MLB curtails infield shift, hopes for more singles, speed

Rob Schumacher/The Republic / USA TODAY NETWORK

PHOENIX – Milwaukee manager Craig Counsell needed to add some pop to his lineup a couple years ago, so he put a few more big bodies in his four-man infield, sacrificing defensive range for offensive thump.

“They combined for a weight of over 1,000 pounds,” Counsell said, laughing.

“I don’t think you’ll ever see that again.”

There’s little doubt that hiding a couple bulky sluggers in the infield is going to be more challenging this season. One of Major League Baseball’s most visible rule changes for 2023 is a limitation on infield shifts, which had grown exponentially and are partly to blame for a league-wide batting average drop.

The hope is twofold: One, a few more hits for lefty mashers like Kyle Schwarber or Corey Seager, who were among those hindered by the shift. And two, stress on athleticism and range for those playing defense in the infield.

“I’m sure some guys will like it and some won’t,” said former Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia, a four-time Gold Glove winner. “You’ve got to have range now as an infielder. Got to be able to catch the ball. You’ve got to be quick.

“It’ll be an adjustment for some guys. It’ll make other guys better.”

Hitters in the big leagues had a .243 batting average last season, the lowest since 1968.

The new rule states that all four infielders must have both feet within the outer boundary of the infield and two infielders must be on each side of second base when a pitch is delivered. MLB also mandated infield dirt have uniform dimensions in all 30 ballparks – the outfield edge must be 95 feet from the front of the pitching rubber.

A few hitters – notably New York Mets star Jeff McNeil – adapted to exploit the gaping holes in the infield shifts with hard-hit balls the other way. Most stuck to their modern, pull-heavy approaches, in part because pitchers strategized to make going to the opposite field difficult – even big league hitters struggle to slap an up-and-in 98 mph fastball the other way.

Arizona’s Josh Rojas, a left-hander hitter, said he wasn’t particularly worried about the changes. He views them as just the latest salvo in ongoing pitcher-vs.-hitter battle that’s ebbed and flowed for more than a century.

“The holes will be in different spots,” Rojas said. “My goal as a hitter is to find the holes and use those to my advantage. There are always holes – you can’t cover every single one on the field.”

Enterprising teams spent the offseason peppering the commissioner’s office with questions about ways to potentially circumvent the guidelines.

Morgan Sword, an MLB executive vice president, said teams primarily had three questions:

– Can an infielder be put in motion during the pitch, running toward the other side of the diamond, so that there are three infielders on one side of second base once the ball is put in play? (The answer is no.)

– Can an infielder be put in motion during the pitch, running toward the outfield grass, so that he’s in the outfield by the time the ball is put in play? (No)

– Can teams move outfielders around, such as the left fielder moving into short right field for a lefty pull hitter, leaving left field unmanned? (Yes)

Umpires have broad discretion to enforce the guidelines.

“They’ll know if a team is trying to break the spirit of the rule,” Sword said.

MLB’s hope is shift limits will add a hit or two each night. Not only will the shift affect batting, but it makes speed and agility more important for infielders, who must cover more ground on defense.

“Those are the demands. You have to pick up the baseball and also hit it,” Arizona manager Torey Lovullo said. “We’re not just going to put someone in one spot, stand on the `X’, we don’t believe in that. We do have very athletic position players.”

The shift limit has been tested in the minor leagues, and Lovullo said that after speaking with the organization’s Double-A manager, Shawn Roof, he expects offense to jump.

“He said it makes a difference,” Lovullo said. “There are more balls getting through.”

The change could affect some pitchers, too. D-backs right-hander Merrill Kelly said he’s been told advanced metrics say he’s been one of the beneficiaries of the shift.

But the veteran, slated to pitch for the U.S. in the World Baseball Classic, is fine with the new rules.

“I’m a fan of taking away from the shift, even though statistics say that I could benefit from it,” Kelly said. “I think hits should be hits and outs should be outs.”

