Will shift ban help these 6 hitters? Not so fast ...

January 5th, 2023

As we move closer to the start of 2023, we’re nearer than ever to the end of the full infield shift, given that the new positioning rules will, for the first time, be in effect when Opening Day arrives. We’ve looked into how we might estimate the effects of that on hitters, and why Corey Seager could be the hitter who benefits the most, and we’ve looked into who else – expected names like Kyle Schwarber, Carlos Santana and Rowdy Tellez – might also be pleased.

But in doing so, there were a few names that didn't pop up in our analysis. Where was Anthony Rizzo, or Max Kepler, or Matt Olson, or a few other shift-heavy lefty hitters who are popularly assumed to benefit from this? Why would Seager and Schwarber show up as winners in the data? Why would players like Yordan Alvarez and Cavan Biggio (each +7 potential hits regained), Charlie Blackmon and Kyle Tucker (each +6), or Max Muncy and David Peralta (each +5) seem to benefit … but not these guys?

In part, because despite the feeling that the shift is on at all times against all batters, that’s never been true; last year, for example, just under 39% of all batted balls were non-homers with a shifted defense on. In part, it’s because there’s still plenty of flexibility to position within the new rules.

Throw in the fact that we can’t know how individual hitters will change their approaches (or not), and that some amount of year-to-year BABIP variation is expected anyway, and it all gets quite complicated. And yet: Seager, Schwarber and Santana do seem like they’ll reap a benefit. Why does it seem as if these other lefties won't be helped as much?

1B Matt Olson, Braves

Olson often is assumed to be a hitter who is negatively affected by the shift because he sees it a lot – at least 80% of the time each of the last four seasons – and despite a powerful bat, he usually hits around .250. No one over the last three seasons has more hard-hit groundouts against the shift. So, he must benefit, right?

Maybe not, and for two reasons. First, an out against the shift is not the same thing as an out caused by the shift. But second, before you can prove that a hitter might benefit from the positioning ban, you have to prove that he was even hurt by the shift in the first place, and it’s not clear that even happened to Olson. If you look at outcomes on those hard-hit grounders against the shift, compared to the MLB average and also Seager and Schwarber, he was far more productive.

2022, BABIP on hard-hit grounders against the shift

Olson – .329
MLB LHB – .292
Seager – .209
Schwarber – .137

Last year, 44 lefty batters had at least 25 hard-hit grounders against a shifted defense. Olson’s .329 BABIP was 13th highest; Schwarber and Santana were weakest. Whether the shift ban will help him might not matter, since the shift didn’t appear to hurt him much in 2022 anyway. This hasn’t always been true, which shows the difficulty of this analysis; hitters don’t do the exact same thing every year. At least in 2022, Olson did a whole lot of this against the shift:

But there’s something else, too. Whether or not Olson hit better against the shift or worse against it comes down entirely to how you define hit better, because look at his 2022 splits.

Olson against the shift: .287 BABIP, .465 SLG, .340 wOBA
Olson against no shift: .189 BABIP, .583 SLG, .378 wOBA

If you value batting average, he was better when the shift was on. If you value overall production, via wOBA, he was better when the shift was off. How is that possible? In part because he pulled the ball more without the shift (43%) than against it (38%), and he hits the ball harder when he pulls (94.4 mph) than when he goes to the opposite field (90.6 mph). Which, in some sense, is what the shift is designed to do. It's not just about putting fielders in spots to catch balls. It's about motivating hitters to be worse versions of their best selves.

He’s a great example of a fascinating question: If batters think they can get a few extra singles and raise their batting average … is it even a good idea to do so? Some will say it is, but not all of them.

1B Anthony Rizzo, Yankees

Rizzo is perhaps the most prominent name that comes up in this conversation, in part because he used to be a high-average hitter with the Cubs (.277 from 2012-19), and that skill has collapsed the last few seasons (.234 from 2020-22). That could be due to increased shifting, but it could also be due to aging (he’s 33 now), or evidence of a changed approach – it’s hard to ignore that a lefty in Yankee Stadium just posted a career-low ground-ball rate and a career-high pull percentage. Maybe singles aren’t even his goal anymore.

Rizzo has well below-average speed, which means there are a lot of plays like this, anyway, which looks like a shifted out but really goes right through the regular second baseman spot regardless, likely remaining an out in 2023.

Much of the issue here seems to be the lack of opportunities last year for the shift to do much against him, as surprising as that sounds. Rizzo stepped to the plate 548 times, and a mere 27 of those plate appearances, or a touch under 5%, turned into hard-hit ground-ball outs – half, for example, of Seager’s 55. If we just say batted balls rather than outs, well, 33 other lefty batters had more hard-hit grounders with the shift in effect.

