MLB shift limits raising batter spirits and averages so far

Cheryl Evans/The Republic

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – When Yankees switch-hitter Aaron Hicks batted from the left side last season, he was almost always greeted by an infield shift – a wall of defenders camped in shallow right field.

So it was a striking moment in New York’s dugout when Hicks – facing a traditional infield alignment – hit his first clean single to right field early this spring training.

“He probably hasn’t seen that hit in about eight years,” manager Aaron Boone said.

Hicks and the rest of baseball’s most frequently shifted batters are getting used to a new reality – or rather, adjusting back to an old one – after Major League Baseball passed rules limiting infield shifts ahead of this season.

So far, those limits seem to be raising batter spirits – and they might be bolstering batting averages, too.

“I really hope this isn’t the year I start hitting the ball to the shortstop on the ground,” Yankees left-handed slugger Anthony Rizzo said with a smile. “Especially young left-handed hitters will be introduced to the 3-4 hole that’s been gone for about seven to eight years.”

Teams must now keep two infielders on each side of second base, all with their feet in the dirt when a pitch is delivered. The aim is to open up space for a few more singles in each game after data-driven teams spent the past decade carefully crafting defensive formations that targeted each hitter’s tendencies.

It’s too early in spring training to draw conclusions from the numbers, but key statistics are trending in a promising direction for hitters. Batting averages through the first 10 days of spring training are up to .263 in 2023 from .259 last season.

Crucially, left-handed hitters – the most frequent targets of the modern infield shift – are hitting .274 this spring, up from .255, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Righty averages have dropped from .262 to .255. Overall scoring is at 11.3 runs per game, up from 10.6.

There has been disagreement in the sport’s analytics community about how much impact the shift limits will have, but it does seems to be affecting hitters’ psyches, at least.

“Not getting thrown out from shallow right field on a line drive will be nice,” said Rizzo, shifted in 82.6% of his plate appearances last season.

Tampa Bay manager Kevin Cash said he has noticed some difference already this spring but expects more offense to come later as big league regulars play deeper into games.

“I think there’s been so many balls already this spring that if you look to if that happened last year, they were out. We had a defender there,” Cash said.

Umpires have broad discretion to enforce the league’s new guidelines, but some clubs are already testing how strict those rules are.

When lefty slugger Joey Gallo – shifted in 90% of his plate appearances last year – of the Minnesota Twins came to the plate in a game against the Boston Red Sox last week, Boston experimented with a loophole in the new rules, moving center fielder Adam Duvall to shallow right field and left fielder Raimel Tapia to center field.

That shift didn’t matter much as Gallo drew a walk, but such is the new reality in baseball as teams start searching for advantages to the rules in 2023.

Marlins first base coach Jon Jay, who had 840 singles among his 1,087 career hits, thinks the change could lead to more small ball.

“We’re seeing already ground balls going up the middle that, with the shift, were outs,” he said. “It’s definitely going to create more offense. I think the single is a big player right now. You’re seeing those 10-hoppers up the middle and those ‘rollover balls’ in the hole … those are hits again.”

Philadelphia Phillies left fielder Kyle Schwarber, who was shifted against 90.5% of the time in 2022, thinks the shift could help promote more contact, too.

“I punched out 200 times last year,” Schwarber said during Phillies spring camp. He had a career-high 200 strikeouts last season. “That’s not acceptable. If I can cut down on 50-75, that’s more balls in play. And without that wall (the shift) out there, there might be a few to squeeze through.”


Doval escapes in the 9th as Giants hold off Yanks 7-5

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NEW YORK (AP) Camillo Doval retired Giancarlo Stanton on a game-ending, double-play grounder with the bases loaded and the San Francisco Giants hung on for a 7-5 victory over the New York Yankees on Saturday.

Doval gave up Aaron Judge’s RBI single in the ninth, the slugger’s third hit, but earned his first save when Stanton hit a ground ball to shortstop Brandon Crawford, who started a double play that withstood a video review. Second baseman Thairo Estrada made a low throw to first baseman LaMonte Wade Jr., who scooped the ball.

“Live and it looked before they paused, he kept it long enough,” Crawford said of Estrada. “LaMonte was definitely on the bag. I wasn’t too worried.”

There were four pitch clock violations, the most of any game in the first three days of the new rule. Two were by Doval in the ninth inning, and the Giants’ Taylor Rogers and the Yankees’ Albert Abreu had one each.

“We didn’t see any of that sort of thing in spring training,” Giants manager Gabe Kapler said. “We saw a good mastery of it. This is a different environment and it’s understandable that things sped up a little bit, but no pitcher’s going to survive giving away balls like that. It doesn’t matter how good you are.”

New York’s Anthony Volpe got his first two big league hits and became the first Yankees player to steal a base in each of his first two games since Fritz Maisel in 1913. No major leaguer had accomplished the feat since Billy Hamilton in 2013.

But the 21-year-old shortstop also had Estrada’s RBI single carom off his glove as the Giants scored twice in the sixth inning for a 5-3 lead.

New York built a 2-0 lead helped by pitcher Alex Cobb’s throwing error and Stanton’s first home run, a 112 mph drive to the opposite field down the right-field line. But the Yankees went 3 for 11 with runners in scoring position and stranded eight runs as the Giants rallied.

Joc Pederson hit a solo homer and Crawford hit a two-run drive in a three-run fourth against Clarke Schmidt, the first home run for the Giants on a 3-0 pitch since Buster Posey in the 2021 NL Division Series.

Crawford went 3 for 5 with a double and scored twice to go along with a stolen base. It was the second time in his career he a three-hit game with a double, homer, two runs scored and a steal.

“It was a good day. I guess my best game of the year so far,” Crawford said with a laugh.

Anthony Rizzo’s RBI double off Jakub Junis (1-0) tied it 3-3 in the fifth, and the Giants scored two runs in the sixth without hitting a ball out of the infield.

Wade Jr. hit a go-ahead RBI single when his soft hit went to the third base side of the mound, and David Villar scored the go-ahead run when Michael King (0-1) and catcher Jose Trevino converged and could not make a throw. King was making his return from a broken elbow last July 22.

After King struck out Michael Conforto, Estrada hit a liner to Volpe, who charged in and had the ball go off the heel of his glove. Volpe was unable to get the force at second as Crawford scored to put the Giants up 5-3.

“It was a tough one,” Volpe said. “Probably keep me up at night thinking about that. I definitely feel like I should have had it. It was on me.”

Josh Donaldson homered in the eighth off Rogers, three innings after the crowd booed Donaldson for taking a called third strike that stranded two runners.

Mike Yastrzemski added an RBI double and Crawford hit a run-scoring single in a two-run ninth off Clay Holmes.

STARTERS Schmidt allowed three runs and four hits in 3 1/3 innings. Schmidt threw a cutter that he added in the offseason 27 times, including three straight to Pederson for a strikeout in the first.

Cobb gave up two runs and four hits in 3 2/3 innings.

TRAINER’S ROOM Giants: C Joey Bart (back tightness) was a late scratch. Kapler said Bart tweaked his back in batting practice.

Yankees: RHP Luis Severino (right lat strain) threw Friday and Saturday and felt good. … OF Harrison Bader (left oblique strain) took swings in the pool Friday and Saturday and could take swings in a cage next week. … RHP Lou Trivino (right elbow strain) threw off a mound Friday.

UP NEXT New York RHP Jhony Brito makes his major league debut Sunday against San Francisco RHP Ross Stripling. — AP MLB: and