Players who may benefit from MLB’s shift crackdown
Major League Baseball will get its biggest makeover of the modern era this season.
As part of long-awaited – or dreaded, depending on what side of the fence you stand on and how much free time you have – rule changes, the pitch clock is finally here. So are time-focused rules for hitters, bigger bases, limits on position players pitching and restrictions on defensive shifting.
If spring training is any indication, the pitch clock should shave about 30 minutes off the average game. That will feel like the biggest change and may do the most good for a sport facing the same attention-span problem as almost every other form of modern entertainment.
But it’s the limit on shifting that might have the biggest impact on the outcome of games.
MLB adopted the new rules after years of testing at the minor league level. The league posits restricting shifting should increase batting average on balls in play (BABIP) and allow infielders to better showcase their athleticism while resulting in more traditional outcomes to plays.
Essentially, certain kinds of batted balls that were typically hits until recently will start becoming hits again.
What the new rule is
First things first, there is NOT a ban on shifting.
Fielders are still able to strategically place themselves where they feel gives the best chance to get the opposing hitter out. Defensive positioning will continue to vary for certain hitters – sometimes drastically – and players will lose offensive numbers over the course of a long season because of it. But unlike before, there are now restrictions. In point form:
- All four infielders must have both feet within the boundary of the infield when the pitcher is on the rubber. This also excludes four outfielder defensive alignments
- Two infielders must be on each side of second base
- Infielders may not switch sides or reposition themselves to the side of the infield they believe the batter is more likely to hit the ball to
- Failure to comply will result in the offence’s choice between an automatic ball added to the count or the result of the play
So, that’s what defences can’t do. But they CAN still do a whole lot, including:
- Positioning an outfielder in the infield or shallow outfield grass
- Playing an infielder virtually up the middle (as long as they stay on their side of second) and shifting the other middle infielder further away from their conventional defensive position
For example, a pull-heavy left-handed hitter won’t have to deal with the shortstop or third baseman shifting into shallow right field to eat up ground balls that get between the first and second baseman. But they may still face challenges from an outfielder assuming that position, or all four infielders shifting more toward the pull side.
Still, these restrictions should help counteract hits that were taken away corresponding with an increase in shifting in the last decade-plus. According to MLB.com, the league-wide batting average on balls in play was .290 in 2022, six points lower than in 2012 and 10 points lower than in 2006.
Conventional wisdom says that means there should be more hits out there in 2023. And if that’s the case, who might they go to?
The Texas Rangers shocked baseball when they signed Corey Seager to a massive 10-year, $325 million contract two Novembers ago.
And Seager was pretty good for Texas in 2022, ranking third among American League shortstops in fWAR (Fangraphs Wins Above Replacement) and hitting a career-best 33 home runs. But Seager’s .772 OPS was the second-lowest of his eight-year career, largely thanks to his batting average falling from a combined .306 in 2020 and 2021 with the Los Angeles Dodgers to .245 in his first season with the Rangers.
There can be plenty of possible explanations for a drop-off in batting average. An increase in power – which Seager had – leading to a new hitting philosophy, a nagging injury or two, stiffer competition from opposing pitchers, the dimensions of a new ballpark, or just plain luck. And some of that may apply here. But one thing we do know for sure? Seager was shifted against more than ever in 2022 and was one of the most heavily-shifted against players in all of baseball.
According to MLB’s Statcast, Seager faced the shift in 609 of his 656 plate appearances last season. That was the sixth most in all of baseball percentage-wise among players with at least 300 plate appearances and was tops among AL shortstops. His weighted on-base average with the shift was .326 compared to .397 without it.
He was shifted north of 10 per cent more in 2022 and had just 29 hits on 199 ground balls. He hit more balls to the pull side than he ever had last season while his pull percentage of 39.6 was higher than the league average of 36.8.
With extra-base power to all fields, there won’t be much defences can do other than to play Seager straight up. Expect more hits from Seager in 2023 and we’ll see if it’s enough to take him from All-Star to superstar.
Carlos Santana Pittsburgh Pirates
There was no one shifted more last season than Carlos Santana as a left-handed batter.
The veteran switch-hitter faced shifts in 355 of his 362 plate appearances from the left side in 2022. That’s 98.1 per cent, compared to just seven trips to the box where defences played him straight up.
Teams shifted him 27.5 per cent as a righty. But Santana takes the majority of his at-bats from the left side and even still, league average for righties is eight percentage points lower than Santana’s figure.
