Major League Baseball will start banning “the shift” at the beginning of the 2023 regular season, and much like the installment of the universal DH last year, we need to solve how this will have an impact on fantasy baseball. The general assumption — and it is critically important to note that many will act on this without merit — is that left-handed hitters with high pull percentages and ground ball rates will start to find more holes in the defense and produce more hits.
Maybe. And it is worth using that as a starting point. But what happens when too many people use that to determine a player’s value? It’s going to create artificial inflation. While we can consider those hitters, we should make it a point to dig a little deeper and possibly uncover some hidden gems.
Hitters to Benefit from MLB’s Shift Ban (2023)
Trent Grisham (OF – SD)
Let’s start this list with the prototypical player to fit the mold suggested in the introduction. Trent Grisham is a left-handed hitter with a high pull rate and ground ball percentage. Those numbers, alone, will be enough to turn people’s attention towards Grisham, but he gets an additional boost thanks to his career-low BABIP. Grisham lacks the power to have the home run ball carry his batting average, which is supported by his season-by-season numbers. For the first three years of his career, Grisham had a BABIP that ranged from .286 to .310, and his batting averages landed between .231 and .251. In 2022, his BABIP fell more than 50 points below his previous low of .231, contributing to a dismal .184 batting average. Grisham has plenty of room to grow back into a fantasy asset with a speed that isn’t weighing a team down with a low average.
Jose Ramirez (3B – CLE)
While the list began with left-handed batters, we can easily transition to those who hit from both sides of the plate. That’s because Jose Ramirez has some interesting splits. When batting from the left side, he has pulled just under 50 percent of batted balls — 49, to be exact. His ground ball rate isn’t extreme, but his left-handed approach at the plate has led to a whopping 93.9 percent of his plate appearances causing the other team to shift. Ramirez had another solid season again, but it’s possible that he has some hidden upside thanks to the new rule.
Byron Buxton (OF – MIN)
There’s a pattern here. First, the goal was to target exclusively left-handed hitters. Then, it was the switch hitter that commanded the shift from the left side of the plate. Now, we turn our attention to right-handed batters. Because the location of first base requires a fielder to remain within a relatively close distance, the shift for a right-handed batter wouldn’t appear to be as dramatic at first. Still, there are some who make the list. Byron Buxton is one of those names. Defenses shifted against Buxton 78.8 percent of the time, and his wOBA suffered dramatically — .312 as opposed to .517 when teams did not shift against him. Clearly, Buxton was an extreme pull hitter in 2022 — a career-high 58.2 percent of batted balls, and it led to more power at the expense of batting average. The rule change may allow Buxton to continue pulling the ball, tacking on home runs, and improving his batting average, which would move him, once again, into the good graces of fantasy baseball managers.
Christian Yelich (OF – MIL)
Compared to other names on this list, Christian Yelich does not have the pull-happy approach that would lead to a spike in production from banning the shift. He does, however, carry a ridiculous ground ball rate that could organically lead to more hits if players must remain on their respective sides of the field. Simply put, teams did not shift against Yelich nearly as much as they did with the average left-handed bat, but he was still affected 203 times out of his 664 plate appearances. He doesn’t have the same obvious path laid out in front of him, but that also means that he will be overlooked as a possible beneficiary on draft day.
Jarred Kelenic (OF – SEA)
Jarred Kelenic had a completely forgettable sophomore season, and, quite frankly, he is probably off of most fantasy baseball managers’ radar for the time being. Thankfully for him, there is a path to a better 2023, which is the new rule change. Kelenic actually wasn’t an extreme pull hitter, but teams still decided to play the shift against him in 86.7 percent of his at-bats. His overall numbers were so frighteningly bad that it isn’t worth targeting the direct correlation, but if we’re looking for a nice sleeper based solely on how the defense will align, Kelenic is it.
Corey Seager (SS – TEX)
We will close out this article with the ‘perfect storm’ player. The left-handed hitter with a high pull percentage, decent ground-ball-to-fly-ball ratio, and faced the shift an aggressive 92.8 percent of the time. Corey Seager — a .287 career hitter — had his batting average drop from .307 and .306 in 2020 and 2021, respectively, to .245 last year. In fairness to Seager, it was also his first season with a new team, and he responded by slugging 33 home runs. Still, he had never before posted a BABIP less than .300. In 2022, it fell to .242, and there is likely a correlation between that decline and the extremely high percentage of time that he faced the shift. Seager may not have to change anything about his approach in order to see a boost in performance.
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Mario Mergola is a featured writer at FantasyPros and BettingPros and the creator and content editor of Sporfolio. For more from Mario, check out his archive and follow him @MarioMergola.