Who Benefits Most From Banning the Shift in 2023?

by Connor Charbat
Who Benefits Most From Banning the Shift in 2023?

The shift has been a hot topic of debate recently with more and more MLB teams using it to their advantage numerous times per game. Players across the league have been weighing in over the years, some are for the shift, and obviously, some are against it. But, who benefits most from banning the shift in 2023? Well first, let's give some background.

In 2013, the shift was barely used with a total of 7,641 shifts or 4.1% of the time. Compare that to the 2022 season which had a staggering 60,849 shifts, good enough for 33.6% of the time. Not only does it take away almost half of the field from certain hitters (looking at you Joey Gallo), but some hitters simply have not been able to adjust.

Infield shifts are, more often than not, designed for your power lefty hitters who have an extreme tendency to yank pitches to the right side of the infield and/or outfield. This doesn't mean teams don't shift for RHBs, they just do so at a significantly lower pace. So, teams like the LA Dodgers and Houston Astros decided to implement the shift strategy more than any other teams in 2022 with the Dodgers shifting 52.1% of the time (1st) and the Astros 50.4% of the time (2nd).

So, when was the shift actually born? Some say decades ago.

Is the defensive shift required to win games? The Guardians, Yankees, and Padres would all say, "of course not." Meanwhile, the Dodgers, Astros, and Blue Jays would all say, "absolutely!" And, of course, these six teams made up exactly half of the playoff bracket in 2022.

The shift deniers (CLE, NYY, SD) were in the bottom five of teams who shifted the least in '22, while the shift believers (LAD, HOU, and TOR) were the top three. Is there a right answer? Well, that's for you to decide.

The statistical comparison between the deniers and the believers is quite stunning. The Cleveland Guardians were ranked 29th in total shifts in '22 with a total of 1,352 defensive shifts or 22.6% of all plate appearances. On the other hand, the Los Angeles Dodgers were ranked 1st in total shifts with 3,048 or 52.1% of all plate appearances. Both playoff teams, both eliminated in the LDS.

Imagine sitting at a baseball game in Cleveland one day with a baseball novice who asks you to describe the positions on the field. No problem, that's easy. Naylor, #22 is the first baseman, Rosario, #1 is the second baseman, etc. Now, take that same fan to a Dodgers game and have them ask the same question. Your description would have to start out with a "Well, actually" and then shortly after a "I'll describe it later."

Take a look at the video below from an extra-inning battle between the Dodgers and Padres a few years back. That's the whole infield between first and second base.

The shift itself isn't completely gone, though.

Via MLB.com
- The four infielders must be within the outer boundary of the infield when the pitcher is on the rubber
- The defensive team must have a minimum of four players on the infield, with at least two infielders completely on either side of second base

Now, let's talk about who will benefit the most from it being banned, or simply revised.

Who Benefits Most From Banning the Shift in 2023?

Team Positioning Leaderboard 2022

Who Benefits Most From Banning the Shift in 2023?

Looking at 2022 specifically, which players were shifted on at the highest rate? With a 250 plate appearance minimum, the players are Carlos Santana (98.3%), Cal Raleigh (96.2%), and Jose Ramirez (93.9%). Will they benefit the most though? Let's see.

So, let's get into the meat of things. Which players stand to benefit?

Let's get this out of the way first, I know what you're thinking. Joey Gallo is going to all of a sudden be in the MVP race due to this rule change because teams aren't allowed to put eight players on the right side of the field anymore.

Ok, maybe a bit of an exaggeration there, but you get what I'm saying. And well, I don't think much is going to change at all with Joey Gallo. His ground ball rate for his career is at 29.3% (MLB average was 42.9% in '22). Joey Gallo is going to hit fly balls, that's just what he does. Not just sometimes either, 51% of the time for his career and 52.7% in 2022.

Additionally, his GB/FB ratio comes in at 0.57 for his career and 0.53 in '22 (MLB average was 1.15 in '22). This means that, over time, for every ground ball Gallo hits, he'll hit two fly balls. Will Joey Gallo have a few more hits this year? Probably. But, so what? He'll barely hit .200 if he's lucky and maybe hit 23 home runs. I'm looking elsewhere for my fantasy team.

There are some obvious candidates for this analysis that you've probably already read about - the aforementioned Joey Gallo (90% shift rate), Corey Seager (92.8%), etc. Let's get away from the obvious and dig a bit deeper into some batted ball percentages and wOBA comparisons.

Byron Buxton, OF, Minnesota Twins

We've all more than likely had some stock in Byron Buxton over the years and we've all been let down at least once, probably twice. The 2022 season gave me some modicum of hope. With 92 games played he still managed to hit 28 home runs which was actually 13th in the AL, though his strikeouts did spike. I do believe, however, that the Twins are starting to become much more careful with his health seeing as 34 of his 86 starts were in the DH slot.

Now, for the reason he's in this article. With the minimum plate appearance qualifier of 250, Byron Buxton was the second most shifted on RHB (behind Eugenio Suarez) with a shift occurring 78.8% of the time in 2022. In these shifts, his wOBA was .312. In non-shifts, 21.2% of the time, his wOBA was .517. That is a 205-point increase in shifts vs. non shifts. That is eye-opening to put it lightly.

