In the latest bargaining session between the owners and the union, multiple sources reported that the union has agreed to a number of changes if the owners will compromise more on financial issues. Among these changes are the adoption of a pitch clock and enlarged bases as well as the banning of the shift. It is still unclear how exactly the shift would be banned. Most likely, a new rule would stipulate that there must be two infielders on either side of second base, but regardless of how the rule is written, it will have an effect on hitters when the season begins.
The hitters who will see the most benefit are lefties, since defenses tend to shift much more against lefties than against righties. For the St. Louis Cardinals, that means that Dylan Carlson, who is a switch hitter, Tommy Edman, who is also a switch hitter, and Lars Nootbaar will see the most benefit. Of the three, Carlson saw the highest percentage of shifts when batting left-handed at 52.4% and Tommy Edman saw the fewest at 42.2%. Banning the shift will mark a significant change for these hitters. Of the righties in the Cardinals lineup, Tyler O’Neill (33.9%) and Paul DeJong (30.1%) were shifted against more than twice as often as any other right-handed hitter.
Of these five hitters, only Tommy Edman and Paul DeJong didn’t have better results against the shift than against traditional defensive alignments. Edman had a wOBA of .284 against the shift as a left-hander and a .299 wOBA against traditional defenses. DeJong’s difference was much more significant. The right-handed hitter posted just a .268 wOBA against the shift with a .305 wOBA against non-shifts.
From first glance it appears that these two hitters will benefit the most from the shift. Carlson had a -53 wRC+ on pulled ground balls as a left-handed hitter last year. When he hit ground balls up the middle or to the opposite field, that figure rose to 109. As a lefty, Carlson pulled 55.1% of his groundballs, which meant that he had limited success overall when putting the ball on the ground. Taking the extra defender away from the pull side should clear some gaps for Carlson when he pulls the ball on the ground as a left-handed hitter, which should give him some extra hits this year.
Carlson isn’t exactly a groundball hitter, though, as he only hit 35.5% of his batted balls on the ground as a left-handed hitter. Banning the shift will help clear up the right side of the infield, but it may have more of an effect on someone like Tommy Edman, who is much more groundball oriented.
Edman had similar splits to Carlson. As a left-handed hitter, he posted a wRC+ of -1 when pulling groundballs as compared to a wRC+ of 91 when hitting them anywhere else. This may be a less extreme difference than Carlson’s splits, but Edman also pulled 44 more groundballs than Carlson. This has a big difference on the overall stats of the switch hitter.
Both of these players could see time at the top of the lineup, or even in the leadoff spot, so getting a few extra hits because the shift has been banned could make a significant difference in terms of overall run output for the team.
Edman had a groundball rate of 46.4% as a left-handed hitter. He pulled 41.3% of those ground balls. For a hitter who puts nearly every other batted ball on the ground, banning the shift should lead to some improvement. There has also been plenty of discussion here at VEB and in other places about whether or not Edman should stop switch hitting. If he can receive a boost in production as a left-handed hitter because of the banning of the shift, he will become more viable as a left-handed option.
Of the lefty hitters, or switch hitters, on the team, I expect Tommy Edman to see the most benefit from the potential rule change.
Paul DeJong may be the most grateful if the shift is abolished because he has struggled against it for the past two seasons. The shortstop had a wOBA that was 37 points lower against the shift in 2021 and 86 points lower against the shift in 2020. He has struggled overall in the last two seasons, but the shift has certainly played a role in his production dropping off in recent years.
The shortstop pulled well over half (56.3%) of his groundballs in 2021 and had a -27 wRC+ on such occasions. DeJong is a flyball hitter and he has become even more of one in the past two seasons. It’s possible that he made this change to combat the shift. That isn’t the real problem, though. The real problem with DeJong is that he simply stopped hitting the ball hard. Lazy flyballs and weak groundballs, especially ones pulled into the shift, are not going to be hits very often. Still, DeJong should welcome some gaps opening up in the pull side of the infield.
DeJong will be the most interesting player to watch this year when it comes to the shift (potentially) being banned. He has struggled mightily with a loaded infield in the past and this could provide him with a significant boost as he looks to put his struggles behind him. The Cardinals reportedly expect DeJong to reclaim the shortstop job this season and he should have an easier time doing that if defenses aren’t allowed to shift.
Banning the shift won’t help DeJong hit the ball harder, though, and that is really the change that he needs to make. He may get a few extra hits without the shift, but if he really wants to boost his production, he needs to get back to making consistently solid contact regardless of where the defense is playing. That’s why Tyler O’Neill, for instance, did not struggle with the shift last year. He was shifted against in over 33% of his plate appearances, which was the highest rate against any Cardinal right-hander, and he dominated the defense in those scenarios. O’Neill saw his wOBA rise by over 100 points when defenses stacked the left side of the infield. O’Neill was able to effectively hit the ball over, around, and through the shift because he was able to consistently hit the ball hard. The banning of the shift won’t do much for O’Neill because the shift itself didn’t do much to hurt O’Neill.
The right-hander who will see the biggest benefit is Paul DeJong and he may actually see the most benefit of any Cardinal hitter. Even though defenses only shifted against him 30% of the time last year, the shift made a large impact on his numbers. Edman should also see plenty of benefit. Interestingly, the two players who are most in danger of losing their starting jobs by the end of the season are the ones who could see the most impact from the potential rule change. DeJong needs to hold off Edmundo Sosa if he wants to keep his starting job and Nolan Gorman’s debut could relegate Edman to a Ben Zobrist type role. If the shift is banned, though, the pair of middle infielders may be able to hold off their challengers from taking starting roles.