No more shift could mean quite a few more hits for these batters

January 4th, 2023

Earlier this winter, we dug into the upcoming positioning ban, attempting to use Statcast data to identify which hitters might benefit the most from the new rules. As we discussed at the time, it’s complicated -- mostly because teams can still position intelligently within the rules, and because we don’t know if or how certain hitters will change their approaches against different defenses, and because hitters might improve or decline naturally -- but given what we know, it’s a good proxy. You can read how the whole thing worked here.

Given our data, Corey Seager seemed to be the hitter who might benefit the most, potentially gaining back 20 hits, though much of that is simply because he makes so much contact that he just hit the most balls into shifted defenses. After doing a deep dive on Seager, we wanted to know more. He’s hardly the only hitter who will see defenses change in 2023, right? So: Who else would be high atop the list?

It's more difficult than you'd think, really. We can't assume hitters will have no approach reaction to the shift ban, and even if they do, batting averages tend to bounce around by a few points just due to luck each year anyway. For example, over 500 at-bats, going from .240 to .260 is all of 10 extra hits ... or less than one per week. All that said, here's what the data suggests, with players ordered by most hits likely lost to the shift, using a process outlined here.

Kyle Schwarber (Phillies LF/DH)
+12 potential hits gained / 91% shift rate

Great, great start. Schwarber is lefty, not terribly fast and he gets shifted on a ton. He’s exactly the kind of hitter who should be at or near the top of a list like this, which gives us confidence we’re finding something real. That he’s behind Seager largely comes down to contact, because while they had nearly the same number of plate appearances, Schwarber struck out 97 more times, making for fewer balls hit to shifted defenses.

Put another way, using the same method we did for Seager -- removing strikeouts, walks, homers, balls hit far too deep for the shift to matter, etc -- only 27% of Schwarber’s plate appearances actually ended with a batted ball that could have been shift-affected, which cuts down his losses to the defense greatly.

Still, because he hits the ball so hard, there are quite a few plays like this one, hit at 109.3 mph but right to a shifted second baseman in short right field -- or almost certainly a hit in 2023.

Or this one, which -- based on how hard he hit it, how high and at what horizontal angle -- is a hit 55% of the time, except when a fielder is standing exactly where César Hernández was, and where he won't be able to stand in 2023. (Well, the second baseman can’t. An outfielder still could be there, if teams want to be adventurous.)

Ultimately, Schwarber struck out so much (200 times), and hit so many home runs (46), that he wasn’t robbed of the raw number of hits Seager likely was, and so he likely wouldn’t see a similar batting average rebound. A projected 12 extra singles isn’t nothing, though.

Carlos Santana (Pirates 1B/DH)
+12 potential hits gained / 98% shift rate (LHB); 28% (RHB)

He'd better be up here, because the Pirates specifically noted this aspect when they signed him. “We believe based on the analysis we've done from his 2022 season," said general manager Ben Cherington, “and then potentially some benefit from the shift rules that there could be even more offense than what he showed this past year." As with Schwarber, this is exactly the kind of player you’d expect here.

For years, Santana was a consistent hitting machine for some good Cleveland lineups, but over the last three years, the wheels have fallen off, as he's posted a .207/.323/.355 line for three teams. Santana turns 37 in April, and while the plate discipline is still there, the maximum exit velos have fallen steadily since 2018, so it’s extremely fair to wonder if he’s being hurt by the shift, or if it’s just that this is what he is now.

It is, to some extent, likely both; you don’t generally regain high-end exit velocity as you age. But, among players with 750 plate appearances over the last three years, he has the lowest batting average on balls in play, which has to be at least a little about the shift -- though adding 11 extra hits would still only bump his average to .227.

Interestingly, our numbers have him as having lost 11 potential hits to the shift as a lefty, and one as a righty. That’s right: while righties are shifted far less, they still see it, and it can affect them as well.

