In early March, Major League Baseball announced an agreement to ban the infield “shift,” beginning in 2023. A ban means no more than 2 players on each side of second base will be allowed to field. As offense has dwindled and pitchers control the game, these countermeasures are designed to increase overall offensive production. After all, the shift’s growth and widespread implementation were due to the vast amount of runs that could be prevented with little additional spending. The saved runs aren’t evenly spread out among all hitters — some are really struggling to get the ball around these fielders. But with the ban lifted, certain players stand to benefit immensely, adding value to their team they could not before. So, what notable players will benefit from this change?
Using Statcast-era data for this research was crucial – tracking player movement and defining a shift is a necessity in figuring out its effect on players. Statcast was fully implemented by 2016, which is the start year for this data, although a good argument could be made for 2015 (either would work). The sample ended in 2021, the last full year of data.
Each player must have had both 100+ Batted Ball Events (BBE) during an Infield Shift and a Standard/Strategic Shift. These standard and strategic shifts were grouped as both will be allowed under the new ban – infield shifts will not be, hence the need for differentiation. If a player has less than 100 on either side, it is difficult to make a conclusion about the effects of the infield shift. This is especially important because Batted Balls notably have a high degree of variance, making a qualifier much more useful in eliminating that.
For this analysis, all types of batted balls in play are included. This is because players may not be able to control what side of the field they hit towards, but they can somewhat control the angle at which the ball is launched (based on swing types). A pull-hitter that faces constant infield shifts may adapt their swing to elicit more flyballs over line drives and groundballs, as the former is the only guaranteed way to beat the infield shift. But when this type of shift is banned, a player could level out their swing. A possible differentiation in plate approach makes the inclusion of all batted balls necessary. Therefore, batted ball statistics will be solely included in this evaluation, such as BAcon, wOBAcon, xBAcon, and xwOBAcon.
Players Standing to Gain
If you’re a Yankees fan, seeing Joey Gallo’s performance in 2022 has probably been infuriating. Currently sporting a .284 wOBA and 83 wRC+ as of this writing (on July 28th), he has somehow managed to produce 0.3 fWAR. This can likely be owed to the fact that replacement players are horrendous. But, there is good news ahead. Joey faced the highest percentage of shifts in baseball at 88.8% on batted balls during this sample. Now that he will no longer have to face the shift, his performance is bound to skyrocket.
When not facing the shift, during the 2016-2021 sample, Gallo carries a wOBAcon that is 93 points better, at .601. If he could produce a line similar to that in 2023, he would be considered one of the best power hitters in the sport. This is far from a fluke – his expected when not shifted is .576. His Batting Average on contact paints a similar story. And while I am well-versed in the flaws of batting average, measuring it solely on contact is a great way to estimate the effect the shift actually has against him. When hitting against the shift, his BAcon falls 71 points to .355. As the shift disappears, he should see some significant improvement.
Yankees fans need not worry; if given the opportunity to hit against an even infield defense, Gallo will see a significant improvement, and perhaps become one of the best hitters in baseball. This increased performance would lead to more at-bats, which in theory could multiply his value by a great portion in the coming years. He becomes a free agent after this season and could be re-signed for a fraction of his potential worth. The Yankees should be very interested in a reunion this coming offseason.
2020 NL MVP and new Dodgers first baseman Freddie Freeman gets shifted on in 63.8% of his at-bats. And especially throughout the latter half of his career, this has been visibly harmful to his performance. His wOBAcon when not shifted was .501, compared to .451 with the shift on. And while both are good numbers, the ability to produce .501 points of wOBA on contact is absolutely phenomenal. A huge portion of Freddie’s value has been taken away, thanks to the shift.
