There are four major changes coming to Major League Baseball in 2023: a pitch clock, restrictions on pickoff attempts, the removal of the shift against left-handed hitters, and an increase to the size of the bases.
All of these changes could greatly benefit left-handed hitters who consistently face a shifted infield, with bigger bases and a shift ban seen as particularly beneficial. With the removal of the shift, there are likely going to be more “bang-bang” plays at first base on balls pulled by left-handed hitters, with second basemen having to range farther left and right. Bigger bases could lead to more runners called “safe” thanks to a shorter distance from home plate to first base for lefties in particular, even if it is only a few inches’ difference. Imagine the advantage it will create for players like Corbin Carroll and Jake McCarthy, two pull-happy LHHs with top-ten sprint speeds in baseball!
Additionally, MLB defenses will not be able to put an extra player in shallow right field, where pulled line drives and ground balls typically end up for lefty pull hitters. In 2021, over half of balls put into play were hit into a shift, meaning thousands of base hits were taken away by malicious defensive coaches. Left-handers were especially crushed by these defensive adjustments; they saw a 30 point decrease in batting average on ground balls and line drives when hit into the shift. With the removal of said shift, left-handers are sure to see an increase in fantasy value while teams figure out a new strategy to punish left-handed pull hitters.
With these changes, it’s worth identifying which players stand to benefit the most – you may be in for some extra production!
Who hits into the shift the most?
23 left-handed hitters pulled a ball into the shift at least 100 times in 2022:
A number of prominent fantasy baseball names are on this list, including likely first and second-round picks such as Tucker, Alvarez, Ohtani, and Ramirez. There are also potential bounce-back candidates who had disappointing 2022 seasons like Muncy, Bellinger, Kepler, Santana, Calhoun, and Yastrzemski. Plus, there are some young players with the chance to explode in 2023 including Melendez and Naylor. With the shift ban, some of these 100+ balls hit into the shift will become hits and runs, increasing their value.
Thanks to the shift, plays like this became all too common for Kyle Tucker:
Teams know that certain players have pull tendencies and are more likely to hit to certain areas of the field, and will position defenders based on the hitter at the plate. Kyle Tucker, shown above, is grounding into a version of the shift where the Twins stacked the right side of the infield by moving shortstop Carlos Correa to the other side of second base. The difference is that this season, they will not be able to stack the defense in that way.
The above-listed players are affected the most by the shift. For example, in 2022, the league average pull rate for lefties was 40.1%. Just three of the 23 players listed above had a below league average pull rate: Kyle Tucker (39.9%), Shohei Ohtani (37.1), and Yordan Alvarez (39.4%). Keibert Ruiz had the highest 2022 pull rate of the players listed above at 49.6%. And lest you think this is a one-year trend for these players, just three of them have a lower career pull rate than last year’s league average pull rate: Seager (38.3%), Alvarez (37.5%), and Ohtani (39.2). Santana’s 50.8% career pull rate is the highest of the bunch. Going back even further, since 2019 (excluding 2020 – and including minor league data for Keibert Ruiz and MJ Melendez), 11 of the players saw an increase in their pull rate, two had the exact same pull rate with some fluctuation between, and 10 saw their pull rate drop. Their pull rates may have dropped due to the shift, as the players had no choice but to adjust their approaches to keep getting on base.
Overall, these players specifically have shown the tendency to pull the ball throughout their careers and thus can be counted on to do the same in 2023 and beyond. With that practice likely to continue, fantasy managers should adjust their expectations slightly higher for these players. But how much, exactly?
What were the results of the pulled balls?
Pulled line drives are the best type of hit that a batter can produce because they are most likely to turn into hits. Unfortunately, for the 23 lefties that hit into the shift 100+ times, many of their pulled line drives resulted in outs:
|Player||# of LD balls pulled into shift||# of outs from pulled LD into shift||% of outs per pulled LD into shift|
Looking at the data, the 10 highest percentages of outs per pulled line drive into the shift belong to Santana, Brown, Naylor, Tellez, Calhoun, Santander, Tucker, Melendez, Odor, and Seager. These 10 players could benefit the most from the new shift rules.
