The “SHIFT” has been a staple for MLB infielders for years, but very prevalent over the past 10-12 seasons. This alignment of infielders and occasional outfielder to prevent base hits has reduced batting averages and runs per game. Starting with the 2023 MLB season, the infield shift is now banned. As defined in the current rulebook, “At the time of the pitch, all 4 Infielders must be on the infielder dirt, with 2 infielders on each side of 2nd base.”
The Tampa Bay Rays really started to implement this strategy as a primary staple of their defense around 2010. The thought was how do we maximize our chances of recording outs and winning ball games. The shift doesn’t takeaway all ground ball hits, but it has had an impact. According to Business Insider, between 2009-2011, Ray’s opponents got hits on 22.4% of their ground balls as opposed to the 23.6% against other AL teams. If you fast forward to the shortened 2020 season, the Rays shifted a whopping 731 times, which was a 70% increase from the full 162 game schedule in 2010. This trend was viral across baseball in 2020. Per Sporting News, the Rays shifted on 33.1% of opportunities, which was 19th in MLB for total shifts in 2020. The 2020 World Champion Los Angeles Dodgers actually led baseball. They shifted 1,210 times, which equated to 55.8% of possible shift opportunities per Sporting News. They shifted 114 more times than the second most team. A much more impactful trend was the way they shifted against left handed hitters. During the 2020 campaign, the Dodgers shifted an eye popping 77% of the time against left handed batters. This utilization lowered batting averages, runs, on base percentage, subsequently stolen bases and general in game action. The shift didn’t exactly result in winning for everyone during 2020, because the Tigers and Pirates finished 2nd and 3rd in shift utilization.
As we fast forward to the 2022 campaign, the discussion around eliminating the defensive shift really ramped up. The fans thought it slowed the in game action down and overall offense. The MLB home office reviewed statistics as well as the polling of fans to find a solution and the consensus was to send the shift packing for the 2023 campaign.
In 2022, the Dodgers continued to shift at a very high rate. They led baseball with a shift rate of 53% per Sports Info Solutions, tied with the Toronto Blue Jays. The Dodgers shifted 54% in 2021, 55.8% in 2020 and 52% in 2019. Something changed within the Dodgers Front Office after the 2018 season where they shifted on 24% of balls put in play. The Blue Jays had the same organizational shift after the 2021 season in which they implemented the shift on 22% of batted balls in play. The shift isn’t just an infield alignment for teams. The Blue Jays led baseball in outfield shifts for the 2022 season with 412 per Sports Info Solutions, the next team in line and only other to do it more than 100 times was the Miami Marlins. An interesting antidote is that former Marlins Manager Don Mattingly is now a coach for the Blue Jays. StatCast defines an outfield shift as “3 outfielders who are positioned at least 110 total combined feet from their average position.” These moves did bear fruit for Toronto in 2022 because they combined for 32 Runs Saved, up from 27 in 2021. This combined with better pitching, ranked the Blue Jays as 6th in Major League Baseball for Defensive Runs Saved, a jump of 9 spots from their ranking of 15th in 2021.
The shift has significantly assisted teams in run prevention, but the visual eye appeal of hits, base running and runs scored has hurt interest. It has also caused hitters to change their approach and swing at the plate. A term “Launch Angle” has become common place lately because hitters are trying to hit with more intent for fly balls to overcome the shift on ground balls. We have seen a lot of home runs, but teams have become very home run dependent. The number of hits, first to third base running and manufacturing runs has decreased.
HIGHEST SHIFT RATE IN 2022 ON BALLS IN PLAY:
- LOS ANGELES DODGERS. 53%
- TORONTO BLUE JAYS. 53%
- HOUSTON ASTROS. 48%
- SEATTLE MARINERS 45%
- MIAMI MARLINS. 44%
- MINNESOTA TWINS. 43%
** NOTE: Top 4 made the playoffs, including the World Champion Houston Astros.
LOWEST SHIFT RATE IN 2022 ON BALLS IN PLAY:
- COLORADO ROCKIES. 18%
- CLEVELAND GUARDIANS. 21%
- BALTIMORE ORIOLES. 22%
- SAN DIEGO PADRES. 23%
- NEW YORK YANKEES. 24%
**NOTE: 3 of these teams made the playoffs in 2022
SHIFTING RIGHT HANDED HITTERS (RHH) VS LEFT HANDED HITTERS (LHH):
The overall Shift percentages must be viewed at a granular level based on the hitter. The Dodgers had the highest shift rate in MLB against RHH, with a shift rate of 41.9% per Baseball Savant and MLB.com. This rate came from 1,571 shifts on 3,745 opportunities. On the flip side, they shifted 70.5% of the time against LHH. 28 teams in Major League Baseball shifted 42% or more of the time against Left Handed Hitters. Of those 28 clubs, 19 did it more than 50% of the time. The only teams that didn’t shift more than 42% vs Lefties were the Braves (38.6%) and the Rockies (27.8%). Across the board the shift utilization between RHH & LHH is very extensive. As the shift is banned, I expect Left Handed Batters to benefit tremendously.
