In the middle of the season’s final month, Major League Baseball came out with some significant changes for the game next year.
A pitch clock, bigger bases, and other rule changes will take effect starting in the 2023 season. These changes to the game were put in place with the goals of player safety and shortening the pace of games. Fans have debated the rule changes for years, and it was only a matter of time before baseball would try to implement changes.
Another rule change that has picked up increasing steam recently has been the idea of banning the extreme defensive shifting that’s become more used in baseball in recent years. ESPN’s Jeff Passan laid out how MLB will implement the shift ban.
“With all four infielders needing to be on the dirt, the days of the four-outfielder setup will be over,” he wrote. “Even more pertinent, shifting an infielder to play short right field, or simply over shifting three infielders to the right side of the second-base bag, will no longer be legal.”
It’s welcomed news for the majority of lefties around the league. A change this impactful will be felt throughout the league. Looking at the Minnesota Twins, the rule change will create a major change in their team philosophy in 2023 and beyond. Changes in shifting will not impact Luis Arraez or Carlos Correa at the plate in the long run, although several other Twins will have to change their games accordingly.
Shifting has impacted almost every hitter, but none more than left-handed hitters. Baseball Savant says that according to shift percentage, teams have shifted lefties so aggressively that the first right-handed hitter doesn’t show up on the list until the No. 45 spot.
Max Kepler has been the poster child for a hitter haunted by the shift. He ranks 20th in the league with an 89.9 percent shift rate and has a .310 wOBA against the shift. It’s not a terrible number, but it could still be better for a veteran hitter like Kepler. He’s a heavy pull hitter with a 45.1 percent rate of pulling the ball. That’s not going to change. Luckily for Kepler, the rules will.
Kepler is Exhibit A for a hitter who will benefit from the shift ban. Still, other Twins can see a change in their game when MLB implements the new rule, like Alex Kirilloff.
Kirilloff has been second on the team in shift percentage behind Kepler for the last two seasons. Kirilloff has a .291 wOBA against the shift compared to a .255 wOBA against a traditional defense. Most lefties have only seen the shift, so there aren’t enough at-bats to say that Kirilloff was better in the shift.
He pulled the ball at a 36.4 percent clip this season, which isn’t as high of a number as Kepler but is still his dominant side. A 1.85 ground ball/fly ball rate shows that the extra fielder leaving that side of the infield will open up more opportunities for Kirilloff to get on base. He won’t fall victim to smashing a ground ball right into the second baseman’s glove as he stands in shallow right field. Nor will he generate an out when he times one up right through the middle of the field.
Left-handed hitters tend to benefit most from MLB banning the shift, but Byron Buxton is a surprising righty on the list. The right-handed hitter has accumulated a 78.8 percent shift rate and a .312 wOBA in 300 plate appearances against the shift.
It makes sense for teams to shift Buxton. He pulls the ball at 58.2 percent, so the extra infielder on that side can help cover ground to try and neutralize his speed. As much as Buxton is trying to elevate the ball with a 0.60 BG/FB mark, a banishment of the shift could mean a change in his approach. An approach to hitting more line drives with more room on the pull side will incentivize Buxton to get more outfield singles. That can lead to havoc on the basepaths if the Twins decide to turn him loose next year.
Changes aren’t coming from just the lineup. It will also affect how the Twins are going to deploy their defense. Since Derek Falvey and Thad Levine took control of the Twins organization, they have been one of the most shift-friendly teams in baseball. That hasn’t changed this season. They shift 43.3 percent of the time compared to a league average rate of 34.2 percent.
While the removal of shifting may benefit certain hitters in Minnesota’s lineup, it will also have an impact on their defense. Anecdotally, the Twins can make flashy plays on defense, but this club doesn’t boast Gold Glovers outside of Buxton and Correa, and it shows. How much of a negative Minnesota’s defense is for the club depends on what defensive metrics you prefer. In terms of outs above average, the Twins are 23rd in baseball with -12 OAA.
Fielding Bible is a little more favorable to Minnesota’s defense in terms of defensive runs saved. Their 28 DRS is 11th in baseball, although it is still nearly 10 runs away from the next spot up on the list. The Twins have been most successful on defense when they are shifting. Their infield has recorded 20 DRS when shifting and just 5 DRS in a traditional defense.
Compared to the rest of the league, it turns out everyone relies too much on the shift. The Twins would be a top 10 DRS infield this year if we only counted non-shift. However, it still isn’t going to be much of a help to Minnesota’s pitchers when they’re on the mound.
Banning the shift won’t make or break a team’s defense, but it can push them further in a particular direction that a squad is already in. The Twins haven’t had a good fielding team this season and used the shift to make up for their lack of range. Because the league is forcing fielders to space out around the infield, the Twins have to try and improve on their range more than ever this offseason.
Time will tell what the ramifications of the defensive shift ban will have on baseball. The league has been accustomed to shifting for such a long time. It’s anyone’s guess what slash lines and defensive numbers will look like after this change to see how much different teams and players will produce. Looking at the current numbers, though, it will look like a much different team at Target Field next season – for better or worse.