In this week’s “By The Numbers” breakdown, the analysis will focus on defensive shifts and how their elimination may impact fantasy baseball. During recent CBA negotiations, team owners brought up several rule changes that would alter how the game is played, with defensive shifts among them. This possibility turned into what seems to be a strong likelihood with the MLBPA agreeing to let the shift ban take place (as early as this season, but likely 2023) in their latest counterproposal. It is unknown at this time whether or not shifts would be modified or removed entirely, but the possibility merits a discussion due to a potentially significant shift in many players' likely production.
This subject is sure to cast a wide net in terms of interest, so I will be focusing on how to teach the audience how to identify players who could benefit from a rule change. By the end of the article, you should have broadened your expectations of who is impacted by the shift and sharpened your ability to plan for a ban in the 2023 season. As the old saying goes "give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime."
The World Without The Shift
What may seem like a general league-wide rule to spark run production for a more entertaining game will have a dramatic and lasting effect on several hitters across the league. The shift is a powerful defensive tool that has the ability to neutralize pull-heavy left-handed hitters, even those with an all-star caliber skill set. Look no further than players such as Ryan Howard, Chris Davis, and Matt Carpenter.
Cardinals infielder Matt Carpenter increased his pull percentage from 31.9 to 48.1% from the 2014 season to 2016 and batted .272 with 49 home runs and 182 RBI over that span. However, the left-hander has not hit above .226 since 2018. Granted, Carpenter is now 36-years-old and age and/or injuries have certainly played a role, but the infield shift may have taken this age decline and shoved it off a cliff.
- 2016: 33.8% (.392 wOBA)
- 2017: 60.5% (.392 wOBA)
- 2018: 83.4% (.368 wOBA)
- 2019: 88.8% (.314 wOBA)
- 2020: 97.0% (.296 wOBA)
- 2021: 91.5% (.253 wOBA)
Who would have thought a change in defensive alignment would essentially end the careers of such talented players? On the other hand, the removal of the shift would have an equally positive impact on several MLB hitters in today’s game. In order to identify who would benefit the most, one first must isolate the variables which are most affected. But first, a quick history of the shift in Major League Baseball.
The History Of The Shift
There are many baseball fans that think the shift was created by new-age Moneyball teams like the mid-2000 Devil Rays and their out-of-the-box manager Joe Maddon. That is a fallacy. The truth is that the shift was created nearly 90 years before Tampa Bay installed this defensive tactic in modern-day baseball.
In the 1920’s Phillies outfielder, Cy Williams had such immense pull power that opposing managers positioned their outfielders in right field, and extremely deep. It should be mentioned that a lot of this had to do with the Green Monster-esque wall at the Baker Bowl in Philadelphia, an extremely short porch in right field (see below). Williams was one of the first true power hitters in the game, leading the National League’s all-time home run list until 1929 when he was unseated by Rogers Hornsby.
While Cy Williams may have been the first player in the majors to have a modified version of the shift installed against him, it was another Williams that would go on to introduce a closer version of the modern-day shift two decades later.
In 1941, Hall of Famer Ted Williams, who may very well be the greatest hitter of all time, sparked the imagination of White Sox manager Jimmy Dykes. The left-handed Red Sox slugger was hitting .397 with a 1.208 OPS when Dykes came up with the plan to place his shortstop on the right side of second base while moving his second baseman into shallow right field and third baseman over to short. The idea, of course, was that this strategy would somehow slow down the pull-heavy Williams.
In case you were wondering, the strategy was not successful. Ted Williams went 2-for-5 with a double down the left-field line, going 4-for-10 in the two-game series. However, this was not the end of opposing teams trying to tame the “Splendid Splinter”, as later that season Indians manager Lou Boudreau positioned seven position players on the right side of second base. Three were stationed on the infield dirt, with Jimmy Wasdell positioned directly on the first-base line, while the others were scattered throughout the outfield. Williams went 1-for-2 with a double and two walks.
There are two takeaways from this history lesson. First, Ted Williams was really good. Second, even though the left-handed legend was able to navigate the shift, he ended up seeing his batting average dip around 16 points to a still incredible .340 until the end of his career. The shift works, but elite hitters will still find a way to produce regardless of its presence.
