December 21, 2022, 2:40 pm
By: Michael Fisher
With the new rules in 2023 restricting defensive shifts, there will be a significant impact on hitters. But who will benefit the most?
Until we have enough data, it’s hard to say precisely. But we’re going to see if we can figure out what types of hitters may be impacted by the so-called “shift ban.”
Under the new rules, all infielders must stay within the outer bounds of the infield and are not allowed to switch sides past second base. In the outfield, four-man alignments are no longer allowed.
If you need a refresher, you can read how the rule changes will impact fantasy baseball in 2023.
Shifty Shift Statistics
First, a caveat. Not all shift stats are created equal.
Defensive shift data can vary wildly, depending on where you look, because statistics-gathering services collect the information differently. We’ll be using two sources: Statcast, which can be found on Baseball Savant, and FanGraphs.
Statcast is an accurate source for the percentage of times batters are shifted against. According to MLB.com, Statcast employs the Hawk-Eye camera system to capture player position information on each play. You can read how Statcast defines shifts if you’re interested.
FanGraphs Shift Data Guide explains that they don’t collect shift data for every single plate appearance because “…the data is limited currently by our ability to view the defensive alignment on video. This means that walks, strikeouts, and home runs lack shift data because the defense doesn’t participate in those plays and the video scouts often can’t determine if a shift was on.” But we can use this data to find specific stats for batted balls put in play.
Each source is helpful in its own way if you know what information you are looking for. That’s why you’ll see shift data from Baseball Savant (Statcast) and FanGraphs as we try to determine what impact the shift restrictions will have on hitters in 2023.
Do Shifts Work?
They sure do. Otherwise, teams wouldn’t use them. As shift frequency has increased with ever-improving precision, the batting average on groundballs has decreased.
In 2022, left-handed batters hit .236 but only .127 on pulled groundballs against a shift. Righties hit .247, but only .189 on grounders pulled into a shift. As a league, the pulled groundball average against a shift was .158. This went up to .210 with no shift deployed.
In 2023, we will see a better average on groundballs, specifically pulled groundballs. Left-handed batters should benefit the most, but some right-handed batters will get a boost.
So, how do we determine which hitters will get the most help from shift restrictions? With so many variables in play, it’s hard to account for everything. Such as how a hitter’s approach might change against a shift, the game situation and the count, the pitcher and pitches thrown, and how well each team positions their defenders.
It’s easy enough to pull up a list of players with the most pulled groundballs, but that won’t give you the whole story.
Take Trea Turner, who led the majors in 2022 with 138 pulled groundballs. According to Statcast, he only faced a shift in 1.4% of plate appearances, which explains why he hit .275 on those balls. The new rules won’t have much of an impact on someone like him.
Who Faced Shifts Most Often?
Let’s begin by simply looking at the top 10 players who saw the most shifts, by a percentage of plate appearances, in 2022.
Rank Player Bat Total PA PA vs Shift Shift % 1 Rougned Odor L 467 438 93.8 2 Kole Calhoun L 424 396 93.4 3 Vinnie Pasquantino L 296 276 93.2 4 Corey Seager L 656 609 92.8 5 Kyle Tucker L 605 550 90.9 6 Kyle Schwarber L 665 602 90.5 7 Cody Bellinger L 548 496 90.5 8 Joey Gallo L 408 367 90.0 9 Max Kepler L 445 399 89.7 10 Max Muncy L 562 500 89.0
These players, all lefties, faced a shift in roughly nine (or more!) out of every 10 plate appearances. They are good candidates to see some improvement in their average and on-base stats in 2023. I bet they’ll be happy just to see infielders in more traditional positions and not stacked on one side of the field.
Picking someone off this list at random, here is Kyle Schwarber’s average on all groundballs, pulled groundballs, and how often he has faced shifts over the past five seasons.
Year Shift % GB AVG Pull GB AVG 2018 64.5% .216 .118 2019 69.3% .204 .134 2020 82.1% .190 .100 2021 82.3% .257 .183 2022 90.5% .128 .083
We can assume that Schwarber’s average on groundballs will improve, but how much is difficult to know. Let’s take a guess.
