Major League Baseball is instituting a new positioning rule for the 2023 season designed to limit the extreme infield shifting that has become increasingly common in the last decade.
Under the new rule, defenses must have two infielders on each side of second base and all infielders standing in the infield dirt when the pitcher is on the rubber. As a result, the overshift commonly used against left-handed hitters, which features three infielders on the right side of the field and often one stationed in short right field, will be illegal.
Due to this change, some pull-heavy sluggers could see a noticeable uptick in their performance. Rowdy Tellez is one example.
At first glance, Christian Yelich may appear to be another player who could benefit from the new rule. Yelich is a left-handed hitter who hits plenty of balls on the ground (58.6% ground ball rate in 2022).
However, anyone expecting a boost to Yelich’s slash line due to the restrictions will be disappointed. Yelich has not been a shift victim, so eliminating extreme defensive alignments will not impact his performance.
On average, left-handed hitters saw a shift (three infielders positioned on one side of the field) in 54.9% of plate appearances in 2022. Yelich was shifted in 30.6% of his plate appearances. Even in 2021, when defenses shifted against Yelich 53.9% of the time (the highest full-season rate of his career), he barely faced shifts at a league-average rate.
Yelich’s profile does not warrant extreme shifting. Last season, he hit 34.4% of his batted balls to his pull side; the league average for left-handed hitters was 40.1%. He pulled 45.5% of his ground balls; the league average was 54.2%.
Not only was Yelich an imperfect shift candidate, but he often benefitted from hitting against them. He has typically performed better on balls in play against shifts since opponents began semi-regularly deploying them against him in 2019. The split was most pronounced last season, as Yelich posted a .373 BABIP against the shift and a .307 BABIP without it.
Infield Shifting Has Not Hurt Christian Yelich
|BABIP (No Shift)
|BABIP (No Shift)
Yelich’s ground ball spray chart highlights why this was the case: he collected a handful of shift-beating singles to the left field.
Many of these hits became hits due to the vacant areas the shift creates on the left side of the infield. Here are nine of Yelich’s opposite-field singles that could be routine outs had they been hit into standard positioning.
This does not mean that Yelich will lose exactly nine opposite-field hits this year compared to last. Baseball is a game of inches, and players are humans who will not perfectly replicate their batted ball placement every season. However, hitters do maintain more general tendencies from year to year. If Yelich maintains his usual spray profile, the added coverage on the left side of the infield figures to lower his success rate of hitting singles that way.
Meanwhile, the distribution of Yelich’s ground outs against the shift last season does not point to a hitter who will hit notably more singles under the new restrictions. Most of his pull-side ground balls are hit in the general vicinity of a traditionally-positioned second baseman.
Because opponents can no longer station three infielders on the right side of the field, Yelich may pick up the occasional single up the middle. That would not impact his slash line any more than standard year-to-year batted-ball variance. The opposite-field singles he stands to lose would counteract those added hits up the middle anyway.
In other words, nothing will change for Yelich as a direct result of shift restrictions. He may add a small number of hits to certain parts of the field, but he may also lose a small number of hits to other areas.
If Yelich’s offensive output improves, it will be due to improved timing that enables him to make ideal contact more consistently. His line drive rate was a career-worst 18.4% last season, and declining launch angles demonstrate that he is not elevating the ball enough to hit for power.
At this point, it is best to regard Yelich as a solid supporting piece in the lineup, not a linchpin who can hit in the heart of a batting order. The elimination of the overshift does not impact his outlook going forward.
Statistics courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.