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Will these Rockies benefit from the new shift rules?

Colorado Rockies news and links for Wednesday, January 25, 2023

In an effort to boost offense, MLB is instituting a no-shift rule for the 2023 season. The reactions have been mixed, but the overall idea is that if teams aren’t allowed to have more than two infielders on either side of second base and have to stay on the infield dirt pre-pitch then everything is going to improve for everyone. With spring training right around the corner, let’s explore how this rule could impact the Colorado Rockies lineup.

First, let’s identify the Rockies that dealt with the shift the most. Listed in this chart from Baseball Savant, we can see what percentage of at-bats a player was shifted on. Immediately it stands out that the top two are no longer with the team. So, the shift focuses on those that are still in purple, namely Charlie Blackmon, Kris Bryant, and Ryan McMahon.

Baseball Savant

Charlie Blackmon

After spending years batting against the shift, Blackmon has developed a knack for combating it. Facing a shift of any kind in 73% of his plate appearances last season, Blackmon posted a .303 AVG and a .316 wOBA. I’ll be honest, I didn’t expect his numbers that be that good last season when I initially began researching.

Typically, Blackmon often faced shifts like the one below.

With the current rules, the positioning of a third baseman in short right field is no longer allowed. In previous years, Blackmon would have to try and shoot an inside pitch to left field or drop a push bunt to the left side of the infield. As a pull hitter, Blackmon will have a little bit more open space to aim for when swinging the bat. As a pull hitter 41% of the time, a ball to the right side may allow Blackmon to snag some more singles on bloops and liners that would normally drop in right field.

I don’t expect a significant change in Blackmon’s overall production. He was already doing quite well against the shift. However, with an expected batting average (XBA) of .256 last season, Blackmon will benefit from the change and we may see an uptick in some offensive categories, but he’ll need to improve on other areas that don’t concern the shift at all.

Kris Bryant

It may be a small sample size from 2022, but Bryant was another successful Rockie against the shift. Facing a shift 64% of the time, Bryant posted a .417 wOBA with a .360 AVG. Generally in his career, Bryant has been a solid hitter against the shift, posting a wOBA over .340 in every season of his career. He’s faced a fairly standard shift, as evidenced by last year where it was weighted to the left side of the infield.

Much like Blackmon, Bryant likely won’t see a significant change in his results at the plate. Because the shift isn’t as dramatic, opposing teams will likely be able to adjust in their positioning and get the same result within the parameters set by the league. Remember, teams only need to have two infielders on either side of second base. So, a second baseman can position themselves right up to that imaginary line and basically be in the same spot. There may be a few more holes, but not as many as you may hope for.

Bryant will need to keep hitting the ball hard and getting line drives over the infield. Ideally, he will continue to elevate the ball and find the gaps as he did in his limited playing time last year. He’s a quality hitter and the limits on the shift could help his XBA improve from .279 to better reflect his normal batting average results.

Ryan McMahon

Lastly, let’s take a look at Ryan McMahon. As the only primary lefty to pair with Blackmon, it’s important for McMahon to find a way to put it all together offensively. We’ve seen the power, but his batting average has been lacking thanks in part to strikeouts and the shift. Unlike Blackmon and Bryant, McMahon actually faces the shift in less than half his plate appearances. This can happen because there are runners on base, or it just doesn’t fit the strategy at the time.

In 47% of appearances, here is what McMahon comes up against at the plate.

McMahon is another left-handed batter victim to the third baseman outfielder. While he still has a league average .303 wOBA against the shift, that’s 45 points less than his wOBA without the shift. That also falls in line with his .309 AVG with the shift and his .333 AVG with normal positioning. While he is still finding success when the ball is put in play, McMahon could and should potentially have more offense coming his way in 2023.

McMahon has a career .311 BABIP but his actual .244 AVG pales in comparison. His XBA currently sits at .237 for his career, but there is more potential in his bat that the shift ban may improve. In 2022 he hit a ground ball 44.6% of the time, and also pulled the ball 37% of the time. While the ground ball isn’t great, McMahon’s bat is one of the league's best when he hits the ball thanks to his ability to smack it hard.

With the limit on the shift, McMahon could see more of his pull-side liners and grounders find real estate grass across the league. While not fixing a problem he’s been facing at the plate, he can still be rewarded for hard-hit balls that logically should still hit, because a ground ball in play is still better than a strikeout in most instances. I expect McMahon to have one of his best years in the AVG category thanks to the shift ban. If he can hit .270 on the season, that will be an incredible improvement for the Rockies as a whole.

As a whole

The chart at the top of the article indicates that overall, the Rockies have posted a fairly strong wOBA as a squad against the shift. So, the team needs to remain vigilant and keep finding the holes in the defense. That will be the main task for their new hitting coach and if the Rockies can take advantage of some old openings coming back, we may see some important offensive improvements, even if some old problems may remain.

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