Jon Heyman: Scott Boras says the severe shift is unfair to lefty hitters

Agent Scott Boras says the defensive shifts now being employed are unfairly targeting left handed hitters, especially lefty power hitters, and MLB should consider instituting rules to level the playing field.

“You want right handed hitters and left handed hitters treated equally,” Boras said by phone. “I think you have to (legislate) having two players on the other side of the (second base) bag.”

Boras called the extreme shifts being used “discriminatory” because they hurt left handed hitters much more than right handed hitters. He estimated there’s a 20-point penalty for lefty hitters, and further suggested it’s not only bad for those hitters but bad for baseball, as well.

Not many have spoken out against the shifts, but Boras is believed far from alone with his opinions.

MLB owners, concerned about a game where outs are up and hits, stolen bases and action are down (the league batting average is the lowest since 1972), recently discussed at a meeting whether to make any rules changes to curtail shifts. Boras suggested he hasn’t talked to anyone at the league about his thoughts and has no idea what the chances are for a change.

One MLB person, while not putting a percentage chance on a rule change for shifts, did suggest such an alteration seemed to have more support than the possibility of a universal designated hitter, which also was discussed (of course, that may not mean much, as enough NL owners seem entrenched against the DH to make it a near impossibility, at least in the short term).

Boras, who himself was a lefty batter when he played in the minors decades ago, says he is concerned about the game. And it’s very likely he is also concerned about several players – some of whom are his clients — who are big, left handed batters who have seen their batting averages dip by as much as 50 points or more as more teams have adopted severe shifts against them.

The prime example, of course, is Nationals superstar Bryce Harper, who leads the NL in home runs with 19 but has watched his average plummet into the .220 range. His dip in average comes at an inopportune time as he is about to be a free agent with an unstated by widely known goal to become baseball’s highest-paid player. While that remains very realistic in terms of total dollars for both him and Orioles’ right handed-hitting superstar Manny Machado, Harper's reduced average could potentially cost him tens of millions of dollars, especially if there with no rules change on the horizon.

Harper is far from the only one affected, he's just the most prominent one. Big left handed hitters or switch hitters who have struggled this year (or at least have low batting averages) include Joey Gallo, Chris Davis, Jay Bruce, Cody Bellinger, Travis Shaw, Gregory Polanco, Justin Bour, Victor Martinez (switch hitter) and Josh Bell (switch hitter). Davis, whose issues go beyond the shift, Gallo, Bell and Bellinger also are Boras clients, but many are clients of other agents.

Boras says the shift makes the game, “uncomfortable” and even unfair for left handed power hitters who aren’t trained to hit the opposite way throughout youth baseball and the minors. And he believes there’s a safety concern for players – shortstop and third basemen primarily -- unused to playing new positions, often slightly closer together on the right side.

“It’s putting players at risk,” Boras said.

Boras’ bigger issue is the toll it’s taking on left handed hitters. Many baseball followers have suggested these players learn to hit against the shift – to left field – but Boras said there’s no training to do this at the developmental level, even throughout the minor leagues.

“We don’t want a situation where a single group of players are being singled out,” he said.

“Right handed hitters do not have to amend their swing,” he added.

Right handed hitters aren’t affected nearly as much, since a first baseman has to be left on the right side against them and also, Boras hypothesizes, because it’s easier for right handed hitters to go the other way because  breaking balls from right handed pitchers (who comprise the vast majority of pitchers) run away from right handed hitters and in to left handed batters. Per Boras' logic, that shift in perception of the incoming baseball leads to balls being hit to the right side for all hitters.

The big claim from folks who don’t want to change the basic rules is that left handed hitters need to show they can either bunt or go the other way, but that obviously isn’t happening enough to make a dent in the shifts. Bour and Mike Moustakas (another Boras client) are two big lefty hitters who have bunted successfully to the left side, but those hits were rarities.

Among left handed power hitters, there are few exceptions who have been able to truly go the other way, but the most glaring one is as notable as they come. The uber-talented, just-retired David Ortiz may have learned early to hit to left at Fenway Park, where he pounded the ball of the Green Monster and managed to keep his average up throughout his storied career.

“You’re trained in the minor leagues to do one consistent approach,” Boras said. “It’s a major adjustment. ... There’s a psychological component to this. A lot of this has to do with psychology. When a hitter comes up to the plate and sees four guys on the right side of the infield, I think it’s a bit intimidating.”

Intimidating or not, the shift certainly has been effective.

Until there is a rule change, Boras will have to stress all the positives of the lefty hitters he represents. Harper still leads the NL with 19 home runs and is second only to Reds superstar Joey Votto with 60 walks.

Harper’s hard-hit rate is the highest of his career (at 92 mph) despite the falling batting average, per Boras. So he’s still hitting the ball as hard as ever – or really harder – he’s just not being rewarded for it. Harper doesn't have to look too far to discover the culprit behind why some of those hard hit balls aren't getting him on base.

Jon Heyman is Fancred's baseball insider. He publishes his weekly Inside Baseball column each Thursday on the App and You can download the App here and interact with Jon by following him right here.