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Banning Shifts May Not Make Much Difference In MLB



Of the six experimental rules changes Major League Baseball implemented in the minors last season, three are reportedly in discussion to come to the majors by 2023: the pitch clock, larger bases and a ban on shifts.

The pitch clock and oversized bases served their intended purpose in the minors. The implementation of the pitch clock in the Low-A West resulted in a 21-minute decrease in the average time of a nine-inning game. Larger bases at Triple-A led the success rate on stolen bases to increase from 70% in 2019 to 76% in 2021.

The impact of the ban on shifts, however, was minimal.

MLB instituted two different types of shift restrictions at Double-A. In the first half of the season, infielders were required to be in the dirt but could position themselves anywhere on the infield. In the second half of the season, two infielders were required to be on each side of second base in addition to being in the dirt.

In theory, the ban on shifts would allow more balls to get through the infield for hits and increase offense. In practice, it made little difference.

The batting average on balls in play at Double-A in 2019, when there were no shift restrictions in place, was .305. In the first half of 2021, when infielders were required to be on the dirt, the BABIP was .307. In the second half of 2021, when two infielders were required to be on either side of second base, the BABIP was .308.

The overall BABIP on balls in play at Double-A in 2021 was .307—right in line with the Double-A BABIPs in 2019 (.305) and 2018 (.309), when there were no shift restrictions.

"I wouldn’t say that there was anything in the data so to suggest a dramatic effect of the shift restrictions,” MLB executive vice president of baseball operations Morgan Sword told Baseball America in September. “We kind of rigged it up by righties and lefties, who are affected a little bit differently by shifting, and in terms of how hard the balls are hit. There’s slight differences, but generally there was not a large effect of those restrictions being in place."

Double-A Batted Ball Outcomes

Year

BABIP

2018

.309

2019

.305

2021 first half

.307

2021 second half

.308

2021 overall

.307

Note: No 2020 season due to coronavirus pandemic

Source: Baseball-Reference.com

MLB continued the rules experiment in the Arizona Fall League. Two infielders were required to be on each side of second base in addition to being in the dirt in the AFL, same as the second-half rule in Double-A.

With that rule in place, the BABIP in the AFL in 2021 was .328. That was notably higher than the .313 BABIP in 2019, but not much different than the .327 BABIP in 2018 and identical to the .328 BABIP in 2017, years when there were no restrictions against the shift.

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

In the opinion of managers whose teams played with the shift restrictions last year, the reason for the lack of impact was simple: while many balls that would have been outs with the shift turned into hits, a roughly equal number of balls that would have been hits against the shift turned into outs with infielders playing straight up.

“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.”

The caveat is shifts are not as common in the minors as they are in the majors, so banning the shift could make more of an impact in the major leagues.

But “could” is speculative. Based on the data from Double-A and the AFL last year, banning the shift may not be the panacea for the game’s offensive woes many hope it will be.

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