Baseball fans are anticipating the start of the 2023 season for several reasons. After COVID and a lockout impacted spring training, everyone is now back to their regular routines. But the main draw of this season is the new rule changes taking effect. Pitch clocks have been the main focus so far this spring. However, the shift ban is another rule change that will heavily impact how teams play.
A shift ban might not be the proper phrase to describe the rule change. The rule change is more a shift regulation or a shift reduction. Teams can still shift, but infielders must stay off the outfield grass and in designated zones for each position. The days of placing the second baseman in shallow right field are over. Left-handed hitters across baseball rejoiced at the news, which should help them return to the production that the shift took away.
No player in baseball seems to have been a victim of the shift more than Max Kepler. He has yet to recapture the form from his career-best 2019 season, where he slashed .252/.336/.519 with 36 home runs. Teams have shifted more across baseball, and Kepler has been unable to adjust. He saw the shift during 72 percent of his at-bats in 2019, which ramped up to 89.7 percent in 2022. After two average seasons in 2020 and 2021, Kepler declined in production, hitting .227/.318/.348 last year.
So after MLB limited the shift, shouldn’t Kepler naturally improve and see his production increase closer to his 2019 level instead of his numbers in 2022? The shift can be more of a mental game than maybe everyone admits. Looking at the underlying numbers, though, there is no guarantee that Kepler will automatically improve with the infielders more traditionally aligned.
Interestingly, Kepler hit better against the shift than a traditional defense. Kepler recorded a .310 wOBA against the shift in 2022 compared to a .191 wOBA in non-shift situations. That stat can be a little misleading due to the small sample size, but it’s not like Kepler was a more productive hitter solely based on the defensive alignment.
Still, Kepler should improve against less drastic shifts. However, it won’t automatically give him more hits. Kepler still needs to hit the ball past the fielders into the outfield to get on base, and to do so, he needs good exit velocity. Last season, Kepler had an average exit velocity of 89.1 MPH, which is around the league average.
When Kepler hits the ball, he hits with an above-average max exit velocity. It’s consistency doing that where the problem is because his 0.74 BB/K was tied for a career-best last season. At the same time, his 7.1 barrel and 39.9 hard-hit percentages are roughly at or below league average. It’s not that Kepler isn’t making contact it’s that he couldn’t square up and connect with the baseball. His 11.1-degree launch angle and weak contact meant he hit too many weak ground balls right into the shift.
These numbers don’t suggest that he needs to evolve into a three true outcome type of hitter. Kepler doesn’t even need to force the ball the other way. He just needs to focus on hitting the ball harder and hope that leads to better results. Hitting weak ground balls isn’t going to bring back a high level of production that Kepler is shown he is capable of doing. An emphasis on stronger contact, not on shift reduction, will be the key for Kepler to succeed in 2023, even if that doesn’t immediately yield favorable results.
Kepler had to deal with a broken toe he suffered in late July, which sidelined him for the season’s final month. A healthier Kepler should be more productive. Even when healthy, though, Kepler has to avoid rolling over when he makes contact. He hit the ball on the ground 32.4 percent of the time in 2022, the highest in his career since 2016.
Even if you believe that the minimized shift can improve Kepler’s game, there are still loopholes teams can exploit if he produces well with the shift changes. There are currently no rules to prevent a team’s left fielder from coming over to play in shallow right field where the second baseman would position himself last season.
It happened against Kepler’s new teammate Joey Gallo already in spring training. That means that instead of beating the shift by splicing a ground ball down the third base line, lefties would now have to hit the ball in the air the other way. Hitting the ball hard in the air has been the issue for Kepler pulling the ball, let alone hitting the ball the other way through the air.
There are some reasons to be optimistic about Kepler, though. His .347 xwOBA could mean he’s a victim of some bad luck balls. If that’s the case, he needs to show signs of improvement in either underlying contact numbers or actual production soon. This season is the last year of Minnesota’s team control on Kepler. The extra incentive of a contract year could help his production because this is a do-or-die season for Kepler, who the Twins signed in 2009 when he was 16.
Max Kepler has been a victim of the shift in recent seasons. This season gives one of the most tenured Twins a chance to redefine his career ahead of free agency. To do that, he needs to rely on making harder contact with the baseball more than the shift reduction. If the Twins rely on the shift ban alone to bring back Kepler’s 2019-level production, it will likely lead to a potentially frustrating season in 2023.