Shifting the fantasy baseball narrative on players who struggle against the shift

Shifting the fantasy baseball narrative on players who struggle against the shift post thumbnail image

Anticipating future player performance in baseball (both fantasy and real-life) is already a challenge. For the past few seasons, several new wrinkles have been introduced, rendering the process even more difficult. After the 2019 season, the chore was discerning how hitters and pitchers were influenced by the rabbit ball. The truncated 2020 campaign was replete with outlier production subject to regression, along with quirks like regional scheduling. Last season featured a mid-season league mandate policing grip enhancers, not to mention deploying two different baseballs.

Fortunately, most projection systems utilize a three-year baseline, so 2019 can leave the building. However, there are more nuances to factor into the mix this season. Whether it is the type of ball being used or humidors in all 30 parks (or both), baseballs continue to incur more drag than in previous seasons. There are still complaints pertaining to the slickness of the ball. If it were guaranteed that these conditions would repeat next season, neutralizing the numbers wouldn’t be an issue. However, there is no guarantee the ball will travel in a similar manner in 2023 — or even for the rest of 2022.

Complicating things further is the advent of a more balanced schedule for 2023. Currently, each team plays the other teams in their division 19 times with only 16 interleague affairs. Next year, only 14 games will be played between division rivals. Clubs will then play six games against each of the other squads in their own league, plus a three-game interleague set against all of the teams in the opposite league, save for their designated “rival” against whom they’ll square off in a pair of two-game sets.

Intuitively, the quality of the six divisions varies, with the notion that offenses are weakest in the AL and NL Central while being strongest in the AL East. As such, pitchers in the Central divisions will have to face tougher overall opposition next season, while AL East hurlers could enjoy an easier schedule. While the exact roster composition of each individual team won’t be clear until well into the offseason, those playing in dynasty and keeper leagues may want to start considering loading up on AL East pitchers now, if only for the expected improvement they’ll incur next season. Trading away Central hurlers for bats could provide a better foundation for the future.

But wait, there’s more!

While it’s not official, MLB is likely to legislate against the shift next season. The ban was tested in the 2021 Arizona Fall League, and is currently being analyzed in Double-A, High-A and Low-A. The Statcast definition of a shift is three infielders to the same side of second base. The rule being tested requires each team to have at least two infielders to either side of the keystone, each with their cleats on the dirt. The third baseman can still shade over, but the shortstop must be to the left of the bag. The “rover” is also illegal, preventing one of the infielders from playing short right field. Clearly, gauging how individual hitters and pitchers will be affected will be one of the off-season’s primary talking points. That said, getting a jump start on the process is a sage means of constructing a better foundation in both keeper and dynasty formats.

Shifting value of pitchers

Let’s start with pitching. To be honest, even drawing conclusions from team data is sketchy. What metrics should be used? What is the right means of judging? Either BABIP or wOBA make the most sense as measuring sticks. That said, only wOBA data is available, so there isn’t a choice. By means of brief review, wOBA is weighted on base average. It is essentially the formula for on base percentage, with coefficients assigned to each component, designed to best reflect run potential. It serves as a tidy proxy for fantasy production, although it doesn’t capture stolen bases.

Comparing wOBA with and without the shift isn’t perfect since the team is selectively shifting on batters it deems worthy. Ranking teams by wOBA doesn’t exhibit how each individual team will fare with and without the shift. A poor defense can still get better with the shift, and their current level is reflected in their hurlers’ performance.

Hopefully, those with access to more granular data will investigate this conundrum in the off-season but, for now, the percentage a team shifts is relevant, along with their general quality, best defined by wOBA. The idea is that pitchers on teams that shift more frequently are more likely to have their defensive support suffer when the alignments are regulated. This assumes teams have done research and have evidence to support shifting it advantageous, which is admittedly a leap of faith. Looking at team BABIP identifies the better defenses with the notion they’ll still be better without shifting. Again, this entails several assumptions, but this was prefaced with the understanding that identifying pitchers comes with a low level of confidence.

Here is a table with Statcast data, with the teams shifting the most on top.

Curiously, the correlation between Shift% and both wOBA and BABIP is slightly negative, calling into question the efficacy of shifting in the first place. Example of extremes are the Dodgers shifting a lot (with a low BABIP and wOBA) and the Yankees shifting the least (yet sporting a very low wOBA and BABIP). BABIP is mostly independent of the quality of the pitching, so it’s more than just the respective quality of the staffs — both teams possess solid defenders.

