Monday, March 13, 2023

1959 Fleer baseball card showing the "Ted Williams Shift"

We're in the midst of Major League Baseball spring training for the 2023 season. Hope springs eternal. There's even a next-generation revival of the Steve Jeltz Fan Club. (Yes, I know I need to get around to that post.) 

In 1959, Fleer issued a special set of 80 baseball cards about Boston Red Sox slugger Ted Williams. The cards document Williams' life and baseball career, including its interruptions for military service for both World War II and the Korean War. Williams' Hall of Fame career was winding down at this point; he would play his last game for the Red Sox on September 28, 1960.

(Extremely weird aside: Williams died in 2002, and his head currently resides in a Scottsdale, Arizona, cryogenics facility 60 miles northwest of my house. The whole story is extremely bizarre. Google it, if you must.)

This card, #28 in the series, documents the Ted Williams Shift, which was used by opposing teams in a desperate attempt to limit the damage done by the Splendid Splinter, who had a redonkulous lifetime OPS of 1.116. The front of the card shows where some teams would position their fielders when the left-handed Williams came to the plate. On the back, the card states, "This was an attempt to curb Ted's right field power. Ted rarely hit to left field, so Cleveland swung all the infielders and the center fielder way over behind second and first bases. ... Fans gasped at this weird defense. How would Ted bat against it?"

For the most part, teams' usage of the extreme defensive shift did little to stymie Williams' excellence, though the shift was moderately effective in the 1946 World Series (when an injury was more of a factor in Williams' performance).

The shift has been used over the years against other superstar left-handed hitters who tended to hit the ball to right field. A 2017 article on FiveThirtyEight explains how the shift especially thwarted Philadelphia Phillies slugger Ryan Howard.

This season, such extreme defensive configurations will not be allowed in Major League Baseball games. According to a February 1 article by Anthony Castrovince on "The defensive team must have a minimum of four players on the infield, with at least two infielders completely on either side of second base. These restrictions are intended to increase the batting average on balls in play, to allow infielders to better showcase their athleticism and to restore more traditional outcomes on batted balls."

The prohibition on extreme shifts is part of a package of significant rule changes for the upcoming season, which include a pitch timer meant to speed up the pace of game. Baseball is constantly evolving. It will be interesting to see how these new rules affect play in 2023.