The MLB Players Most Likely to Be Impacted by Shift Ban Rule Change
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Out of the new rules that will take effect during the 2023 Major League Baseball season, arguably the most welcome is the ban on defensive shifts.
Though, to be sure, it depends on who you ask.
The new regulations will require teams to have all four infielders within the outer boundary of the infield, with at least two on either side of second base. This outlaws four-man outfields and, crucially, the typical shift on left-handed batters that came to be used more than half the time between 2020 and 2022. Heck, even shifts on right-handed batters were 16 times more frequent last year than they were in 2015.
As far as which players do and don’t figure to benefit from these changes, we’ve compiled a list of guys who are worth talking about at some length. And just to clarify right off the bat, they’re not all lefty hitters with heavy pull tendencies. Those are obviously a big part of the discussion, but we sought to honor the nuance of the situation through variety.
For instance, we want to start off by talking about a handful of prominent pitchers.
RHP Sandy Alcantara, Miami Marlins
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More so than in 2022, Marlins infielders are going to have to work harder for outs when playing behind reigning National League Cy Young Award winner Sandy Alcantara in 2023.
At 44.0 percent, the Marlins ranked sixth in the rate at which they shifted their infielders in 2022. They also ranked fifth with 330 outs made by shortstops and second basemen in shifted formations, and Alcantara was the primary beneficiary in leading MLB in such outs.
It should go without saying that there was good fortune involved there, but it’s worth pointing out examples anyway: this hard liner up the middle, this soft liner up the middle and this hard grounder into what might have been a hole between first and second without the shift.
And yet Alcantara almost certainly isn’t due for a fall from grace even though he won’t be able to rely on the shift for as many outs this season.
A major reason why he got the most outs from shifted middle infielders in 2022 was that he worked a lot, facing 886 batters and pitching 228.2 innings. He also wasn’t so much lucky as really good at inducing contact on the ground. As long as he keeps both things up, he won’t necessarily need precision positioning to lead MLB in groundouts for a second year in a row.
RHP Tony Gonsolin and LHP Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers
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It’s really all incumbent Dodgers pitchers who are in for a system shock without the shift. The team shifted its infielders a league-high 53.1 percent last season, meaning Dodgers hurlers pitched in front of altered defenses more often than not in 2022.
Yet as high as that figure is, it’s actually on the low side relative to the standards for Tony Gonsolin and Clayton Kershaw.
Last year saw the Dodgers employ defensive shifts behind Gonsolin and Kershaw 66.7 and 65.4 percent of the time, respectively. Those were the highest such marks among all hurlers who chucked at least 1,500 pitches, and by a good bit of distance over the 60.5 percent clip that put Toronto Blue Jays right-hander José Berríos in the third spot.
To be sure, the Dodgers’ addition of defensive-wiz shortstop Miguel Rojas will help both pitchers. And just as Alcántara and López aren’t necessarily in the same boat with their post-shift concerns, the same holds true of Gonsolin and Kershaw.
Whereas opposing teams stacked left-handed batters against the right-handed Gonsolin, they naturally didn’t do so against the lefty-throwing Kershaw. As exemplified here, here and here, the former will thus have to get used to the kind of hits that the typical shift on lefties was meant to prevent.
CF Trent Grisham, San Diego Padres
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As defensive shifts against lefty batters became more and more frequent, a certain piece of advice made the rounds that went something like this: “Why not just lay down a bunt?”
Most lefty batters didn’t take that to heart, and for good reasons. But Trent Grisham? Yeah, he did.
Even though he was shifted on “only” 56.1 percent of the time between 2020 and 2022, the Padres center fielder nonetheless laid down a league-high 19 bunts against the shift. And 10 of those came just this past season, with five producing successful singles.
Five hits isn’t much throughout the course of a normal season, but Grisham truly needed every one of them last year. The .184 average with which he finished 2022 is already the worst such mark for any hitter who’s ever played in over 150 games in a season. Without those bunt hits, he would have hit an even worse .173.
Not having as many windows to bunt for hits in 2023 should nonetheless be a net positive for Grisham. Because while his bunts against the shift did succeed with some frequency, well-hit balls where the shift used to be (e.g., here, here and here) should work with even greater frequency.
1B Freddie Freeman, Los Angeles Dodgers
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If not by bunting, the other common piece of advice for oft-shifted hitters was that they should channel “Wee” Willie Keeler and just hit it where they ain’t.
This, too, was always easier said than done. But Freddie Freeman did it a lot, because of course he did.
After starting out at a modest 30.3 percent in 2015, the shift rate against Freeman went above 50 percent annually between 2016 and 2022. Which was odd, considering that bat control has always been as notable a part of his hitting prowess—he’s batted at least .300 seven times already—as his power and good swing decisions.
As for how often Freeman made teams pay for shifting on him, it’s 548 times if you’re just counting the times he went the opposite way against the shift. It’s 238 times if you just want to count the oppo hits, and many of them unsurprisingly had low hit probabilities off the bat.