One striking example of this is Carlos Santana, who had over half of his pulled line drives into the shift turn into outs. Players like Corey Seager, José Ramírez, and Max Muncy who pulled more than 40 line drives into the shift can also benefit greatly from the shift ban. They are hitting the exact type of ball they have been trained to hit, and will not have to change their approach at the plate heading into the 2023 season, which is especially fortunate for fantasy managers.
Here is an example of a pulled line drive by Corey Seager that goes directly to a shifted second baseman, something that has plagued Seager for years:
Unless teams have incredibly rangy second basemen, these 23 players especially could see hits that previously would have been outs become hits. Imagine if Tyler Freeman had not been allowed to stand in shallow right field like in the clip above. The ball would have dropped in front of the right fielder, resulting in a hit. Had a player been on second or third, they would likely have advanced, allowing them to score or move into scoring position. Players like Seager, Brown, and Santana could have had significantly more productive seasons last year had they not been affected so much by the shift. Those hard-hit balls, which are often so valuable for producing hits, are going to be falling into gloves at lower rates with no shift.
The biggest question is this: what can fantasy managers expect from the players who have been most affected by the shift ban?
What could their 2023 batting averages look like?
Let’s imagine that all of the pulled line drives that turned into outs for the 10 players mentioned above turn into hits in 2023, thanks to the anti-shift rules. Shown below are their revised batting average projections:
|Player||2022 Hits||2022 At-Bats||2022 AVG||2022 Pulled LD Outs||Updated 2022 AVG w/o Shift||Difference in AVG|
Granted, the above numbers reflect everything working out perfectly for these 10 hitters in 2022, and assume they didn’t face a shift and all of their pulled outs turned into pulled hits. So, temper your expectations just a bit. However, the elimination of the shift can still be extremely beneficial for left-handed batters that pull the ball consistently, like Santana, Calhoun, and Odor. With batting averages well above the Mendoza line, they would have been much more fantasy relevant, with an increase of 33, 31, and 23 points to their batting averages, respectively.
The five most significant increases in batting average would go to Santana, Calhoun, Seager, Brown, and Naylor. Had these players been able to land the ball in a gap instead of the glove of a second baseman in shallow right field, they could have had completely different seasons, transforming them from utterly unusable in fantasy to only a little unusable, or even “playable.” Additionally, among all qualified hitters, Brown, Tellez, Melendez, Santander, Tucker, and Seager were top-50 overall last season in barrel rate. Hitting the ball hard is an added benefit for those players because pulled line drives that are also barrels are likely to turn into hits or home runs.
This could also explain why some players never seemed to turn the corner in batting average. Each of the 10 players above had a higher xBA than batting average, and while they were hitting the cover off the ball, they were hitting those broken balls right at defenders.
Why does this all matter?
It is hard to know what to expect next season with several new rules in place. A good start is identifying left-handed hitters who tend to hit into the shift, while factoring in the likelihood that the outs they produce due to the shift turn into hits.
It is also important to identify those pull hitters who hit the ball hard and hit line drives, because those hits are the most valuable and least likely to turn into outs.
We are not guaranteed to see improvements to these players’ stat lines in 2023, but it is likely that they will improve at least some in the coming season. Without having to bat around a portion of the field with an extra defender, pull-hitting lefties can finally lean into their natural swings and approaches at the plate with the confidence that 30% or more of the balls they hit will not be automatic outs.
This is something that fantasy managers must factor in when drafting ahead of this season. Consider boosting these players in your rankings for the 2023 season, as some of their most valuable hits are more likely to stay hits instead of turning into outs.
I think pitchers will take their defensive alignment into account more with these hitter. They’ll start to pitch more on the outer half of the plate.
Doesn’t mean all of this is wrong or untrue, but the results might be less pronounced.
I agree and there’s a whole other angle of the pitchers that will be most affected by not being able to rely on the shift. I get where you’re coming from – this article was meant to be framed as what would happen in a best case scenario for these hitters. Obviously teams and pitchers will still make adjustments, but these players are all likely to see improvements.
Oh, absolutely. I love the article and the concept overall. The new rules are going to really change the game this year (more than people think, imo).
Are the new shift rules only for lefties?
No, but lefty hitters are specifically shifted against, which is why I focused on them for the article
THIS is the article I came here for.
Thanks! Hope you enjoyed and found some info that helped!