MLB SHIFT SPLITS FOR RHH VS LHH (2022 SEASON PER STATCAST):
- TOTAL PLATE APPEARANCES: 180,998
- TOTAL SHIFTS: 60,766
- MLB SHIFT %: 33.6%
- TOTAL PLATE APPEARANCES FOR RHH: 109,463
- TOTAL SHIFTS VS RHH: 21,400
- RHH SHIFT %: 19.5%
- TOTAL PLATE APPEARANCES FOR LHH: 71,535
- TOTAL SHIFTS VS LHH: 39,366
- LHH SHIFT %: 55.0%
NOTABLE TEAMS RHH VS LHH SHIFT SPLITS (2022 SEASON PER STATCAST)
- MINNESOTA TWINS. RHH 25.7%. Vs. LHH 70.1%
- CHICAGO WHITE SOX. RHH 18.2% Vs. LHH 63.4%
- DETROIT TIGERS. RHH 19.3%. Vs. LHH 66.5%
- BOSTON RED SOX. RHH 15%. Vs. LHH 70.7%
- SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS. RHH 16.5%. Vs. LHH 55.7%
- CINCINNATI REDS. RHH 10.1%. Vs. LHH 55.3%
- PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES. RHH 15.5%. Vs. LHH. 45.3%
- MILWAUKEE BREWERS. RHH. 14.6% Vs. LHH 47.4%
- SAN DIEGO PADRES. RHH. 5%. Vs. LHH. 54.7%
WHICH HITTERS WILL BENEFIT THE MOST FROM THE SHIFT BAN?
According to Tom Verducci, over the past 7 years the “Shift” has taken away roughly 2,000 hits. It has also rendered the ability of the second baseman to show any range or be exposed for lack of field coverage. The cumulative MLB batting average for the 2022 season was.243. That was the 5th worst batting average in MLB history and the lowest in over 50 years per Verducci. The removal of the infield shift will result in the overall batting average to increase by at least 20 points in my humble opinion. We will also see the ground ball rate increase and strikeouts drop a little. As an ancillary result, I expect a significant increase in stolen bases and runs scored due to more base runners.
The players who will benefit the most are Left Handed Hitters with a high Hard Hit Ground ball rate. Hard Hit Grounders are defined as balls hit on the ground with an Exit Velocity of 90 + MPH. These usually are rockets off the bat that a fielder can’t get to based on the speed off the bat. In Tom Verducci’s research, between 2015 and 2022 on Hard Hit Grounders, the cumulative average without a Shift was .373, but 80 points lower (.293) against a shift.
In Mr Verducci’s analysis, these hitters had a ton of Hard Hit Grounders and will be in a great spot to benefit:
- COREY SEAGER. (TEXAS RANGERS). 71 Hard Hit Grounders in 2022
- YORDAN ALVAREZ (HOUSTON ASTROS). 66 Hard Hit Grounders in 2022
- ROWDY TELLEZ (MILWAUKEE BREWERS). 66 Hard Hit Grounders in 2022
- MATT OLSEN (ATLANTA BRAVES). 59 Hard Hit Grounders in 2022.
A few other hitters I think will benefit significantly by the rule change are:
- CHRISTIAN YELICH (MILWAUKEE BREWERS)
- JUAN SOTO. (SAN DIEGO PADRES)
- RAFAEL DEVERS. (BOSTON RED SOX)
- CEDRIC MULLINS (BALTIMORE ORIOLES)
- JEFF McNEIL (NEW YORK METS)
- BRYCE HARPER (PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES)
- BRYAN REYNOLDS. (PITTSBURGH PIRATES)
- CORBIN CARROLL. (ARIZONA DIAMONDBACKS)
- GUNNAR HENDERSON (BALTIMORE ORIOLES)
- JAZZ CHISHOLM JR. (MIAMI MARLINS)
As much as it might be painful for teams in regards to pitching staffs having stats increase, the game will win as a whole. I would rather see action on the field and runs on the scoreboard as opposed to a groundout to the Third Baseman in shallow right field. The Elite Pitchers will still get theirs but as a backup, their offense should increase as well. In reviewing all the data from StatCast, Business Insider, Sports Info Solutions, Sporting News, Baseball Savant, MLB.Com, and Tom Verducci, we can come to these conclusions; Left Handed Hitters will see increased success and it will be Business as Usual for Right Handed Hitters and the teams facing them. Also, there is a healthy mix of successful teams across the Shift spectrum, showing that there isn’t a cookie cutter way to win games. As a way to apply similar shift results, it will be interesting to see how many teams place an outfielder in shallow right field or on the edge of the outfield grass behind 2nd base.