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For the last decade, the sight of curmudgeonly, traditionalist baseball fans clamoring for players to learn to beat the shift by hitting the ball to the opposite field has grown more and more prevalent. Just bunt down the third-base line already, they say.
In theory, it shouldn’t be that hard, right? Baseball is a game of adjustments, after all. Opposing teams uncover new information about hitters all the time. The need for hitters to adapt is hardly noteworthy. It’s just part of the ebbs and flows of the game.
The shift, it turns out, is something of a different animal. Over time, hitters learned that the best way to beat it was to, well, just hope for the best.
“There’s this whole narrative of ‘Why don’t guys just hit ground balls to short?’” veteran infielder Matt Carpenter told ESPN back in 2018. “The answer is: (a) It’s not that easy and (b) it’s the complete thing you’ve taught yourself your entire baseball career to avoid. If a guy has a chance to hit a homer and a double, and he goes up there trying to slap a ground ball to short, the other team is perfectly fine with that.”
The baseball world has grown increasingly sympathetic to Carpenter’s predicament. It’s not that hitters who face shifts regularly can’t be great — Shohei Ohtani was shifted against more than any almost every other hitter in 2022 — it’s just that the shift, used appropriately, is essentially guaranteed to lessen the productivity of its victims. It is the elusive chess move that has no counterattack.
In 2023, however, baseball’s most shift-prone hitters will no longer have to fight this battle they cannot win. The shift is banned — well, sort of — and the Diamondbacks might be baseball’s most fascinating team in a world where it doesn’t exist. They appear to be in for a significant step forward offensively and a colossal step back defensively.
Before we get too deep, let’s go over the basic rules of MLB’s new shift restrictions:
- Infielders must have both feet on the infield dirt at all times.
- There must be exactly two infielders on each side of second base when the pitch is released.
- Infielders cannot change sides of the infield unless there is a substitution.
Diamondbacks offense poised for significant step forward
Put simply, the Diamondbacks are stacked with left-handed hitters with a pull-heavy profile — the exact group that is generally most prone to the shift.
“The flooding of the right side of the field seems to affect the left-handed hitters more so than anything,” Diamondbacks manager Torey Lovullo said. “Us having a lot of them, I think it’s going to create another advantage for our team.
“That second baseman with a man at first base, you feel like you want to creep over to first base more than you normally would and put the second baseman in the four hole, you can’t because you’ve got to turn a double play. That hole is going to stay open and will remain open. I think it’s going to create an advantage for a left-handed hitter.”
Daulton Varsho fits that mold to a tee, having pulled the ball at a higher rate than any player in baseball in 2022 (minimum 450 plate appearances). Here is a look at several key left-handed D-backs hitters and their weighted on-base average (wOBA) with the shift versus without it in 2022.
The potential gains in a world without the shift are significant. Notably, outfielder Corbin Carroll could also stand to benefit from the shift restrictions as a left-handed hitter, but there isn’t enough data on him to investigate.
It is also worth noting that three of the four players on this list have been rumored to be involved in trade discussions — all except for Rojas — and these potential gains could play a role in swaying the opinions’ of other teams on what their value might be moving forward.
Regardless of which, if any, the Diamondbacks trade, several of the team’s core position players could see a significant bump in offensive performance due to the new shift restrictions. Combine that with the natural improvements that could come with another year of experience, and it’s easy to see why the D-backs’ young outfielders have so much value, both internally and externally.
Diamondbacks could be among teams hurt most on defense
The Diamondbacks ranked sixth in baseball in 2022 with 56 defensive runs saved (DRS). Players have DRS stats tied to their individual performances, but there is also a team component of DRS known as rTS, which essentially measures defensive runs saved due to team shifts.
In 2022, the Diamondbacks ranked fifth in baseball with 33 rTS, trailing only the Dodgers, Angels, Blue Jays and Red Sox. Essentially, that means the Diamondbacks drew the fifth-most value from the shift in baseball — which would seem to imply they have the fifth-most to lose by the shift being restricted.
It’s not quite that simple, though, in that the shift restrictions are not necessarily fool-proof. While teams are not permitted to game the system by, say, using four outfielders, a team could still rearranging its outfielders to cover ground that might have previously been covered by an infielder in the shift.
With a plethora of athletic outfielders, the Diamondbacks are particularly well-equipped to explore such tactics. According to Lovullo, they have already begun to get creative.
“We’ve been having those conversations,” Lovullo said. “I don’t want to put anybody in a situation where they’re going to make a fool of themselves, but we feel like we can maybe circumvent the system and the process a little bit to get an out where you might be getting a base hit otherwise.”
Unlike the outfield, the Diamondbacks’ infield defense was unspectacular in 2022. With those infielders now being forced into less ideal defensive alignments, poor infield performance will be exacerbated. Lovullo has already urged his infielders to prepare by improving their range and mobility.
“We want to create a very athletic infield that can cover ground,” Lovullo said. “I already have asked our guys to go in and prepare themselves from the waist down if you’re an infielder because you’re going to have to go out and get the job done on a much bigger scale.”
Based on the numbers, the most vulnerable Diamondbacks infielder without the shift is Ketel Marte, whose defensive metrics have deteriorated significantly in recent years. Lovullo visited Marte, among others, during a trip to the Dominican Republic in November. While there, Lovullo encouraged Marte to be ready for what’s coming.
“I spent an afternoon, half of a day with Ketel,” Lovullo said. “It was great to see him. He looked very healthy. I watched him go out and work out. I didn’t want him to take ground balls on the field that he was on, but I encouraged him with what I just got done saying: We need to make sure you’re agile, strong, and making the movements left and right as good as anybody when you step into spring training.”
Given that the D-backs were among the league leaders in rTS, it stands to reason that D-backs pitchers would have been more successful with the shift than without it in 2022. Ironically, that was not necessarily case — at least not for all Diamondbacks starting pitchers.
|Opponent wOBA w/shift
|Opponent wOBA w/o shift
Out of this group, Gallen benefitted the most from the shift, with a .205 opponent wOBA on balls in play with the shift compared to a .273 wOBA on balls in play without the shift. Merrill Kelly benefitted slightly as well. In contrast, Zach Davies actually fared better without the shift than he did with it, and, to a lesser extent, Madison Bumgarner was in the same boat.
This doesn’t mean the Diamondbacks’ pitching staff as a whole won’t be hurt by the lack of the shift. Team-wide numbers do not support that conclusion. However, these comparisons do suggest that pitchers will be affected in different ways, with Gallen taking the biggest hit and Bumgarner likely not being affected much, if at all.
On a team-wide basis, there is still no question that the Diamondbacks’ pitching staff will be hurt by the lack of the shift, and the fact that the team’s worst defenders are infielders could make the problem worse than it seems. On the flip-side, the D-backs’ offense is almost certain to take a step forward with their wealth of left-handed hitters who were hurt by the shift last year.
On paper, the new shift restrictions appear to have more cons than pros for the Diamondbacks. No one really knows how it will play out, though. For now, all we can say for sure is that Diamondbacks baseball will be very, very different in 2023 as a result.
Top photo: Orlando Ramirez/USA TODAY Sports
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