A significant portion of his lost value comes from his struggle to get hits – his batting average on contact dropped a staggering 60 points when infielders decided to shift against him. When the shift ban is enacted in 2023, Freeman’s regular contact statistics stand to regress towards his current non-shifted numbers. As the deal was signed after the new CBA, it is likely that this expected growing value was included in his contract evaluation. Nevertheless, it will prove to be a great bump to an already dangerous Dodgers team, and their win projections should positively reflect Freeman’s newfound value.
In 2022, Aaron Judge has proved himself to be of the most dangerous hitters in baseball. Now, imagine if he had something else, like a rule change, to make him better. No need for imagination! This will become reality next year. Throughout his career, Judge has been one of the players held down by the infield shift. While infielders have only dramatically moved on 32.8% of his batted balls during the measured period, it’s been enough to harm him. During infield-shifted plays, his wOBA on contact dropped 78 points. The expected version, xwOBAcon, also fell a similar 76 points. Judge may remain a top hitter with either fielding position (still has managed a .495 wOBAcon when infield shifted), but he’ll be even better without the shift.
His BAcon dropping from .435 with no shift to .389 with one suggests that more than just hits are being taken away from him. If aligned correctly, an infield defense could stop line-drive doubles or even triples. Either way, Judge is another player you can expect to improve towards their non-shifted statistics. Set to become a Free Agent this offseason, this year’s performance, as well as likely improvement next year, could warrant a great premium for his services. If he can manage to stay healthy, said premium is likely worth it (to an extent on the years within the contract).
Interestingly enough, Jazz Chisholm Jr. was shifted at a similar rate to Judge at 32.8%. Rounding down to the 100th decimal reveals that Jazz was shifted just 0.02% less than Judge, with 32.78%. Like Judge, Chisholm experienced some negative effects when he was shifted. His wOBAcon and BAcon fell 64 and 24 points, respectively. These are not the biggest dropoffs (even relative to the actual averages), but they are enough to make a huge impact in this budding star’s game. Holding a .446 wOBA on contact without the infield shift versus a .382 with it is enough to take a player from good to barely above the middle of the pack. This type of shift is the difference between him being somewhat average and a value machine.
Contrary to the other players we’ve discussed, Chisholm’s expected statistics have a wider differential than his actual stats. During the sample, there was a 92-point difference between his infield shift and non-shift xwOBAcon. This suggests that over time, Jazz will only do worse against the shift. His xBAcon mimicked the same pattern – it experienced a 55-point drop. Despite still struggling against shifted fielders, he is considered to be extremely lucky. If his batted balls followed their expected outcomes, he would be producing much less. Thankfully, this will not be an issue. When 2023 hits, Jazz will be able to hit freely, bettering his production for a struggling Marlins after his shift penalty disappears. Chisholm remains on a rookie deal, and Miami could benefit from signing him before his value likely goes up after the season ends. An agent may try to factor this into negotiations, although a deal beforehand could still yield them a discount.
While the shift has proven to be a formidable opponent to many of baseball’s finest, its incoming demise lays a path toward future success. This change will boost scoring everywhere, especially for certain players who have suffered greatly against the shift. Joey Gallo, Freddie Freeman, Aaron Judge, and Jazz Chisholm Jr. are all prime examples of how hitters with depressed statistics will see positive regression with the shift’s elimination. But, these four make up a fraction of the players hurt by the infield shift – loads of others stand to benefit.
The team that carries the most of these hitters stands to gain the largest year-over-year run production change. And while this piece may be a bit late to the party, analytically smart teams should have stocked up on said hitters after they became aware of the news, exploiting a temporary market advantage while the players remained cheap. The window may still be open, but the inefficiency is likely waning as teams start to properly project future performance.
The players within this article will likely produce more, and so will all of baseball. But given that these players are awarded the proper opportunities and not penalized for their prior performance against the shift, they can reach their full potential. Teams with these types of hitters only stand to gain offense – all they have to do is play their cards right.
Feature image by Michael Packard (@CollectingPack on Twitter) / Photography by Brian Rothmuller & Randy Litzinger / Icon Sportswire