So what was Rizzo doing against the shift? A full 33% of the time, he was walking, striking out or getting hit by a pitch. For nearly another one-third (31%), he was hitting it far -- beyond our 220-foot minimum distance for infielders. Then, about 18% of the time, he went opposite field against the shift. We're already up to more than 80% of his season without even talking about pulling balls into the shift, and then you get the idea.

As time has gone on, Rizzo has been attempting to hit the ball in the air more, with his 32% grounder rate against the shift in 2022 representing a career low (data begins in 2015). There’s an argument to make that this is the correct strategy for him against any defense, since his 32 homers were his most since 2017, and his 131 OPS+ was equal to what he had in 2017 – when he had a .274 average. He may not want to trade the chance of extra-base hits for more singles.

All that said, Rizzo does have one thing working in his favor. While the data doesn’t indicate he’ll get any enormous boost from the lack of the extreme infield shift, the new rules also prevent the four-man outfield, too. Rizzo had just 10 hits in 43 batted balls against that setup, which is not accounted for in our infield shift data. More outfield space may benefit him as much as or more than more infield space.

OF Max Kepler, Twins

Kepler has the lowest BABIP in recent baseball history. This is not a joke. Go back to the start of the Wild Card Era (since 1994), look for every hitter with at least 2,500 plate appearances, and there he is, with his .248 tied for last. It’s almost impossible for a hitter’s non-homer batted balls to find as many gloves as Kepler’s have. He’s been shifted 94% of the time over the last three years. It must be that, right?

Our analysis does estimate he might have lost four hits in 2022 due to the now-illegal defense. It’s not nothing, but it’s hardly the game-changing estimate many observers would like it to be. Here’s one way to explain why that is:

2018: .224 average / .236 BABIP / 32% shift
2022: .227 average / .249 BABIP / 90% shift 

Nearly three times the shifts, but little difference in outcome. (Overall, that is. It’s obviously different on grounders.) Here’s another:

Career against shift: .254 BABIP
Career against non-shift: .238 BABIP

None of which is intended to make the point that the shift doesn’t work; if it didn’t, teams wouldn’t do it so often. But in Kepler’s case, his issue seems to be less about where the fielders are standing and more about the quality of contact (or lack of it) he’s making against them – which is what’s really driving that low BABIP.

Consider this: Over the last five years, only four lefties have more popups, and popups are essentially automatic outs (he has a .006 average). Consider this, too: On grounders hit to the pull side or up the middle in 2022, Kepler hit .194. That seems bad, until you realize that the Major League average for lefties on those batted balls was … .188. Remember the list above, when we shared that Olson actually hit quite well on hard-hit pulled grounders into the shift? There were 55 lefties who did so at least 25 times, and Kepler's .283 BABIP was 34th, only slightly below the midpoint of the ground and the .292 Major League left-handed average.

Whatever his issues may be, it’s about more than just the shift.

2B/OF Jeff McNeil, Mets & 1B Freddie Freeman, Dodgers

Is it possible that some lefties will not only not gain hits due to the loss of the shift, but lose them? We’re not entirely sure we’re ready to make that claim about McNeil and Freeman, even though our data says it's true, because they’re likely great examples of players with outstanding bat control who will not just do the same thing they did previously given a new defensive setup. It’s likely that adjustments will be made here.

We point this out because McNeil had a .416 BABIP against the shift in 2022, the highest of any player with 150 batted balls against it. (He had a “mere” .323 BABIP against regular defenses, which he saw 78% of the time.) Given that, it's hard to say that losing the shift will benefit him, and that’s in large part due to the ability to do this …

… which raises an interesting question: Will these two benefit because the right side will have a little more open space? Or lose out because going to the opposite field – where Freeman hit nearly .400 last year – will have somewhat less open space? It’s a fascinating strategic and bat control question.

OF Joey Gallo, Twins

We’ll save the easiest one for last. Gallo hit .160 last year, and just .183 over the last three years. He’s been shifted on 90% of his plate appearances, the third-highest rate of anyone. Yet our data says he’d have gained 0 extra hits in 2022. How? Because he strikes out a ton (40% last year) and walks a lot (14%), and that’s already half his plate appearances without contact being made. Now throw in his elite hard-hit skills that allow him to hit the ball over the shift, and we’re left with this: Only 23% of Gallo’s plate appearances even ended with batted balls against the shift hit under 220 feet. It’s the second-lowest figure of 159 lefties with 100 shifted plate appearances.

Most of what Gallo does at the plate isn't about the shift to begin with. So long as he hits enough homers and plays strong defense, he -- and the Twins -- likely won't care what his batting average is.

Ultimately, the question of how hitters will be affected by the positioning rules is a best estimate, not a one-size-fits-all question. Not all lefties hit the ball the same, or were positioned the same, or will be positioned the same, or will react to the new positions in the same way. We know, too, that the shift impacts walks and strikeouts, not just batted balls. That knowledge -- that not every hitter will approach this the same way -- makes for the first look at the new rule all the more interesting.