This is part 2 of a series where an attempt will be made to better understand the effects of the increased number of shifts is having on overall offensive production across Major League Baseball. While Part 1 considered the impact on the league as a whole, this part will take a individualized look at certain players in an attempt to better understand the overall impacts of the shift.
As MLB teams have gotten access to better tracking system data over the last decade, the use of the shift has skyrocketed across the league. One would certainly expect the drastically increasing rate of shifts seen across Major League Baseball to be having a drastic impact on offensive production. As discovered in part 1 of this series, this might not entirely be the case and the shift may be actually be encouraging hitters to drive the ball in the air more to simply hit the ball over the shift. Since not all batters are shifted at equal rates and left-handed batters face shifts way more frequently than right-handed batters, a better understanding of the impacts of the shift may be uncovered by considering individual players. Since infield shifts should be most effective against batters who pull the ball on the ground, we can start using data from Fangraphs to look at the rates at which hitters are pulling the ball on the ground over the past few seasons.
While MLB hitters are hitting the ball on the ground much less frequently over the past few seasons, they have actually been pulling the ball much more frequently. Despite left-handed batters facing shifts much more frequently than right-handers, right-handed batters have typically pulled the ball on the ground more than left-handers and 2020 was the first year during the time period where shifts have become much more common where left-handers hit ground balls at a higher rate than right-handers. This evidence is consistent with the evidence presented in the first part of this series where it was uncovered that the average launch angle of MLB hitters was higher when facing the infield shift than standard infield alignment.
In order to better understand the how the increasing number of shifts is impacting hitters approaches at the plate, we can utilize data provided by Baseball Savant.
By looking at launch angle against each alignment broken down by hitters handedness, a similar effect is seen as in part 1. When facing what is defined as an infield shift in 2020, MLB hitters of both handedness hit for a much higher average launch angle than against the standard infield alignment. In order to better understand the shifts’ effects on overall offensive production, we can look at the wOBA for hitters of each handedness against each of the infield alignments.
While the wOBA for the left-handed batters did increase when facing an infield shift compared to when facing a standard defensive alignment in 2020, the wOBA for right-handed batters improved much more against an infield shift than when facing a standard infield alignment. This is certainly interesting and may partially help explain why right-handed batters face infield shifts much less frequently than left-handed batters. As previously mentioned, the quality of the hitter who faces each of these different infield alignments most frequently isn’t consistent and thus individual players should be considered in order to gain a better understanding of the effects of the shift. Since 2020 was such a small sample size, we can consider the following hitters who faced the shift vs. a non-shift for close to an equal number of plate appearances in 2020. Many hitters had very few plate appearances against what is defined as strategic infield alignment in 2020 and for this reason we will consider only shifted and non-shifted alignments for each individual player.
AJ Pollock (Bats: Right)
Despite a decrease in both groundball rate and pull rate over the past few seasons, Pollock has started facing shifts at a much higher rate over the past couple seasons. While Pollock had a much higher wOBA when facing a shift than when not shifted against in 2018 and 2019, he did have a lower wOBA when facing a shift in 2020.
Avisail Garcia (Bats: Right)
While the rate Avisail Garcia has hit the ball on the ground as he has started facing more shifts has remained fairly steady, he has started pulling the ball a lot less frequently. Garcia’s total offensive production against each alignment has varied a ton of the past 3 seasons. While Garcia did much better overall when facing a shift in 2019, he did about equally as well when facing a shift and when not in 2020.
Ronald Acuna Jr. (Bats: Right)
During his time as a Major Leaguer, Acuna has started to hit the ball on the ground much less frequently and in each of his seasons so far he has seen his xwOBA increase. While he did better when not shifted against in 2019, he has done better when facing a shift in 2 of his first 3 Major League seasons.
Christian Yelich (Bats: Left)
After winning MVP in 2018 and being the runner up in 2019, it would be an understatement to say Yelich struggled during the shortened 2020 season. Yelich was better overall when facing a shift in 2018 and 2019, but the shift did negatively impact his overall offensive production this year.
Micheal Conforto (Bats: Left)
Conforto is unique in the fact that he is the only player looked at that has faced shifts less frequently over each of the last 3 seasons. He has also started pulling the ball a lot less over each of these seasons and the infield shift seems to be having less of an effect on his overall offensive production each year.
Rafael Devers (Bats: Left)
Devers has been seeing an increasing number of shifts in each season. He is also unique in the fact that he is the only player considered thus far that actually did worse when facing the shift than when not in each season against the shift in each season.
Despite many claims that use of the shift has gotten out of hand across Major League Baseball and the calls for ban of the shift, taking a look at the numbers certainly didn’t show the shift to be having as big of an impact as one would think. While the shift is certainly having an effect on BABIP for groundballs, it was shown in part 1 of this series that league wide wOBA actually increased in 2020 when hitters were facing what is defined as infield shift and strategic infield alignment by Statcast. Taking a look at individual hitters in this part of the series didn’t uncover much of substance and the effectiveness of the shift against the individual hitters considered seems to fluctuate quite a bit year to year. While shifts are likely here to stay and MLB teams will likely continue to employ them at high rates, we should consider the shifts overall impact on offensive production before discussing shift bans.
All data courtesy of Fangraphs and BaseballSavant