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Banning Shifts Had Almost No Effect On Batted Ball Outcomes in the Minors



Major League Baseball will effectively ban the shift beginning in 2023 as part of a series of rules changes announced Friday. All four infielders will now be required to have both feet in the infield and two infielders will be required to be on either side of second base when the pitch is delivered.

The new restrictions come after years of increased defensive shifting in the majors and a corresponding decline in offense throughout the game.

There is just one problem. There is no evidence that banning shifts actually improves batted ball outcomes.

MLB implemented a number of experimental rules changes in the minors the last two seasons, essentially using the minors as a testing ground. Among them, MLB extensively tested restrictions on shifting.

In 2021, all four infielders at Double-A were required to have both feet in the dirt during the first half of the season. In the second half of the season, two infielders were additionally required to be on either side of second base.

The impact on balls in play was minimal no matter which restrictions were in place. In 2019, the batting average on balls in play was .305 across the Double-A levels. In 2021, with the shift restrictions in place, the batting average on balls in play was .308.

Year

BABIP

2018

.309

2019

.305

2021 first half

.307

2021 second half

.308

2021 overall

.308

Note: No 2020 season due to coronavirus pandemic

Source: Baseball-Reference.com

MLB implemented the second-half rules in the Arizona Fall League in 2021, where again all four infielders had to be in the dirt and two infielders were required to be on either side of second base when the pitch was delivered.

Again, the increase in offense was negligible. The batting average on balls in play in the AFL was .328 in 2017 and .327 in 2018 before dropping to .313 in 2019. In 2021, with the shift restrictions in place, the batting average on balls in play was .328—the same as it had been in previous years.

AFL Batted Ball Outcomes

Year

BABIP

2016

.314

2017

.328

2018

.327

2019

.313

2021

.328

Note: No 2020 season due to coronavirus pandemic

Source: Baseball-Reference.com

Despite no significant change in batted-ball outcomes by banning shifts, MLB expanded the shift restrictions in 2022 to include Low-A and High-A as well as Double-A.

Once again, those restrictions did not lead to a corresponding increase in batted balls turning into hits. In fact, the batting average on balls in play actually went down with the introduction of shift restrictions at High-A and Low-A this year.

Level

2021 BABIP

2022 BABIP

Double-A

.308

.311

High-A

.314

.307

Low-A

.323

.317

The reason is simple. Double-A managers last year repeatedly cited that, in the end, everything evened out. While banning the shift turned some balls that would have been outs into hits, having defenders play straight up also turned an even number of balls that would have been hits against the shift into outs.

“Nothing really changed,” Kevin Randel, manager of the Marlins’ Double-A affiliate at Pensacola, said last fall. “I didn’t see any advantages or disadvantages to it at all. In the end it all kind of evened out … You steal some outs and you give up some cheap hits. I think it was pretty much all the same.”

One consideration to take into account is that shifts are less common in the minors than they are in the majors, so banning the shift could have a greater effect in the majors than it did in the minors.

Still, it is notable that the other rules changes MLB implemented—namely the pitch clock and larger bases—made measurable differences during testing in the minor leagues. Banning the shift, so far, has not.

Jasson Dominguez Tomdipace

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