MLB free agent watch: Shohei Ohtani leads possible 2023-24 class

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CHICAGO – The number will follow Shohei Ohtani until it is over. No, not Ohtani’s home runs or strikeouts or any of his magnificent numbers from the field. Nothing like that.

It’s all about how much. As in how much will his next contract be worth.

Ohtani is among several players going into their final seasons before they are eligible for free agency. There is still time for signatures and press conferences before opening day, but history shows a new contract becomes less likely once the real games begin.

There is no real precedent for placing a value on Ohtani’s remarkable skills, especially after baseball’s epic offseason spending spree. And that doesn’t factor in the potential business opportunities that go along with the majors’ only truly global star.

Ohtani hit .273 with 34 homers and 95 RBIs last season in his fifth year with the Los Angeles Angels. The 2021 AL MVP also went 15-9 with a 2.33 ERA in 28 starts on the mound.

He prepared for this season by leading Japan to the World Baseball Classic championship, striking out fellow Angels star Mike Trout for the final out in a 3-2 victory over the United States in the final.

Ohtani, who turns 29 in July, could set multiple records with his next contract, likely in the neighborhood of a $45 million average annual value and quite possibly reaching $500 million in total.

If the Angels drop out of contention in the rough-and-tumble AL West, Ohtani likely becomes the top name on the trade market this summer. If the Angels are in the mix for the playoffs, the pressure builds on the team to get something done before possibly losing Ohtani in free agency for nothing more than a compensatory draft pick.

So yeah, definitely high stakes with Ohtani and the Angels.

Here is a closer look at five more players eligible for free agency after this season:


Nola, who turns 30 in June, went 11-13 with a 3.25 ERA in 32 starts for Philadelphia last year. He also had a career-best 235 strikeouts in 205 innings for the NL champions.

Nola was selected by the Phillies with the seventh overall pick in the 2014 amateur draft. There were extension talks during spring training, but it didn’t work out.

“We are very open-minded to trying to sign him at the end of the season,” President of Baseball Operations Dave Dombrowski said. “We’re hopeful that he’ll remain a Phillie for a long time.”


Chapman hit 36 homers and drove in 91 runs for Oakland in 2019. He hasn’t been able to duplicate that production, but the three-time Gold Glover finished with 27 homers and 76 RBIs in 155 games last year in his first season with Toronto.

Chapman turns 30 on April 28. Long one of the game’s top fielding third basemen, he is represented by Scott Boras, who generally takes his clients to free agency.


Hernández was acquired in a November trade with Toronto. He hit .267 with 25 homers and 77 RBIs in his final year with the Blue Jays. He was terrific in 2021, batting .296 with 32 homers, 116 RBIs and a .870 OPS.

The change of scenery could help the 30-year-old Hernández set himself up for a big payday. He is a .357 hitter with three homers and seven RBIs in 16 games at Seattle’s T-Mobile Park.


The switch-hitting Happ is coming off perhaps his best big league season, setting career highs with a .271 batting average, 72 RBIs and 42 doubles in 158 games. He also won his first Gold Glove and made the NL All-Star team for the first time.

Chicago had struggled to re-sign its own players in recent years, but it agreed to a $35 million, three-year contract with infielder Nico Hoerner on Monday. The 28-year-old Happ, a first-round pick in the 2015 amateur draft, is on the executive subcommittee for the players’ union.


Urías, who turns 27 in August, likely will have plenty of suitors if he reaches free agency. He went 17-7 with an NL-low 2.16 ERA in 31 starts for the NL West champions in 2022, finishing third in NL Cy Young Award balloting. That’s after he went 20-3 with a 2.96 ERA in the previous season.

Urías also is a Boras client, but the Dodgers have one of the majors’ biggest payrolls. Los Angeles also could make a run at Ohtani, which could factor into its discussions with Urías’ camp.