Major League Baseball’s lockout continues. The stalemate is already carving into the 2022 regular season with no end feeling imminent. Negotiations continue, and the focus has shifted from monetary differences to some meaningful rule changes.
Pace of play has been an issue that some argue has been baseball’s most significant setback for its dip in popularity and lower attendance numbers. Over the years, how to fix that issue has been debated, with options ranging from adding a runner on second base in extras to a pitch clock. But arguably, the most debated rule change is whether to ban the shift.
Jon Heyman recently reported that the league and the players have agreed to make changes such as a pitch clock and bigger bases. But it appears that the players and owners have agreed to ban the shift, which is the most significant potential change. All changes, if approved, would go into effect for the 2023 season.
Shifting entails placing fielders in certain areas of the field based on spray charts or visual representations of where batters typically hit the ball. That seems like a logical tactical strategy, but teams are now leaving half the field open against pull-heavy hitters. In this piece, I’m not going to litigate whether banning the shift is a good or bad change for the game. Instead, I want to focus on how banning the shift would impact the Minnesota Twins.
The practice of shifting has evolved over the last five-plus seasons to become a crucial part of how teams play defensively. According to Baseball Savant, teams shifted with nobody on base just 12 percent of the time in 2017. But last season, teams were shifting on an average of 30.9 percent of at-bats.
Teams only shifted against right-handed hitters 16 percent of the time, with a .340 weighted on-base average or wOBA, above league average. Left-handed hitters have seen the biggest bulk of shifting. Defenders have moved over during 52.5 percent of at-bats with a .320 wOBA against, which is considered league average.
Now, let’s look at how the Twins stack up compared to the rest of the league with their defensive shifting. Minnesota used the shift 34 percent of the time in 2021, or just above league average. Rocco Baldelli and his staff have typically left right-handed hitters alone. But at 68 percent, the Twins have been one of the league’s heaviest shifters against left-handed hitters. Ironically, the team has actually fared better against righties with a .322 wOBA compared to the left side, which recorded a .356 wOBA clip.
These numbers tell us two things. One is that the Twins will not be impacted much when it comes to pitching to right-handed hitters. The other is that their approach to left-handed hitters will be changed significantly by 2023. Additionally, Minnesota currently has a pitching staff that is taking a step back in quality compared to previous years. Plus, they’re losing a potential option to put fielders in the best place to make outs. Therefore, things could get more challenging for Baldelli and Co.
Remember that the quality of a team’s pitching factors in here, too. The Los Angeles Dodgers shifted 53 percent of the time, the most in baseball, and recorded a .293 wOBA against righties and a .277 wOBA versus lefties, respectively. For a team like the Twins that don’t have the pitching depth that the Dodgers do, drastically moving fielders around could be a way to maximize the efforts of the pitchers on the mound.
A potential ban on the shift could have a different impact on Minnesota’s hitters. Some of the biggest names on the Twins lineup are left-handed hitters, and teams have shifted against them the most. Max Kepler, Trevor Larnach, and Alex Kirilloff were the three most shifted players last season. Surely banning the shift would help those lefties by opening up more of the field to their pull side, right?
That’s where the numbers get a little more interesting. All three had a higher wOBA clip when teams were shifting them than a more traditional defense. The results could come from those guys hitting it more the other way. However, teams probably wouldn’t be shifting them at such high rates if that were the case.
Most teams have decided to beat the shift by doubling down on modern hitting rather than hitting the ball the other way. With pitchers more likely trying to avoid throwing outside pitches to prevent hitters from beating the shift, it encourages hitters to work on pulling the ball over fielders with deep fly balls into the gaps or even over the fence. That is part of baseball’s issue, which has exacerbated the issue of the three outcomes: a home run, walk, or a strikeout. Proponents of a shift ban say the action would incentivize more hits from balls in play. In theory, that would create more action during a game.
On the other side of the plate, slugger Miguel Sanó is no stranger to the shift. He saw a shift in over 62 percent of at-bats and hit at a .338 wOBA clip against the shift compared to .322 wOBA with a standard defense. The big man isn’t going to start bunting into shifts regularly to beat them. He’s going to try and hit it over the fielders’ heads to get on base. Even though the defense may be in a better spot, hitters like Sano are still finding ways to beat the shift by hitting the ball the same way, just harder and higher.
That is the argument for leaving shifting legislation alone as well. Even though more teams are moving around their fielders, the defensive strategy isn’t working as it once did. Hitters have started to figure out a way to adapt to the fielding conditions. And keep in mind that even though shift usage by teams has increased over the last five seasons, run production stayed relatively the same at around 4.5 runs/game league average.
The debate over whether to ban the shift has become a contested debate recently. It hasn’t always resulted in fewer runs scored, but it has reshaped how hitters try to put the ball in play. Whatever happens, there is a good chance this rule change will impact the Twins in a meaningful way both at the plate and on the mound if implemented.