Hurlers on clubs with a high Shift% and a high wOBA and BABIP should be in the most peril. These include the Blue Jays, Mets and Cubs. On the other hand, the Yankees, Padres, Guardians, Brewers and Cardinals staffs shouldn’t incur much, if any change if the shift goes the way of the dinosaur. Of course, this assumes these defenses stay around the same level of quality.

Impacting individual hitters

Switching the focus to hitting, comparing a batter’s wOBA with and without the shift should be more telling. That said, the delta between a hitter’s wOBA with and without the shift isn’t all that sticky from year to year. The reason is that a few luck metrics help to comprise wOBA, introducing variance. The two most prevalent are BABIP and HR/FB. Both have an element of luck, so the discrepancy between wOBA with and without the shift is more than how a hitter fares against each type of defensive alignment. Some of the outcomes were merely a result of either good or bad fortune.

Even so, here are 10 batters with a markedly lower wOBA against the shift so far this season, listed in order of priority to acquire for next season. However, the large difference could also be due to bad luck, making all of these names candidates to improve over the rest of this season as well.

Byron Buxton (wOBA: with shift .332, no shift .512): Buxton’s wOBA has been lower against the shift in both of the previous two seasons, but not to this extent. He’s also being shifted more this year. Buxton’s 58.0 pull percentage is a career high, which feeds into the effectiveness of the shift, which helps explain why defenses shift so much against a right-handed batter. Buxton’s spotty health history lowers his allure in keeper and dynasty formats, but the possibility of even more production is a chance worth taking.

Andres Gimenez (wOBA: with shift .287, no shift .433): Gimenez is especially interesting since he’s not only hindered by the shift, he’s also still generally improving as a player. Plus, one of his assets is stolen bases, which isn’t reflected in wOBA. That said, his chances of running certainly should improve the more he gets on base.

Corey Seager (wOBA: with shift .307, no shift .502): Seager goes the opposite way only 27% of the time, validating such a high shift usage (92.5%). He’s been in the league since 2015 and has shown no inclination that he has any interest in changing his approach, making him a prime candidate to benefit from fewer defenders on the right side.

Salvador Perez (wOBA: with shift .246, no shift .388): Perez hits the ball to the right side only 20% of the time, so he’s always been defensed accordingly. His game is hitting the ball over the shift, so there’s no reason to alter his approach, especially as a catcher on the wrong side of 30. However, that could be the angle to acquire Perez in a dynasty format if you plan on competing over the next few seasons.

Anthony Santander (wOBA: with shift .320, no shift .522): As a switch-hitter, Santander is less affected by the renovations in Camden Yards. Regardless of which side of the plate, he goes the other way at a low 20% rate, hence the high level of shifting (82.9% total) even when swinging right-handed. Santander is also an improving player, in an improving lineup, so a boost from the elimination of the shift should add to an already appealing skill set.

Mitch Haniger (wOBA: with shift .148, no shift .455): Normally, a sample size this small would be omitted from the analysis, but Haniger has been hurt by the shift in prior years, so he’s worth considering. Like Buxton, Haniger’s pull rate is a career-high 54%. He’s currently hurt, but that could make Haniger easier to acquire. On the other hand, he’s missed a lot of time over the last few seasons, so it’s no lock that he will play regularly next season.

Adalberto Mondesi (wOBA: with shift .142, no shift .395): Oh joy! This is just what we need: a reason to get trapped into hoping, “This is the year he stays healthy.” That’s a discussion for another day. The fact is, in terms of defensive positioning, Mondesi stands to benefit if shifts are eliminated. Like Gimenez, one of the chief advantages to his game would be more chances to steal.

Tyler Naquin (wOBA: with shift .228, no shift .436): Naquin is primarily a platoon player, so he’s not on the radar in most leagues. On the other hand, his cost of acquisition is extremely low, so he could be a sneaky asset in daily formats.

Ji-Man Choi (wOBA: with shift .314, no shift .635): Choi, like Naquin isn’t rostered in most ESPN leagues, but next year his production should increase significantly if the shift is banned. His numbers have certainly been hurt by this defensive strategy for several seasons.

Didi Gregorius (wOBA: with shift .278, no shift .436): The fact that Gregorius makes this list illustrates how hard it is to unearth players with extreme enough numbers against the shift extreme enough to merit a look. That said, he’s only relevant in the deepest of formats.



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