The Mental Toll of Defensive Shifts

Carlos Santana knows a different game of baseball than almost anyone else in the game.

Last year, Santana was shifted 98.3% of the time. When he stepped to the plate and looked out to the field for an area where he could put the ball in play, he almost exclusively saw defenders knowingly lining up right where he’s likely to hit the ball.

According to Baseball Savant, no player in the game was shifted more last year than Santana. When you look down the leaderboard list, you start to see some more familiar names that have recently become relevant.

For example, there’s Lewin Diaz, the low-key addition the Pirates made before adding Santana. Diaz is a defensive wizard at first, who was shifted 92.5% of the time last year — to the tune of horrible offensive results. He was the 12th most shifted hitter in baseball, despite not having the history backing him that Santana has.

Still inside the top 50, you’ll find Ji-Man Choi at number 48, with an 83.9% shift rate. The Pirates added Choi prior to adding Diaz and Santana.

First base and the designated hitter spot are open, and these three hitters seem to be the prime candidates for those two spots. They have all been heavily shifted, and that’s important to note because the shift is changing in 2023.

Starting in 2023, teams will be required to have two infielders in the infield on either side of the second base bag. This will remove those extreme shifts that impact lefties like Santana, Choi, and Diaz with a fielder in shallow right field.

I was going to run some numbers on what type of impact these hitters might have with the removal of a fielder from shallow right field. Alex Stumpf at DK Pittsburgh Sports did that, and honestly, this is his wheelhouse and you should check out his results. The conclusion was that these hitters could see an advantage, but not to the frequency that you would think. It’s not like Carlos Santana is going to become a .300 hitter now. He won’t have that many extra hits drop into shallow right field, and if he does, they’ll be extra singles.

Instead, I want to highlight an area we can’t quantify, and which is hard to qualify. What is going to happen when Santana gets up to the plate in 2023 and sees a wide open hole into right? What happens when Choi and Diaz see the same thing, likely for the first times in their younger careers?

Diaz entered the majors in 2020 and was shifted just under 70% of the time. That went above 80% last year, and above 90% this year. His numbers have struggled, but there’s the fact that teams quickly picked up that it was beneficial to stack the right side of the field against him.

What will happen in the mind of Diaz when teams can’t stack the field against him anymore? Santana played in baseball before extreme shifts took over. He might be able to remember what a normal defensive alignment looked like from the lefty batter’s box. Diaz has never seen that.

Choi might be the most interesting look into the head games of the shift. He has been shifted above 75% only in the last two seasons. His strikeout rate, previously in the 22-24% range, jumped to 28-29%. His walk rate didn’t decline. His power dipped in 2022, when his shifts went up. There could be another reason for his increase in strikeouts, but it seems too coincidental that his swing and miss went up right when he was faced with more extreme shifts. Almost like the shifts got in his head.

There would be no way of knowing if this is the case, or how much damage the mental toll of the shifts took on these hitters. I also wouldn’t say that the correlation here represents a causation that the Pirates were targeting guys who have seen extreme shifts.

What I will note is that the Pirates have added enough of these previously-shifted types in the wake of the new rule that they’ve increased their chances of getting a sleeper first baseman.

They don’t need all of these guys to see a massive boost in production with the removal of the shift. If just one of them has a breakout season, and benefits from the removal of the shift, the bulk addition of lefty first base types will work out.

THIS WEEK ON PIRATES PROSPECTS

The Mental Toll of Defensive Shifts – READING

The Pirates’ Infield Defense Just Got an Important, Yet Subtle, Upgrade

Braxton Ashcraft Looking To Make Up For Lost Time Returning From Surgery

Tim started Pirates Prospects in 2009 from his home in Virginia, which was 40 minutes from where Pedro Alvarez made his pro debut in Lynchburg. That year, the Lynchburg Hillcats won the Carolina League championship, and Pirates Prospects was born from Tim's reporting along the way. The site has grown over the years to include many more writers, and Tim has gone on to become a credentialed MLB reporter, producing Pirates Prospects each year, and will publish his 11th Prospect Guide this offseason. He has also served as the Pittsburgh Pirates correspondent for Baseball America since 2019. Behind the scenes, Tim is an avid music lover, and most of the money he gets paid to run this site goes to vinyl records.

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NMR

If nothing else, it’s good to see the club being intentional about something. There’s a clear logical thread here between potential source of market inefficiency and acquisition.

Anthony

Santana is the poster child for triple slash, expected outcomes. If you believe in statcast data, the Bucs either got a steal or the unluckiest player in the game.

EightMenOut

Maybe more helpful than not allowing shifts is that the pitch clock will be used. This will, in theory, give pitchers less time to recover between pitches, and could slow down the velocity a tick, or the spin rate by a tick. This may apply especially to hard throwing relievers that would take lots of time between pitches, because they only have two different pitches and are just not as good as starters, and therefore why they only pitch one inning with lots of pauses before each pitch.

Last edited 2 months ago by EightMenOut
tventimiglio

The other aspect that I’m not seeing discussed is the need for 1B and 2B to have better range defensively now that the shifts are banned.

tventimiglio

And I just read your piece on IF defense. Good insight.

jaygray007

It seems like most of the work coming out about banning the shift is concluding that banning the shift isnt going to have some huge effect.

That begs the question.

if it’s not really having much of an effect, why do it in the first place?

my hypothesis is that it will have a bigger impact than what a lot of that work is saying. Perhaps due to the mental aspect that tim explores here!

Last edited 2 months ago by jaygray007
jaygray007

i just… dont think that it’s that possible that the baseball world has obsessed over the Shift over the past decade just for the banning of that very tool to result in just the tiniest of impact.

Last edited 2 months ago by jaygray007
NMR

bro we literally self-immolated over sticky stuff and spin rater for a year and the game is absolutely indistinguishable now from what it was when use was rampant. never doubt baseball’s ability to obsess over things that turn out to be nearly irrelevant.

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