The shift took over the MLB’s defensive schemes for the last four years, but this year comes with drastic changes. Here’s when teams can shift in 2023.
The MLB’s meta over the last four seasons was the defensive shift, where the infield is shifted over dramatically to counteract a hitter’s ability to get a ball in play based on where their hits normally land.
To see how quickly this took over, here’s a look at the highest and lowest teams by shift rate since 2016, as well as, in parentheses, the World Series winner’s shift rate for that particular season (data via Statcast):
- 2016: 34.0%; 1.3% (4.4%)
- 2017: 34.3%; 2.9% (34.3%)
- 2018: 37.3%; 3.4% (15.9%)
- 2019: 50.5%; 12.7% (49.5%)
- 2020: 55.8%; 7.6% (55.8%)
- 2021: 53.4%; 17.3% (38.9%)
- 2022: 52.5%; 18.5% (50.4%)
Winners shifted. It was unbeatable, and if you resisted the change, well, you probably were not going to be one of the teams in the running deep into October.
What is the shift in baseball?
Simply defined, a shift is when the infield defenders move over dramatically to one side of the diamond. A shift is when three or more infielders are on either side of second base.
When are teams allowed to shift in 2023?
Well, that’s the thing… They can’t.
The shift is basically entirely banned in 2023 and moving forward for the forseeable future. Teams now must have all four infielders in the infield, and two players must be on either side of second base. Based on our definition above, that completely kills any opportunity for a legal defensive shift.
What happens if a team illegally shifts in MLB?
According to the MLB, the offensive team can choose to have the pitch awarded as a ball or to take the outcome of the play.
Why is the shift banned in MLB?
Because it’s baseball, we don’t do anything different that makes the game fun or creates a need for players to evolve how they play. That would be silly.
In seriousness, here is the league’s fan-facing rationale:
"“These restrictions are intended to increase the batting average on balls in play, to allow infielders to better showcase their athleticism and to restore more traditional outcomes on batted balls. The league-wide batting average on balls in play of .290 in 2022 was six points lower than in 2012 and 10 points lower than in 2006.”"
While the shift was wildly successful, it was challenging for most players to figure out how to hit against it. Low-scoring games and fewer balls in play made baseball less exciting, and most players didn’t like the shift.
We’re sure to see many more runners on base this year. The change could dramatically change the landscape of the MLB along with other 2023 changes like the pitch clock, which is changing the game already just days into spring training.