In the years to come, the shift would occasionally be used whenever the league was desperate to neutralize a dangerous left-handed hitter. Orioles legend Boog Powell, famous for both his bat and barbeque stand at Camden Yards, and Hall of Famer Willie McCovey were just a couple of the players that the shift would be utilized against. It was by no means a popular strategy until sabermetrically driven ball clubs, like the Rays, started to look for ways to gain an advantage in the mid-to-late 2000s.
The Evolution Of The Shift
Last season the evolution of the shift was discussed in “By The Numbers,” and an interesting (and important) part of the study was the public’s popular misunderstanding of how the shift impacts the game. Most consider the primary victims of the exaggerated defensive alignment to be left-handed pull hitters, and they would be correct for the most part. However, the most worrisome statistic had nothing to do with batted ball events to the pull side. The data from baseballs hit up the middle was more eye-opening. Here is an excerpt from the article:
“When most baseball fans think of the shift they think of a pull heavy left-handed batter having a hard-hit ground ball cleanly fielded by a shortstop playing to the right of second base, or by the second baseman in shallow right field. This is certainly a popular outcome. However, what many fans do not realize is that the modern-day shift takes away what many believe to be one of the most fundamentally sound batted balls in the game, a base hit up the middle.
The shift has evolved into a precision defensive tactic that can take away quality batted balls that were once considered automatic base hits. It's amazing how far production on ground balls up the middle has suffered in recent seasons:
- 2014: .344 avg
- 2015: .312 avg
- 2016: .337 avg
- 2017: .304 avg
- 2018: .302 avg
- 2019: .299 avg
- 2020: .254 avg
- 2021: .236 avg
The shift has taken off to the point where routine base hits have become routine outs. In past seasons, the video below shows a sure-fire base hit by Jose Ramirez up the middle. However, instead of the baseball reaching the outfield, Reds shortstop Kyle Farmer fields the ball cleanly standing readily several feet to the right of second base.”
Why Not Hit The Ball The “Other Way”?
Hall of Famer Willie Keeler had 13 straight seasons in which he batted over .300 and a lifetime batting average of .345 over 19 seasons. The 5-foot-4 outfielder coined the phrase “keep your eye on the ball and hit em’ where they ain’t.” Simply put, hit the baseball where there are no fielders. This is the complaint of many baseball fans when it comes to the shift, “Why can’t hitters just go the other way or bunt.”
Will Clark, a 15-year veteran who hit .303 during his career is certainly among this crowd. He was quoted as saying “As far as the shifts go, it’s great for the defense because they’re playing the odds and these idiots that are in the batter’s box don’t make any adjustments.” Clark went on to add that power hitters like Joey Gallo “...have no pride in (their) craft, you don’t work on anything, all you do is go out and try to hit the ball out of the ballpark, that’s all you do.”
It is certainly a fair question why major league hitters who are left with an entire side of the field left open refuse to take the initiative and learn how to exploit the shift. The shift has been around for a while now and it is safe to say that certain hitters are either not equipped to handle the adjustment or are simply unwilling. However, many (most) pitchers now tailor the way they pitch in order to force a hitter into the defensive shift, making it difficult or impossible to take the ball to the opposite field. This is a compounding problem.
How Eliminating The Shift Will Impact Baseball
No matter how you feel about MLB eliminating the shift, a certain level of restriction seems to be a forgone conclusion. Arguing the merits of either side seems like a fruitless endeavor so the proper course of action, especially in fantasy baseball, is to dive into how this actually impacts player production. Overall, eliminating the shift would not impact the game of baseball as much as you would think. Baseball America did a study last season in Double-A in which they enforced having two fielders on the left side of second, and two on the right at the midway point. The results in BABIP between the two halves of baseball were nearly identical at .307 and .308. That being said, the study was on a league-wide BABIP that included all batted ball events. This means that while there is a small sample to suggest that a shift ban may not impact the overall game a great deal, there is certainly a ton to dig into on a macro level.
