Well, it’s official. The game is changing again next year.
Three rule changes became official on Friday and have been widely reported for a few days now. In case you missed them, though, here’s Jon Morosi to explain what they are and why they are happening.
OFFICIAL: @MLB adopts rule changes beginning next season. The pitch clock has been instituted (:15 with bases empty). Defensive shifts are banned. Bases are larger.— Jon Morosi (@jonmorosi) September 9, 2022
Significant and substantive changes, with the objective of returning the game's natural rhythm. @MLBNetwork
I could sit here and argue for or against the rule changes, but who really cares about my opinion on that. The changes are coming anyways. I’ll let all you readers debate that in the comments.
What I really want to focus on is how these rule changes will affect the St. Louis Cardinals. It will not effect each player equally; some players will be helped while others may be hurt. Either way, the Cardinals, just like every other team in the league will be effected.
If you came here looking for discussion of this year’s team, you won’t find it. I’ll return to that subject on Tuesday. For now, the team has a massive lead over the Brewers and the rule changes are sure to be a hot topic for a while.
There’s no better time than now to examine the repercussions of the decision. I’ll start by analyzing the effect of the biggest rule change — the banning of shifts.
It’s often been said that banning the shift helps players pull-heavy power hitters like Joey Gallo and hurts contact hitters who can spray the ball everywhere. By that logic, Tommy Edman and Brendan Donovan should suffer while Nolan Gorman should thrive.
Let’s see if that’s the case.
Before I go any further, I should mention that all the data in this piece is coming from Baseball Savant. There is quite a large discrepancy in shift data between Fangraphs and Baseball Savant, which makes it important for me to state whose data I am using.
Fangraphs’ shift data does not include results where the defense wasn’t involved. That means strikeouts, walks, and home runs are all excluded. That’s not ideal since hitters and pitchers can change their approach to deal with a shift. That is the likely cause of the statistical difference between the two sites and because of that, I find Baseball Savant’s data to be more useful.
So, with that little disclaimer behind us, here’s a list of the Cardinals’ left-handed hitters and their results against the shift.
LHBs Against the Shift
|Hitter||Shift Rate (%)||wOBA - Shift||wOBA - No Shift||Difference|
|Hitter||Shift Rate (%)||wOBA - Shift||wOBA - No Shift||Difference|
I sorted this table according to the “Difference” column. A negative value means that a hitter has been worse against the shift than against a regular alignment while a positive value means the opposite - a hitter has been better against the shift.
Basically, you can look at hitters with a negative number as hitter who should be helped by the shift ban and hitters with a positive number as hitters who should be hurt by the ban.
Now, there needs to be a whole lot more nuance in there, so let’s start with that. First off, these are small sample sizes and most of these players are young so they don’t have much of a track record.
Secondly, remember that different sites have different data, and I’m only dealing with Baseball Savant. For instance, Donovan has a .290 wOBA against the shift according to Savant. According to Fangraphs, he has a .354 wOBA against the shift.
Choose whichever site you prefer, but again, I’m using Savant because Fanhgraphs doesn’t factor in Ks, BBs, or HRs.
Now, let’s get back to the table.
Who Is Helped
Tommy Edman appears to be the hitter than will be helped the most by the rule change. I can’t even count how many times I’ve watched him roll over to the second baseman, especially against the shift.
I remember watching Kolten Wong do that a lot, and now it’s Edman’s turn to fill the role. Both hitters seem to slump the same way.
The next hitter on the table is Brendan Donovan. First I want to note that he’s only seen 68 shifts. That’s hardly enough for us to draw conclusions. Still, the shift has kept him at bay.
So far that means we have Tommy Edman and Brendan Donovan as the two hitters who could benefit the most from the banning of the shift. That doesn’t exactly fit the narrative.
Here’s the thing, though. Shifts really only matter against ground balls (and low line drives). Donovan hits just 15.1% of his groundballs to the opposite field and he hits a lot of ground balls. A groundball heavy hitters that pulls ground balls or hits them up the middle feels like someone who would benefit from the shift being taken away.
Edman is even worse in that regard. As a left-handed hitter, he hits just 10.9% of his ground balls the other way. And he too is a groundball hitter as groundballs make up 52.3% of his batted ball profile as a left-handed hitter.
There’s a reason he has hit worse against the shift in every season past his rookie year. He hits a lot of ground balls and he pulls a lot of ground balls.
Continuing down the list, we have Lars Nootbaar as the final hitter who would benefit if the shift was removed.
This makes a ton of sense too as he hits an above average amount of ground balls and only 3.9% of them are hit to the opposite field. Honestly, it feels like teams should shift against him more. He’s a heavy pull hitter, yet teams only shift against him in 55% of his plate appearances.
In Nootbaar’s rookie season, he actually fared better against the shift but he only faced 60 shifts total. That’s not exactly a huge sample size. Based on his profile, I would say he’s a hitter who should benefit from the shift ban.
Who Is Hurt
I bet you weren’t expecting to see Nolan Gorman on this side of the list. Yet here he is. I would guess that’s because he’s a huge fly ball hitter. He almost never hits balls on the ground, so infield alignment really doesn’t matter that much for him.
He’s basically the poster boy for the idea of hitting the ball over the shift. Now I should mention, that he doesn’t have a ton of data against normal infield alignments, so it’s tough to put much stock in his numbers when there isn’t a shift.
It’s entirely possible that he will get better when the shift is banned. No shift means basically no penalty for dead-pull hitters. That may encourage some to pull the ball more, but that’s what Gorman already does. I really don’t think the shift has changed his approach in that regard.
