The Shift Ban is Saving the MLB
The game of baseball as played in the MLB was getting more boring and homogentisic every year it seemed. All teams seemed to be deploying similar strategies - shifting more and more, striking out at insanely high levels and not really caring, and focused on hitting with launch angles to hit homeruns. It was the era of the three true outcomes- Home Runs, Walks, and Strikeouts. Frankly, it was becoming a boring and exceedingly slow game.
Then, the 2023 season rule changes were enacted, and everything is changing before our eyes. First, just how much was the shift being used? Baseball Savant has shift data since 2016. It shows more and more shifting was being deployed every year as the slow adopters caught up to teams like the Astros who were some of the first to deploy the shift significantly.
As more and more teams were becoming shift adopters, MLB had no choice but to ban the shift.
I predict the shift ban (supported by the other rule changes) is going to revolutionize the game and frankly save it from the malaise it was in.
At this point you should doubt this hyperbolic statement. I will admit we may be two plus years from really appreciating or seeing the full effect of the changes implemented. We are seeing the first fruits and the early signs. What are they?
I discussed the SB revolution previously. Click the button for that article.
Hits and Strikeouts
The long-term trends on strikeouts are startling. Strikeouts are double what they were in the early 1950's. They are up over 30% from the 1990's and early 2000's. Over the last six years each team is striking out an average of 8.6 times per game. That is an insanely high number to folks that remember the game where were five strikeouts or less per game per team.
The last nine seasons
Maybe this is obvious, but as the strikeouts increased the hits dropped,
Also, as the shift percentage has increased, the hits per game have gone down. In 2013-2015, before the shift was deployed widely a game had on average 8.6 hits per team per game. In the last three years when MLB teams were deploying the shift about 33% of the time, hits were down to 8.1 hits per team per game. Perhaps loosing 0.5 hits per game is not impressive to you. These things are incremental, and more and more shifting was happening and this would have likely gotten worse as all teams shifted consistently. In 2023 the number of hits per game is up to over 8.4. Will this continue to get better as players learn how to hit again without the shift? Let's hope so.
How does the elimination of the shift potentially help? If a player is rewarded for simply putting the ball in play (BABIP), players will focus more on contact. So, was BABIP down and is BABIP up in 2023?
In short, if one looks just at the shift era, they can make the argument that shift deployment was impacting BABIP. BABIP is up from 0.290 in 2022 to 0.300 in early 2023. When a player felt like good contact would not be rewarded in 2020-2022, it caused them to try to hit only for power and this caused more strikeouts. It was and has been a vicious cycle for the past several years.
If one looks at the longer term, they might reach a less direct conclusion. BABIP jumped in the early 1990s- steroid era. BABIP dropped in the early 2000s- PED enforcement. BABIP rose in late 2000s and cycled in a narrow range until the mid 2010s- analytics advancements for pitching and batting. As we have learned also, the ball itself is not a constant.
Runs per Game
While I would argue that more hits and fewer strikeouts are more important than actual runs, let's see if runs are up with the elimination of the shift.
Run production early on is up ~0.4 runs per game per team. This will mean we need to recalibrate what a good ERA is. It will be interesting to see if the runs continue to increase as batters adapt to this environment more or if the pitching is able to adjust.
The early signs related to the shift ban are very positive.
Hits are up
BABIP is up
Runs are up
I think the game of baseball is up
We shall see if teams are able to make adjustments to mitigate the advantages batters have been given in 2023. I for one like the game we are seeing so far in 2023. I think more casual fans are going to like THIS brand of baseball too. Only time will tell.