With no shifts in 2023, Schwarber could improve his pulled groundball average closer to the league average of .210. If he improves from .083 to .202, that’s 10 more hits, which would raise his overall average from .218 to .236. While still not great, it’s an improvement.
But is it enough of a bump to make a drastic difference in his fantasy value? As someone who rostered Schwarber in 2022, I certainly didn’t keep him around for his average. The higher average would have been a bonus, as every point helps, but I was more interested in the 46 home runs.
To better understand which players might get a more significant boost in value, we should look at who hit the most balls into the shift.
Who Hit into Shifts the Most?
Here are the players who pulled the most groundballs against a shifted defense and the resulting average on those balls.
Rank Player Bat Pull GB vs Shift AVG 1 Corey Seager L 120 .083 2 Marcus Semien R 113 .195 3 Josh Naylor L 102 .118 4 George Springer R 100 .190 5 Rowdy Tellez L 96 .094 6 Charlie Blackmon L 95 .105 7 Juan Soto L 95 .137 8 Josh Bell S 94 .160 9 Shohei Ohtani L 94 .202 10 Jose Ramirez S 93 .280
I expect some of these players to get a nice boost in their average on pulled groundballs. Again, how much of an increase is hard to say.
Note Jose Ramirez, who hit an incredible .280 on 93 pulled grounders versus a shift. I don’t know how much more he’ll be able to improve, which is why he’s already a top first-round pick.
On the other hand, Corey Seager is a prime candidate for a spike in pulled groundball hits. He’s in the top 10 for both shift frequency and pulled groundballs against a shift. He tops the latter list with 120 groundballs and only 10 hits for a .083 average.
If he were to hit closer to the league-average benchmark of .210 once he doesn’t have to face shifts, that’s an extra 15 hits and a healthier .208 average.
With those 15 hits, he’d improve his overall average from .245 to a much stronger .270 mark. If you put that in the context of hitting near the top of the Rangers lineup, those extra 15 hits could also mean a handful of additional runs scored and batted in.
Will Switch Hitters Benefit?
Another interesting wrinkle is switch hitters. These players faced the highest frequency of shifts batting from one side of the plate.
Rank Player Bat Shift % Pull GB AVG 1 Carlos Santana L 98.1 .058 2 Cal Raleigh L 96.2 .175 3 Jose Ramirez L 93.9 .278 4 Aaron Hicks L 92.6 .157 5 Jorge Polanco L 86.3 .167 6 Anthony Santander L 85.3 .102 7 Robbie Grossman L 82.5 .146 8 Keibert Ruiz L 82.3 .123 9 Adley Rutschman L 80.3 .136 10 Yoan Moncada L 78.3 .091
While these players saw a high frequency of shifts when batting left-handed (most of them didn’t even have an at bat from the left side without facing a shift), there may not be enough improvement to warrant a drastic change in fantasy value.
Let’s look at Carlos Santana, who is projected to hit in the middle of the Pirates’ lineup this season and should get plenty of playing time at DH and first base. Last season he had 364 PA and hit .178 from the left side.
He pulled half (49.6%) of his batted balls; of those, 43.3% were on the ground. Facing a shift in 98.1% of those left-handed appearances, you can see why he only hit .058.
How much better could Santana get without a wall of defenders facing him from the left side in 2023? If he hits 52 pulled grounders from the left side again and sees an improvement toward the .210 league mark by hitting .192, that’s only seven extra hits. This would bring his overall average up from .202 to .218. So, nothing to write home about.
Some players who faced a lot of shifts, or hit into shifts at a high rate, will see improvement. But will it be enough to change our opinion of them for fantasy?
Don’t overreact when considering the impact of shift restrictions, especially during the offseason. While no one knows precisely how it will play out on the field, I can tell you that the changes won’t turn mediocre hitters into batting champions.
Keep an eye on these players as the 2023 season gets going. After data starts rolling in, their value could increase, and you’ll be ready to take advantage.