I had the shift on the brain this week because I was thinking about the ways the new shift-restriction rules would impact all the defenders on your infield (and a little bit of the outfield), not just your middle infielders.
Now that teams will be prohibited from having more than two defenders on each side of second base, and also must have all infielders on the dirt, I wondered how different pitchers would be impacted. As I discussed previously, the Cubs weren’t among the shiftiest teams in baseball this past season, but were on the high side of middle-of-the pack. But what about the individual pitchers? For whom did the Cubs shift the most? Who saw the best results because of it? Who is at risk of seeing worse results next year because the shift goes away?
Well, to give it a look, I pulled up the shifting data at Statcast for all Cubs pitchers who faced at least 130 batters this years. Here’s the high-level look, noting that “shift” is defined here where there are at least three defenders on either side of second base (i.e., something you can’t do next season):
On its own, the data doesn’t tell you a ton, though you can note that guys like Haden Wesneski, Justin Steele, Javier Assad, and Adrian Sampson saw a lot less shifting behind them than guys like Kyle Hendricks, Marcus Stroman, and Mark Leiter Jr. Maybe that makes you feel slightly better about those young pitchers going into next year. Maybe it makes you a little more leery of groundball-heavy guys like the latter three going forward. Maybe they’re about to give up a few more hits.
But an even better examination is how much the shifts actually HELPED these pitchers in 2022.
For example, Stroman was much better against righties with the shift on (.243 wOBA) than overall (.274 wOBA), but he had a shift on behind him against righties only 26.8% of the time. It makes sense, since you’d be trying to shift only against the guys where you think the shift is most likely to hurt them as hitters. Against lefties, by contrast, Stroman saw the shift on for a whopping 63.5% of his batters, but the wOBA difference (.304 versus .309) was almost nil.
So, even though Stroman is a groundball pitcher who had a whole lotta shifts on for him in 2022, you wouldn’t necessarily look at this data and say he’s going to be hurt a whole lot by the shift limits. Some? Yeah, I mean, the 36.5% of lefties where there wasn’t a shift on did more damage than the shifted lefties, but not some outrageous amount – and, strictly speaking, those might be the better hitters overall anyway (the guys against whom the shift is least effective).
Other interesting things that jump out: Javier Assad and Rowan Wick got DESTROYED by lefties when there was a shift on. They actually got much better results against lefties when there was no shift. That doesn’t mean the shift was the problem, mind you (again, the batters are all different and the sample is small, so there’s the potential for a lot of noise). Instead, it only means that there’s a chance Assad and Wick got a little unlucky with the shift in 2022. Or, well, yeah – I suppose it’s also possible there’s something unique about them where they just do worse against lefties when there’s an extreme shift on. I’m not quite sure what they would be, but I could imagine examples (maybe the way they pitch to certain types of lefties, trying to use the shift, actually works against them?)
On the flip side, Leiter Jr. dominated lefties when the shift was on (.205 wOBA), but got popped for nearly 100 points of wOBA (.295) when facing lefties without the shift on. Is that just batter-related noise, or is it a concern for him when the shift goes away next year?
Drew Smyly got some great work behind him against lefties when the shift was on, but as you can see, righties kinda feasted against him in the shift – and he was the most-shifted pitcher on the Cubs against righties. He was quite a bit better against righties when there was no shift on. For what it’s worth.
The shift restrictions are going to generate a whole lot of thinking about not only these potential impacts to pitchers and not only the types of defenders you want, but probably also in areas we haven’t fully digested yet. What about pitch selection and sequencing? What about the impact of velocity? Of active spin and extension? What about the fact that the deployment of shifts no longer has to change dramatically when there are or are not runners on base? On and on. There’s a lot to think about.