3 free-agent hitters likely helped by new shift rules

December 3rd, 2022

We don't know exactly how the new shift rules that will be implemented in MLB in 2023 will affect the game, but we can still try to identify hitters with a profile that makes them more likely to benefit from a shift ban.

Some of those hitters are free agents -- and that means teams could find some extra value in signing a player who ends up performing better than before when they don't have to face defensive shifts anymore.

It's not just big lefty mashers, either (aka, Joey Gallo types). Let's look for some hitters you might not think of right away.

Here are three under-the-radar free-agent hitters whose value could be boosted by the new shift rules in 2023.

1) Jurickson Profar

Profar is a switch-hitter, so you might think his issues with the shift would be reduced by the at-bats he takes right-handed. He doesn't get shifted on those (only 3% of his righty plate appearances in 2022 had a shifted infield).

But a hitter just won't face as many left-handed pitchers as righties -- Profar might get double or triple the at-bats against righties as lefties in a given season, and all those at-bats he takes as a lefty mean a lot of shifts. Profar gets shifted on about two-thirds of his lefty plate appearances, and for the last couple of seasons with the Padres, there's been a big disparity between his numbers in those plate appearances vs. the third where he doesn't face a shift.

Profar as LHB, shift vs. no shift, 2021-22
Shift: .210 BA / .305 OBP / .338 SLG / .643 OPS
No shift: .303 BA / .391 OBP / .447 SLG / .838 OPS

On ground balls specifically, Profar bats about 100 points higher when not facing a shift. Over the last two seasons, when batting lefty, he had a .201 batting average on ground balls against a shift (31-for-154) and a .299 batting average on grounders he hit without a shift (23-for-77). He had some especially noticeable hits taken away in the shift by a "rover" in short right field.

As a thought experiment, if you changed all those 154 defensive alignments from shifted to non-shifted, and Profar had the same .299 batting average he had on his no-shift ground balls, he'd add 15 hits over that two-season span.

2) Mitch Haniger

Haniger is one of the righty sluggers who have to contend with regular shifts -- and he could definitely do without that.

Haniger has seen steadily more shifts every year after his breakout 2018 season with the Mariners, when he was shifted on fewer than one in five plate appearances. By 2022, he was being shifted almost three quarters of the time, a career high.

Haniger's shift % by season, since 2018
2018: 19% of PA
2019: 42% of PA
2020: Did not play
2021: 56% of PA
2022: 71% of PA

That's 60% of his total plate appearances over the last two years where Haniger had to hit against a shift. He was been shifted against more than almost 95% of right-handed hitters with a comparable number of plate appearances.

That increase in shifts didn't stop Haniger from mashing 39 home runs in 2021, but it hurt him on his balls in play. Shortstops can play deep in the hole toward third base, with an extra fielder shifted to the left side of the second-base bag, taking hits away in a location where Haniger will rip the ball.

Even in his slugging 2021 season, Haniger's numbers could have been even better if defenses weren't allowed to shift him. On the balls he hit that weren't home runs, Haniger batted just .174 against the shift (58-for-333), and .242 when he wasn't facing a shift (60-for-248). 

He had more total base hits with no shift on than he did against the shift, on almost 100 fewer balls in play.

3) Dominic Smith

Smith is looking to bounce back to the hitter he was in 2019 and '20 (150 OPS+), before he struggled in his last two seasons with the Mets while not getting regular at-bats (78 OPS+). Maybe hitting shift-free somewhere else in 2023 will help.

The lefty-swinging Smith started seeing more and more shifts after he started slugging more. That took its toll.

In 2019, Smith was shifted on under half of his plate appearances, and broke out with a 132 OPS+. The next year, teams made a minor defensive adjustment to 51% shifts, still far from the most-shifted left-handed hitters. He posted a 168 OPS+ and got MVP votes.

In that 2020 season, Smith really started driving the ball to the pull field. Over two-thirds of his hits, and over three quarters of his extra-base hits, were to the right side. Smith had the most extra-base hits to the pull half of the field of any left-handed hitter.

LHB with most XBH to pull half of field, 2020

  1. Dominic Smith: 25
  2. Freddie Freeman: 24
  3. Kyle Tucker: 22
  4. (tie) Brandon Lowe / Mike Yastrzemski: 20

Then the shifts went up. In 2021, opposing defenses shifted Smith over 60% of the time. In 2022, that number jumped to over 70%. And Smith started losing more hits on his hard contact.

Last season, when Smith hit the ball hard to the pull side (that means an exit velocity of 95-plus mph), his batting average was just .290. Only nine of his 31 hard-hit balls turned into hits.

That was the third-lowest among MLB lefties, whose batting average as a group on those balls was .475. Or compare Smith's 2022 to his 2020, when his average on hard, pull-side contact was .511. 

Without full-on infield shifts in 2023, maybe some of those balls will turn into hits again for Smith, and help him turn things around for a new team.