What is the shift in baseball ? Major League Baseball has made three major rule changes for the 2023 season, and one that seems to be very polarizing is something that might be called the “shift ban.” It, of course, isn’t exactly a ban on shifting defenders to different areas than the traditional defensive positioning. It’s more of a shift limit or just a regulation on defensive positioning of infielders, but those aren’t quite as sexy as saying “the shift is banned.”
The “shift” would be something we’ve grown very accustomed to seeing in recent years against left-handed hitters, mostly. We’ll see just one defender on the left side of second base with three loaded onto the right, usually with one of them positioned a decent number of feet into right field. The latter positioning also enabled the right fielder to play much deeper than usual and takes nearly the entire right side of the field out of play for the hitter.
No more. The new rules stipulate that teams must have four infielders starting with at least one of their feet in the infield dirt, eliminating the extra outfielder positioning. Also, there must be two infielders on each side of second base, preventing the overloading of one side.
Teams are still permitted to move outfielders around at will, so it’s possible we’ll see some extra infielder alignments or something crazy with the alignment of the three outfielders, but the infielders are mostly confined close to their traditional spots. They’ll still be able to move them around, just within the boundaries set forth by the new rules.
We can just stop there. This registry goes back to 1871 and singles have been the hardest to come by lately, due to how good pitchers are in addition to how good teams have become at scouting.
Looping in every hit, the .243 batting average was the lowest it has been since 1968, a season where pitchers dominated so much that the league lowered the mound and altered the strike zone.
The new defensive alignment rules are designed to help bring more singles back and with it get the batting average a bit higher. Here are some players who could most benefit by having an angle to scorch a line drive through the infield.
How Banning Infield Shifts Will Change MLB
As teams cobble together their rosters this winter, they must tackle this riddle thrown at them: How will the ban on shifts change offense and defense? Baseball will look different next season—at least from the past seven years or so, when shifts grew prevalent, sucked more than 2,000 hits out of the game and deemphasized range at second base.
We have so much data on how shifts changed baseball that it is not difficult to make an educated guess as to what will happen next year without them. My top conclusions:
1. The MLB batting average should increase from .243 last season (the fifth-worst ever, and the worst in 54 years) to .255 (equaling the highest since 2011).
2. Ground balls will go up, and strikeouts will go down, both slightly.
3. Corey Seager of Texas and Matt Olson of Atlanta will benefit the most from the new rules.
4. The Giants need a second baseman, and the Cardinals will rethink Nolan Gorman at second base.
1. How did shifts change baseball?
To understand how the game will be played in 2023, first you must understand the arc and effect of defensive shifts. They have been around since Ted Williams, but only in the past four years did they become massively prevalent and effective. The big leap began when the use of shifts doubled from 2017 to ’19—largely because of the success of the Astros and Rays, the first and only teams to exceed 30% shifts in those years. Houston won the ’17 World Series using a shift 35% of the time in the regular season—then a record, now a level exceeded by 11 teams.
Since 2019, shifts changed how the game looked and how it was played. They made the game aesthetically awkward and less entertaining, which is why a rule change was needed: to rebalance the entertainment value of baseball against its brutish efficiency. In the blend of art and science, baseball should always be more about an athletic competition than an intellectual contest among hackers.
Always remember this about shifts: They were designed to turn hard-hit balls into outs. The average ground ball is hit 86.8 mph. Most balls hit softly or at average velocity are still going to be outs next year. It’s the hard-hit ones that are more likely to become hits because more velocity = less time.
Defenders will have less time because teams can’t bunch three fielders on the pull side of the infield, and they can’t push infielders into the outfield grass to cover more ground.
With that in mind, when I looked at the year-by-year use and effect of shifts I considered hard-hit balls (90 mph or more) to be most instructive. Over the past seven years, shifts more than tripled and they reduced batting average on hard-hit grounders by 80 points!
2. Don’t hitters want fewer ground balls anyway?
Yes, that was one effect of the proliferation of shifts. Batters saw hit probability on grounders reduced by the shift, so they tried to hit over the defensive alignment. They chased slug, not batting average, also because that is the reward system clubs use as compensation. “Slug is in the air” became the mantra of the Launch Angle revolution.
From 2015 to ’22, the shift helped take 2,065 ground-ball hits out of the game. Put them back in, and the MLB batting average goes from .243 to .255.
Over those same seven years, batters hit 7,206 fewer ground balls, a decline of 12%. As ground balls become more rewarded—by hits, and in time, by compensation—those ground balls will come back.
Think about what happened to Cody Bellinger: from 2019 MVP to ’22 non-tender free agent. His average launch angle from his first four seasons to the past two seasons increased from 17.1 degrees to 21.0 degrees. His ground-ball hits were cut in half, from 37.8 per year to 18.5.
3. How noticeable will the change be next season?
Not as noticeable as you think. Put those 2,065 ground-ball hits back into the game and you’re still talking about only about one more hit per game.
Let’s use the past World Series as an example—the last one with shifts. The Phillies and Astros used a shift 38% of the time, slightly above the MLB regular-season rate of 34%. Batters combined to hit 30 ground balls when facing a shift. I looked at each one of them. Only seven of them were likely hits without the shift—that’s a small sample that dovetails with the large sample rate of about one more ground-ball hit per game.
Here is what is interesting about those seven World Series hits taken away by the shift: Kyle Schwarber and Bryce Harper of Philadelphia each accounted for three of them. And the Astros’ combined no-hitter doesn’t exist without the shift; it took away a hit from Schwarber.
4. Which hitters benefit the most from the ban on shifts?
Seager and Olson will love the new rules. Seager hit .176 last season on hard-hit grounders—65 points below the major league average. He lost at least nine hits because of shifts. Turn those outs into hits and his batting average improves from .245 to .260. Nobody hit more hard-hit groundouts into the shift last season than Seager
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