Who Benefits Most From Banning the Shift in 2023?

The above picture shows how defenses played Buxton's at-bats. The third-baseman guards the line, the shortstop plays the hole, and the second baseman plays up the middle.

With the new shift rule in play in 2023, that second baseman will need to be on the other side of second base while the shortstop will be forced to play the usual position.

In '22, Buxton's Center percentage was a career-low 24.9% while his Pull% was a career-high 58.2%. Looking at these numbers from last season, the new shift rules will greatly increase the amount of batted balls that find their way through the hole and down the line. Granted that he's able to stay healthy or "healthier", I believe the new shift rules will play into Buxton's favor.

Going back to my Gallo comments above, you may think this is somewhat hypocritical due to Buxton's high percentage of fly balls in '22 (51.1%), however, Buxton puts the ball in play much more often than Gallo in his career with Buxton's BABIP at .305 and Gallo's at .257. Not to mention, Buxton's career strikeout percentage sits at 29.1% while Gallo's is 37.3%.

I am forced to believe this rule change will keep Buxton from swinging for the fences as much as he did in 2022 and induce a more contact approach to his power mindset.

Kyle Tucker, OF, Houston Astros

While still not as pretty as his 2021 campaign, Tucker remains a solid late first-round pick in fantasy drafts this year. His batting average took a 37-point dip, however, he did accrue 42 more plate appearances than 2021 along with 38 more at-bats. He matched his 2021 home run total with 30 and managed to keep his strikeout percentage below the MLB average (22.8%) during that same time with 15.6%. Tucker continued to put the ball in play though his BABIP did take a 43-point drop.

All things considered, this is a shift article. Let's talk shift. In 550 plate appearances, with a 250 plate appearance qualifier, Tucker was shifted on a whopping 90.9% of the time (9th highest in the MLB).

In these shifts, Tucker finished with a wOBA of .336, just above the MLB average of .323 in '22. Not great, but above average. However, in non-shifting situations, which occurred in 55 of Tucker's plate appearances (9.1%), Tucker's wOBA ballooned to .463 which is a 140-point increase.

The sample size isn't in our favor here, but 10% of Tucker's plate appearances is still something worth observing. More so, Tucker put up BABIP numbers of .303 in '20 and .304 in '21 when defenses were shifting him 73.9% and 85.2%, respectively.

As shown in the illustration above, Tucker was usually faced with four infielders on the right side of the infield with the left side almost completely abandoned. This adheres to the analytics on Tucker whose Oppo percentage sits at a measly 21.7% for his five-year career.

With two infielders required to be on each side of second base in 2023, this is going to open up some valuable space on the right side of the infield and up the middle. Tucker's career Center percentage sits at 37.9% while his Pull percentage is 40.4%. Both of these batted ball percentages forecast an increase in those hard grounders up the middle and in between first and second base.

Tucker's BABIP sits at a career average of .282, so I can see this number creeping up into the mid .290s and possibly even the low .300s in '23 considering the lack of true shifting that will be taking place against him. Pick him late in the first round with confidence and he will reward you.

MJ Melendez, C/OF, Kansas City Royals

Now, this is niche. And that's the goal here. This may be the only MJ Melendez article you read this offseason, and that's fine. However, there is some meat on the bone here.

One main talking point for me here is the positional flexibility that Melendez provides. Much like Varsho, outfield and catcher are at play here. We're at a time in Fantasy Baseball where there are really limited choices for catchers and if you don't snatch one of the top names early (Realmuto, Varsho, Perez, Rutschman), you may be content waiting a while to snag one.

I know, Melendez had a pedestrian 2022, and that's being nice. He batted .217 with 18 home runs alongside a .313 OBP. However, the OBP is my focus here.

While not great, he did outperform his catching mate Salvador Perez (.292 OBP) who will obviously be the starter for Kansas City behind the plate barring injury. Additionally, Melendez ended 2022 landing in the 81st percentile for Avg. Exit Velocity, 92nd percentile in BB%, and 72nd percentile in Barrel%. I don't hate it.

Speaking in shift terms, Melendez was shifted on 78.2% of the time resulting in a .278 wOBA. In his 116 plate appearances without a shift, Melendez's wOBA was .418. That's a 140-point increase with a non-shifting defense.

As you can see above, defenses know that Melendez loves to pull the ball to the right side (44.9 Pull percentage). With a GB/FB ratio of 0.96 and a Ground Ball percentage sitting right at 39%, removing that extra defender from the right side of the infield is going to allow quite a few more batted balls to squeak right through.

Taking into account the above numbers going into 2023, I can see his BABIP increasing right around 15 to 20 points, putting him a bit below the league average which is .290. Keep in mind, 2022 was his rookie year, he's no slouch.

He may have underwhelmed in his campaign debut, but considering the above-shift/non-shift statistics along with the aforementioned percentile rankings, he's someone to keep an eye on going into 2023. I would have absolutely no problem choosing him as my catcher in 2023, especially considering his OF eligibility.

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