Tyrone Taylor (Brewers OF)
+10 potential hits gained / 43% shift rate

Yes, a right-handed bat, and yes, above many lefty hitters who seemed to have hit into the shift more often. We’re a little surprised by this, too, but then again, Seager, Schwarber and Santana being our top three makes all sorts of sense, so we can't accept those and deny this just because it feels a little odd. It’s our responsibility to figure out what happened here. It turns out, it’s not hard to explain at all.

The place to start is that Taylor was shifted 43% of the time last year, and, well, look at what happened.

  • Against the shift: .236 BABIP
  • Without the shift: .319 BABIP

That's a huge gap. In Taylor’s case, the shift worked extremely well, and when you look at his spray chart, you’ll see why. Look at where all those batted balls are going.

When he put the ball on the ground last year, he pulled it 63% of the time, one of the 10 highest marks in baseball. So, he ended up with a whole lot of plays that looked something like this:

Again, teams can still position within the confines of the new rules, but based on the way Taylor hit in 2022, no longer having three infielders on the left side of second base is something he can look forward to.

There are a number of names tied at +9 hits, so let’s lightning round those.

Jesús Sánchez (Marlins OF)
+9 potential hits gained / 50% shift rate

A 50% shift rate makes it easy to split things in half, and Sánchez had a .395 BABIP against standard defenses, and .180 against shifted defenses, which is a tremendous difference. Now: It’s safe to say that neither is "real," and that they’d each probably have moved back to normal on both ends regardless of any rule changes. But he's also, like Taylor, probably pleased about all this.

Carson Kelly (D-backs C)
+9 potential hits gained / 35% shift rate

This isn’t the reason his OPS dropped 137 points, at least not more than the fact that he simply made worse contact in a season interrupted by an oblique strain. He might have liked a few of these back, though.

Salvador Perez (Royals C)
+9 potential hits gained / 76% shift rate

You’re surprised by this one, and so are we, somewhat. But Perez faced a shift on three-quarters of his plate appearances in 2022, triple what it had been in '18, so teams clearly felt it was worth doing more and more -- i.e., taking hits away from him. His BABIP this past year was 74 points higher against a standard defense than it was against the shift.

Rowdy Tellez (Brewers 1B/DH)
+8 potential hits gained / 78% shift rate

This one is easy, because Tellez makes it easy. There were 53 batters who had at least 200 batted balls against a shift. Tellez went opposite field against it lower than all but one other, which is a great way of saying “shift me all you want, I do not care, I will not change.” That’s a lot of balls hit right into the teeth of it.

Abraham Toro (Brewers INF)
+8 potential hits gained / 77% shift rate (LHB); 8% (RHB)

Toro, traded from Seattle earlier this month, actually had nine potential hits taken away as a lefty hitter, but he would have been expected to lose one as a righty, landing on eight total.

Andrew McCutchen (free agent OF)
+8 potential hits gained / 49% shift rate

This might have been a one-year fluke. From 2019-21, McCutchen actually had a higher BABIP against the shift than without it. But in '22, his performance against standard defenses shot up, while his work against the shift fell apart. On the other hand, he turned 36 in October, so it’s hard to know if that’s an outlier or the new normal.

Alex Bregman (Astros 3B)
+8 potential hits gained / 58% shift rate

It’s interesting to note that after three years being shifted around 30% annually, that mark almost doubled in 2022 to 58%. It’s not hard to see that as a reaction to how much he sells out to pull for power, as nearly 80% of his extra-base hits were pulled -- and just look at his ground ball spray chart. No wonder teams put three on the left side.

While the shift has long had its admirers and detractors, so much of this has really come down to a simple question: Where do we think this guy is going to hit the ball? Let’s stand there.

Now, you might be asking yourself: Wait, what about Yordan Alvarez or Max Kepler? Anthony Rizzo? Where’s Freddie Freeman? Us, too. We'll follow up with a look at the players you expect to be affected the most ... who may not actually be.