Teams started shifting Santana nearly all the time in 2020 and since then his season batting averages have been .199, .214 and .202. His batting average on balls in play was .212, .227 and .209, respectively, the last three seasons, all well below league average.
It’s not just an extended stretch of bad luck, either. Despite barely cracking the Mendoza line, Santana was in the 81st percentile in average exit velocity and 76th percentile in hard hit percentage. So while he was making good contact last season, he didn’t have much to show for it. If not for his ability to draw walks and hit the ball out of the ballpark – especially against the Blue Jays – Santana wouldn’t have earned near as many trips to the plate.
The Pittsburgh Pirates signed Santana to a one-year deal this past winter and it could turn out to be a smart piece of business. At age 37, Santana won’t be in their long-term plans, but could bring something back in a trade if his offensive numbers improve.
Joey Gallo Minnesota Twins
Joey Gallo was one of the more dangerous hitters in baseball from 2017 to 2019, hitting a combined 103 home runs while slugging .533.
His career stalled due to an inability to put the ball in play consistently and Gallo begins the 2023 season on a one-year deal with the Minnesota Twins, his fourth team in three seasons.
Teams shifted against him 90 per cent of the time or more in each of the past four seasons, where he hit north of .200 just one time. His BABIP was nowhere near league average either and as someone who pulled the ball at a clip north of 10 per cent higher than the rest of the league, all those shifts couldn’t have helped. If they’re gone in 2023, that should help him.
But has Gallo really seen the last of them? In a spring training game on March 3, the Boston Red Sox used the loophole to bring the left fielder over and occupy shallow right field where a shifted infielder would have played in years past. This left the Red Sox with a gaping hole in left, but considering Gallo’s 2022 spray chart, it wasn’t a bad bet.
The 29-year-old picked up just six hits to straightaway left – all singles – while only 17.6 per cent of Gallo’s batted balls went the opposite way in 2022. Sure, it opens up the possibility of extra bases on a lazy fly ball, but maybe it would lead to more outs against hitters like him in the long run? In a sport where adjustments are perpetually made based on data, maybe the two-outfielder look is going to start becoming more common than we think.
Cody Bellinger Chicago Cubs
Another example of a player who fits the shift archetype of years past: Cody Bellinger.
A tall left-handed hitter with power and a tendency to pull the ball, Bellinger’s BABIP declined sharply the last three seasons corresponding with a heavy increase in shifts against him.
He was the ninth-most shifted hitter in baseball in 2022 (minimum 300 plate appearances) as defences adjusted 496 times in his 548 trips to the batter’s box.
Bellinger seems delighted with the rule change.
“You have a third baseman in right field. And so that ball you’ve hit in front of right field used to be a hit your whole life. And now you’ve got Manny Machado standing right there catching everything,” he said earlier this year.
But similar to Gallo, Bellinger will need to make strides in other areas to return to his peak from a few seasons ago. He didn’t hit the ball very hard last season at all – 31st percentile in max exit velocity, 39th percentile in hard-hit percentage – and his strikeout percentage has increased in each of the last three seasons.
However, he does have power to all fields, so left fielders may be reluctant to leave their post and head to shallow right.
Still just 27, Bellinger goes to the Chicago Cubs after six seasons in an L.A. Dodger uniform. Who knows, maybe a fresh start and some more green space in his gaze at the plate is exactly what the 2019 NL MVP needs to get his career back on track.
Eugenio Suarez Seattle Mariners
The 25 most shifted batters with at least 300 plate appearances in MLB last season all batted from the left side. The 26th was Eugenio Suarez, a power-hitting righty for the Seattle Mariners.
Suarez was still shifted plenty in 2022, drawing an extra infielder on the left side 508 times in 628 plate appearances.
He was a .265 hitter the first six seasons of his career from 2014 to 2019. And in none of those seasons was he shifted more than 50 per cent of the time. The past three seasons, Suarez’s batting average has plummeted to .215 while shifts against him rose to nearly 70 per cent, 80.9 per cent in 2022.
We’ve established there can be plenty of reasons for batting average declines in like that. And a strikeout-prone hitter like Suarez is likely among the most susceptible as K-rates and velocity from opposing pitchers rise around baseball. But the fact remains that as shifts against him have increased, his batting average, BABIP, on-base percentage and OPS have all decreased. There’s probably some kind of correlation there.
Restrictions on shifting will mostly help lefty batters as 55 per cent of them drew shifts in 2022 compared to only 19.5 per cent of right-handers. But Suarez is one of those right-handers and a big season from him could help the Mariners return to the playoffs in 2023.