Also, as I mentioned earlier, the shift doesn’t matter on fly balls. Sure, it matters if it forces a hitter to change his approach, but as someone who pulls everything and hits everything in the air, the shift really doesn’t matter that much for Gorman.
I’m sure he may gain a few more hits if the short right fielder no longer exists, but it appears that the shift effects ground ball hitters more. And Gorman certainly is not a ground ball hitter.
Dylan Carlson has also performed better against the shift, which is a little weird because he doesn’t hit a ton of fly balls, especially as a left-handed hitter. He does hit an above average percentage of his ground balls the other way, though, which allows him to steal some hits against the shift.
His numbers were about even last year, which I think is about right. So, even though I have him in this section, I don’t think the loss of the shift will make a huge difference for him. His batted ball profile is about average. He generally has an average distribution of ground balls, fly balls, and line drives, and uses the opposite field moderately well.
That’s not the profile of a hitter who gets derailed by the shift but it’s also not the profile of a hitter who dominates the shift either.
Is the Shift Really Banned?
After all this discussion, I want to mention that it might not matter much. The shift has been “banned”, but has it really?
Here's what I think is going to blow people's minds in 2023. This is still a legal defensive formation. pic.twitter.com/dauCTjl1qs— Mike Petriello (@mike_petriello) September 9, 2022
That looks like a shift to me. It may not be as extreme as sticking an infielder in short right field but it has a similar effect. The shift isn’t truly dead, it’s just weaker. Teams can and will continue to shift. It will just look a little different.
That should help the defense, or at least Nolan Gorman. Defensively, he’s the one I’m most concerned about, for obvious reasons. When he plays second, the Cardinals should be shifting more to cover up his deficiencies. Sure, he can get better, but right now he’s not great. And by not great, I mean downright terrible.
And I’m not trying to be too hard on the rookie, but he is in the 1st percentile in Outs Above Average. That’s almost as bad as it gets. His -11 OAA is pretty ugly.
The shift can help alleviate some of his struggles. Putting him on an island where he has to cover the standard range of a second baseman isn’t helpful. So, the banning of the shift will probably hurt Gorman defensively, but it’s not like the Cardinals can’t shift. They just can’t use the full Ted Williams shift.
Everyone else in the infield is capable. Even Brendan Donovan, who gets some flak for his fielding, but plays solid corner defense. He hasn’t been as good at second base, but I’m much less concerned about him than I am about Gorman.
My initial reaction is that Dakota Hudson starts may be more enjoyable now. After looking at the data, though, it’s not just Hudson who will need to change.
As the tweet above states, the pitch clock is set to 15 seconds when the bases are empty. Only two Cardinals pitchers currently have a tempo faster than that — Steven Matz and Miles Mikolas.
I was actually surprised to learn that Hudson’s pitch tempo with the bases empty is actually the 6th fastest on the team (min. 50 pitches). The pitchers who need to speed things up are Giovanny Gallegos (26.0 seconds), Ryan Helsley (23.3 seconds), and Jordan Montgomery (22.8 seconds).
Regardless, it’s basically every pitcher on the staff who needs to speed things up. This really shouldn’t be that big of an issue and I’ve actually seen people discuss how this rule might actually effect hitters more.
I don’t think this rule will have much of an impact on performance. Rather, it should simply speed the game up.
AVERAGE TIME OF NINE-INNING GAME BY LEVEL THIS SEASON:— Sam Dykstra (@SamDykstraMiLB) September 9, 2022
No pitch clock
I know I said I would keep my opinions out of this piece, but I lied. I like the pitch clock. I’ve been to a number of minor league games in the past year and the pitch clock does keep the game moving quicker. I am not one who generally favors changes to the game, but this is a change I can get behind.
The idea of this rule change is twofold. First, it’s supposed to make plays around the base safer for everyone by giving players more space to touch the bag. Secondly, it’s supposed to encourage stolen bases,
And, boy, do the Cardinals have some speedsters. Tommy Edman is already a stolen base threat, but Tyler O’Neill has never been super aggressive on the basepaths despite his elite sprint speed. Maybe that changes now that the bases are a little bigger and the distance from first base to second is a little shorter, 4 1⁄2 inches shorter to be precise (according to MLB).
Dylan Carlson and Lars Nootbaar also have some speed and could now be encouraged to use it more often.
Still, I don’t think this will have a huge change on the amount of stolen bases. These rules won’t result in a Whitey ball renaissance. I expect any changes to be more subtle. I’m sure more stolen bases will be attempted, but I don’t think there will be a huge increase.
Regardless, the Cardinals are a top 10 team in stolen bases this year and they may stand to benefit from larger bases. A team of faster players is probably going to see more of an advantage than a team of slower players. It’s just that simple.
The advantage probably isn’t huge, but this certainly isn’t a move that hurts the Cardinals.
As a side note, It would be fun to see if more runners would try to steal on Yadi now that the distance is shorter. It would be even more fun watching Yadi throw out runners next year.
To be completely honest, I don’t think these changes will make a huge difference. I’m not saying they won’t be impactful, but I am saying that these aren’t exactly revolutionary changes.
The shift will still happen, just not to the extent we see today. Runners will attempt to steal more bags, but not that many more.
The most notable change is probably the pitch clock, which could shave off a half hour or more of the average game time. That’s going to have the largest impact and it won’t really effect performance.
So, I expect ramifications for some players more than others, but on the whole, I don’t think it will have a huge change. At the very least, I expect groundball hitters to see a boost now that pulled ground balls will have a better chance of becoming hits.
Feel free to discuss your opinions of the changes amongst yourselves and let me know which players you think are the most affected.
As always, thanks for reading and enjoy your Sunday! Maybe today is the day that Albert makes some history with number 697.