Here's who has been helped (or hurt) by the shift limits

July 12th, 2023

One half of the way through the first season with baseball’s new shift limitations on the books, the rules have done more or less what they were expected to do.

They’ve definitely made some impact (batting average on balls in play is up by 7 points), but not by an earth-shattering amount (it’s only back to what it was in 2018-'19). It's helped very specifically on certain types of balls (pulled grounders and liners from lefty batters, which are up by 36 points), while not affecting strikeout rates (which are slightly up, though not by much).

All of which falls into what might have been expected last winter, and the new rule has been more of a successful aesthetic one than one that’s markedly changed the way the game is played. That, however, is hardly the same thing as saying it’s had no meaning at all. We know lefty hitters were excited for the new world -- they explicitly told us so -- and for some, it seems like they really have benefited here. But who -- and by how much?

By evaluating Statcast data in a similar way as we did back in the spring when previewing who might be most likely to benefit, we’ve been able to come up with a list of the hitters who have gained the most hits that were likely due to positioning.

(The “how” behind these numbers is a little complicated, so rather than bury the leaderboard, just skip all the way to the end if you’re interested in the nuts and bolts.)

This isn't a list of 2023's happiest batters, though it might as well be:

Most estimated hits gained due to positioning rules, 2023

  • 14: José Ramírez
  • 13: Jarred Kelenic
  • 12: Josh Naylor, Kyle Tucker Anthony Santander
  • 10: Anthony Rizzo, MJ Melendez
  • 9: Bryce Harper
  • 8: Cody Bellinger, Corey Seager, Jason Heyward, Adley Rutschman, Shohei Ohtani, Ryan McMahon

We cannot express enough that these are estimates based on Statcast data, since there’s never going to be an entry in the box score that reads this exact ball definitely wouldn’t have been a hit last year. This is, however, a satisfying list. That’s in part because the names make sense, and in large part because in our season preview piece on this topic, we suggested that the absolute max you could expect any hitter to regain would be 25 hits. After 90 team games played by his Guardians, there's Ramírez, sitting at 14.

“I hope and I think it’s going to benefit me,” he told the Athletic back in March. “But we’ll have to see how that works out.” It’s not hard to see why, as he told Mandy Bell of “I like to play to my strengths and pull the ball.”

It’s worked out well, in part because we’ve seen the unexpected ways in which the shift had impacted him before. (For nearly a full year, from late 2018 into early 2019, Ramírez slumped, until he stopped trying to go opposite field to beat the shift and just started hitting the ball as well as he could again.) Over the previous three seasons, he’d had a BABIP of .326 in the rare times he wasn’t shifted as a lefty -- and .267 in the more than 90% of times that he was. Which, of course, is why they did it.

For Kelenic, his game has improved by so much this season thanks to his offseason work that he might have had better numbers this year no matter whether or not new rules came into in effect. On the other hand, he hit just .125 against the shift last year, and he had just two pulled groundball hits all season long. (It’s worse than that: one of those came on a rare plate appearance where he wasn’t even being shifted against, as he was 87% of the time.) Improvement might have come either way, yet it’s hard to think this isn’t part of it.

“I would say Jarred Kelenic is someone who, just watching stylistically over the course of the last few years, seems a logical benefactor in this way,” Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto presciently said on Seattle radio last fall. Good call.

Rizzo is an interesting case, because he was perhaps the most prominent name expected to benefit, yet for a number of reasons, the expectations on how much it would help him were minimal. When he got off to a hot start this year, raising his average 80 points through the end of May, we looked into it and came away with the fact that he was hitting better because he was just hitting better, and while that success hasn’t quite lasted as he's struggled ever since, there still ends up being some benefit here that he’s surely happy to have received.

While Seager can point to the highest BABIP of any lefty on pulled flies and liners -- another satisfying outcome given that he was projected to be the hitter who would benefit the most -- for the most part, hitters haven’t generally seen a massive effect either way. Nearly 90% of hitters are between +4 hits gained and -4 hits lost -- yes, lost, we’ll get back to that -- which speaks somewhat to the fact that the shift was never as prevalent as the hype made it seem. Last year, for example, the shift was only in place one-third of the time. Some hitters, like D.J. LeMahieu, essentially never saw it used against them anyway, making it difficult for the rule change to have much effect on those hitters.

Still, there’s been some clear effect, and comparing the first three months of this season to the first three months of last season, we saw more than 300 additional hits by lefty batters on pulled grounders.

Rather than listing out hundreds of names, let’s highlight some of the prominent ones you’ll be sure to ask about. (If we don’t mention a hitter by name here, assume he’s in that large 90% section of +4 hits to -4 hits.)

