders to account for the tendencies of the batter is a standard part of cricket where batsman have more control over where they hit the ball and, aside from the wicketkeeper, there aren’t fixed points (i.e. bases) that a fielder has to cover. Although there are many historic links between score-keeping in cricket and how it was applied to baseball, assigning numbers to fielders was one difference that baseball found its own answer to.

Thinking of someone as a third baseman, for example, always made sense as they fielded the ball around that corner of the diamond, but now a third baseman may make a play in the shortstop position, or possibly even where the second baseman would normally be (e.g. if the second baseman gets moved out to short-right-field and the third baseman covers that area to leave the shortstop covering the left-side of the infield, rather than the shortstop moving along to second base).

The obvious question from there is ‘so what?’. For official scorers, their primary interest is ensuring the right player gets credited (or debited) with their involvement, so it’s not a significant factor to them.

For those of us that keep score for fun, it can be more problematic because it’s something else for us to build into our idiosyncrasies.

None of us fans need to keep score of MLB games nowadays to keep track of what’s happening or to look back at a game, yet to say there’s no point in doing so is the same as saying there’s no point in doing anything. We could all buy tasty ready meals or get a takeaway to cover our main evening meal every day, but that doesn’t mean none of us bother cooking anymore. Whilst there’s a cost aspect to it (and a health one in most cases), it’s also just a case that people enjoy the process of cooking and like to produce meals in their own style and to their own taste.

It’s exactly the same with keeping score. When I score a game, I do so because I enjoy doing it and I like to produce my own individual account of the game.

This includes deciding what details are important or not and that’s where the infield shift conundrum comes in.

When someone hits a home run, I don’t just note down a ‘HR’ or fill in the box/circle, I make a note of the direction of the shot and embellish that for its length or significance depending on how the mood takes me on the day. I’m not a fastidious scorer who wants to note every little detail, it’s just that there are some elements that I like to make more of than others.

The more I think about this topic, the more I’m minded that if there’s an infield shift and the third baseman throws to first base whilst fielding at second, just noting a 5-3 put-out is missing something to me.

Try as I might, I haven’t managed to come up with a way of accounting for this type of scenario yet that doesn’t make things more complicated (e.g. my initial idea of using the player’s uniform number rather than classic fielding number gets fiddly pretty quickly). So I’m currently just adding a roman numeral next to the play and then making a note elsewhere on the scorecard (i.e. “i – SHIFT: 5 at 2B” or “ii – SHIFT: 4 in ShRF”).

An experienced scorer will tell you that the important thing isn’t the method itself, but being consistent with whatever method you choose. Sadly, I tend to fall down in that respect on my embellishments when scoring MLB games. I couldn’t say I’ll always note the infield shift and logic would tell me to either do it all the time or not at all, yet my score keeping is definitely a case of art over logic at times.

I’ll be giving some thought over the next month as to whether getting into any of this in a revision of my BBfB volume on keeping score is more confusing than it is helpful!

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