This is where individual performance comes in. A good starting point would be to simply pull up a list of which left-handed hitters saw the defensive shift the most last season. You can do this in several places, but Baseball Savant has a simple and user-friendly solution if you go to “batter positioning” under leaderboards in their navigation bar. Remember, the idea is to teach you how to create your own research because there are plenty of hitters to review.
As you can see there are many MLB hitters, including superstars like Jose Ramirez, that see the defensive shift in almost all of their plate appearances. However, this only tells us which hitters are seeing the shift and not necessarily telling us it is impacting their overall performance.
The way we are going to dig into this a little further is to take a look at all batted ball events by left-handed hitters and separate those at-bats into batted ball categories such as pulled, up the middle, ground balls, and line drives. These batted ball events will be the most impacted and therefore are the best way to see the results.
First up, pulled ground balls from left-handed hitters (into the shift), which is sorted by the difference between a hitter's batting average and expected batting average. You can sort this data yourself using Baseball Savant’s search feature.
The top-30 hitters with the largest gap between their average and xBA are posted above, and you should be able to notice several matching names to the sorted list from Baseball Savant. Joey Gallo, Matt Olson, Max Muncy, and Jose Ramirez all have at least a 150 point gap in their posted batting average with Gallo himself coming in at a negative .214 difference.
While it’s true that the shift is not solely responsible for the massive difference in expected performance, there is a high likelihood it would be a primary variable. Take another look at the date from above, but this time observe the relationship between batting average and expected batting average for the leaderboard.
It is important to also remember and consider the percentage of batted ball events that will be impacted by the shift being removed. Just because a player is seeing a shift does not mean they are automatically hitting ground balls directly into it, although that is also highly likely for batters at the top of the leaderboard. After all, the opposing defense is not choosing names out of a hat before they set their defense.
What About Line Drives?
Left-handed pull hitters are easily the primary targets for a defensive shift but as stated above, the damage mostly comes on ground balls. However, there is plenty of impact on line drives that are hit to the second baseman who has set up camp in shallow right field. Here is the leaderboard updated to include pulled line drives in addition to ground balls by left-handed hitters:
Many of the usual suspects pop up on both lists by default, but new contenders like Alex Kiriloff jump out as hitters that did not appear in the top-30 for ground balls alone. The league-wide batting average for line drives was .686 in 2021 so it is highly detrimental to have sure-fire base hits taken away. Remember that when you study the relationship on the chart below.
Shifting Away From The Obvious
Remember that Jose Ramirez ground ball video earlier in the article? The one that was a sure-fire base hit, only to be converted into a routine out? Yep, the shift does not discriminate against batted balls up the middle. When the shortstop and third baseman are hovering over towards the right side, more than just pulled ground balls is going to be taken away. So for the sake of being thorough, let’s expand our research to look at ground balls that are both pulled and hot up the middle by left-handed hitters.
You will likely notice a couple of things when combing over the data. First of all, the gap in expected data and surface data is a bit noisier with only 10 names posting a gap above 150 points. Secondly, the crop of talent on the page has shifted once again. Old favorites like Joey Gallo still appear near the bottom, but hitters like Michael Conforto are listed in the top-five on each list. The current free agent certainly had a down year for the Mets in 2021, and this certainly looks to be a variable in the struggle.
At the end of the day, the players who will benefit the most from seeing the shift being banned will mostly be left-handed pull-hitters like Joey Gallo and Carlos Santana. They could immediately go from rags to riches. However, the exciting part may come in the form of an extra gear for superstars such as Jose Ramirez, Yordan Alvarez, and Matt Olson.
The main takeaway from this article (if you are going to start your own research into who may benefit from the shift ban in 2023) is that you need to dig deep beyond the obvious candidates to find value in this rule change for fantasy baseball. If the shift were to be taken off the table, the impact will be widespread and entirely change the landscape and hierarchy of offensive players.
A major reason the shift has been an issue for so many hitters is due to how opposing pitchers use it to their advantage. They ‘want’ a pull-hitter to pull the ball into the shift, and therefore pitch inside to force players into the trap. Hitters will change their approach, as will pitchers. This will not be a simple or obvious transition and will require diligence to stay on top of in fantasy baseball.
If you are interested in further player examples, or to see how the shift ban may impact pitchers, be sure to check out this article by Pete Ball.