Other notable lefty names: Brandon Belt (7), Brandon Lowe (7), Freddie Freeman (7), Dominic Smith (7), Mike Moustakas (7), Ryan O'Hearn (6), Andrew Benintendi (6), Matt Olson (5), Juan Soto (5), Joey Gallo (3)

Olson was a popular name to potentially receive a benefit from the new rule, but that didn’t seem to be true in the preview, because he actually did great against the shift last year. Still, an extra hit or two a month matters; likewise, a handful of extra hits haven’t by themselves pushed Smith from .194 to .260, but they certainly don’t hurt.

Who hasn’t been helped that much? Max Muncy (-2), Max Kepler (-1), Luis Arraez (-1), Kyle Schwarber (0)

A combination of “not surprising” and “quite surprising” names here, depending on how you were looking at things. Kepler was seen as someone who might benefit, though our preview said his quality of contact was the culprit for his issues more than any shift. Muncy and Schwarber are somehow running career-low BABIPs. And Arraez? He was barely shifted against as it was -- just 2% -- but he hit .444 against it, far better than he did without the shift. For some types of players, putting the shift on never really helped that much.

Speaking of which …

Who really hasn’t been helped? Jeff McNeil (-7), Adam Frazier (-6), Kolten Wong (-6)

That’s right. It’s not all good news. Allow us to reintroduce you to one of last year’s most entertaining video clips, as SNY’s Mets broadcast team absolutely loses their minds at teams continuing to shift against McNeil despite his obvious skill at slapping the ball through the obvious hole in the infield.

"Come on!” exclaimed Gary Cohen. “I mean how many times does he have to do it before you make the adjustment? If you're Patrick Corbin, you've just got to be livid. Why is my defense playing that way?"

McNeil, as we previewed before the season, never seemed to be a good candidate to benefit from the shift limits -- if only because he absolutely dominated the shift last year, posting a .416 BABIP against the shift in 2022, the highest of any player with 150 batted balls against it. That was nearly 100 points higher than he did without the shift, and the example against the Nationals shows exactly why.

But now, when he tries to slap it to the opposite field, sometimes there’s a fielder there. This one, against the Pirates last month, was hit at the exact same horizontal angle as the play that frustrated Cohen so much, and at extremely similar exit velocity and launch angle. It was basically the same batted ball. It didn’t end the same.

This, to be sure, isn’t behind all of McNeil’s struggles so far this year (he’s hitting just .253 with a .659 OPS.) It might, however, be responsible for a handful of those entertaining-to-watch singles that are no longer available to him. It’s fair to note that his BABIP on line drives is only down slightly, while his BABIP on grounders is markedly down, from .335 to .248.

How it works

So, where did these figures come from? Similarly to what we did when previewing the new shift-free world last year, we started by looking only at batted balls that went 220 feet or less, in an attempt to stick only to balls the infield shift as we knew it would have impacted. (That does exclude the now-also-illegal four-man outfield from this, though that was a very rare setup in the first place, coming on just 0.02% of pitches over the last three seasons.)

Then, we reweighted every hitter based on how often they saw the shift last year. That is, every hitter has seen the shift an equal 0% this season, but that certainly wasn’t the case in 2022, when, for example, Schwarber saw it 91% of the time and Steven Kwan saw it 5% of the time. That means that even if they hit the exact same kind of batted ball, that ball can’t be treated equally, given the expectation that they’d be defended differently. (Just look at this out by Schwarber and this hit from Kwan on extremely similar contacts.)

Finally, we took each batted ball and compared its outcome (1 for a hit, 0 for an out) to its expected outcome, based on a version of Statcast hit probability that includes the horizontal spray angle as well as exit velocity and launch angle, and put that into the reweighted bins.

For example, take Freddie Freeman, who was shifted 50% of the time in 2022, a number which is of course 0% in 2023. He has 136 ‘shiftable’ batted balls hit so far this year; if we assume the 50% shift rate from last year would have held steady, then half of those (68) would have come against the shift. So, we took his success rate against the 50% of balls that weren’t shifted (21 of the remaining 68, or .309), and his expected success rate against the shift from last year (.294, so 20 hits), and compare that expected 41 to his actual 48 -- leaving us with +7.

(We did not say this would be uncomplicated. In reality, it’s a little more complex than this, as we broke down the non-shifted plate appearances into ‘standard’ and ‘strategic’ defenses and treated them separately. And, of course, no attempt was made to account for the possibility that hitters have changed their approaches given different defenses, though it’s difficult or impossible to know how often that’s really occurred.)

By doing all this, and looking at the individual Freeman batted balls that were considered to be most likely to have been positively affected by the shift limits, we needed them to match the eye test at least a little, and fortunately for us, they really do. Here’s the No. 1 such hit for him in the first half:

For Brandon Belt, his top hit looked like this:

For Nathaniel Lowe, we’re talking about this:

You get the idea. They don’t all look so visually appealing, but many do. Add them all up, and that's how we get to our final estimates.