Inside Edge @IE_MLB
Freddie “Free Hit” Freeman leads the NL with 13 hits against the shift that would have been outs in a normal defensive alignment. <br><br>Here are a few of those shift-beaters…<a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/LADodgers?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#LADodgers</a> <a href=”https://t.co/MazhxU1xoC”>pic.twitter.com/MazhxU1xoC</a>
This is not to suggest, however, that Freeman’s batting average will suffer now that he can no longer beat the defense with well-placed knocks. Like Grisham, the hits he stands to gain from defenders not automatically being in the way of well-hit balls should level things out.
LF Joey Gallo, Minnesota Twins
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Joey Gallo has seen infield shifts at better than an 80 percent clip annually since 2017, but that’s not what really bothers him.
As he told Jayson Stark of The Athletic, it’s the overloaded outfields that really grind his gears:
“I get the defensive strategies, I do. I’m 100 percent not against that. But I think at some point, you have to fix the game a little bit. I mean, I don’t understand how I’m supposed to hit a double or triple when I have six guys standing in the outfield.”
He was exaggerating, but only sort of. What qualifies as a six-man outfield is disputable—does an infielder become an outfielder simply by standing on the grass?—but it’s a fact that Gallo has seen 545 four-man outfields since 2017. Or, more than twice as many as anyone else.
How much damage such formations did to Gallo’s bottom line is hard to say. He’s only hit 13 outs into four-man outfields by way of line drives and fly balls. But that doesn’t account for any potential alterations to his approach. Notably, he did strike out at a higher rate against four-man outfields (41.4 percent) than he did otherwise (36.4 percent).
In any case, it’s hard to imagine Gallo suffering from not having to contend with four-man outfields anymore. One assumes this is part of the reason why the Twins signed him.
1B Matt Olson, Atlanta
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Speaking of left-handed hitters who may have altered their approaches in the face of defensive shifts, let’s talk about Matt Olson.
Mike Petriello of MLB.com recently made an argument for why the Atlanta slugger won’t be a major beneficiary of the shift ban, particularly noting that he didn’t actually miss out that much when he knocked hard-hit grounders against the shift.
What’s interesting about Olson, though, is the direction he tended to hit the ball when the shift was on. Though he’s firmly among the 10 most oft-shifted hitters of the past three years, his 39.5 percent pull rate against the shift was the lowest of the bunch.
Though Olson has said in the past that he doesn’t do things differently against the shift, it’s nonetheless hard not to wonder if this is part of the reason his overall pull rate has declined. Which isn’t ideal, given that he boasts a stellar 1.138 OPS for his career when he pulls the ball.
Whether he does it on purpose or simply intuitively, what we’re saying is that we won’t be surprised if Olson’s pull rate goes back up in 2023. If so, both he and Atlanta stand to benefit.
2B Marcus Semien, Texas Rangers
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- As noted earlier, shifts on righties weren’t as common.
- Shifts on righties also weren’t as exaggerated.
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Whereas it’s relatively easy to point out shift victims among left-handed batters, it’s harder to do so for those of the right-handed vintage for two reasons:
All the same, we feel comfortable in pointing at Marcus Semien. While his 2022 shift rate was second to Seattle Mariners slugger Eugenio Suárez among right-handed hitters, he was second to none at hitting into them.
Semien knocked 209 line drives and ground balls either to his pull side or up the middle against shifted infields. That led righty hitters, as did the 104 that were turned into outs.
This is where it once again gets hard to quantity the damage. Because while knocks like this, this and this are probably hits sans the shift, ones like this and this would probably find the glove of the shortstop anyway.
It’s therefore commendable that Semien didn’t want to oversell his potential benefits from the shift ban when he spoke to Levi Weaver of The Athletic last September. And yet, he was still justified in pondering the possibilities: “Usually, I try and hit it over the infielders, but when I hit groundballs pull side, there’s usually three guys there. So let’s see how it changes.”
SS Corey Seager, Texas Rangers (and Other LH Hitters)
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If not Semien, Corey Seager is the Ranger who absolutely stands to benefit from not having to go up against the shift anymore.
The club’s $325 million shortstop was shifted on 93.4 percent of the time last year, marking a new high among hitters who’ve seen at least 2,000 pitches in a season since 2015. If you count likely hits (i.e., batted balls with an expected batting average of at least .500) fielded by shifted shortstops and second basemen, those may have cost him as many as 26 hits.
That was 12 more than any other left-handed hitter last year. But while that may make Seager the biggest shift victim of 2022, he was hardly the only one.
There were 17 other lefty hitters who lost at least 10 likely hits to the shift, including Olson with 14 and Freeman, Max Kepler and Anthony Santander with 12. It’s also worth moving the focus simply to hard-hit balls flagged for outs by shifted shortstops and second basemen, wherein Josh Naylor (28) and Yordan Álvarez and Kyle Schwarber (27 each) stand out.
Basically, about who you’d expect from any exercise designed to get to the bottom of which left-handed hitters got screwed over by the shift. To some degree or another, they should all be better off without it in 2023.
Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.