If this is what free-agent starting pitching costs, Phillies should trade instead

There was more talk in 2018 than ever before about defensive shifts because, well, there were more defensive shifts than ever before. 

According to Jayson Stark, “there were nearly 8,000 more shifts on balls in play in 2018 than in 2017.” 

Stark had a very interesting piece for The Athletic about the possibility that the shift is banned or reduced as early as opening day 2019. He mentions MLB’s competition committee recently supporting an anti-shift rule change and that the next step would be passing it through the players’ union.

You’d think that every left-handed hitter in baseball would support a rule stating the defense must have two defenders on either side of second base. Lefty hitters are so much more affected by the shift than their right-handed counterparts. It’s not even close. 

Left-handed hitters faced the shift 29.6% of the time last season compared to 8.9% for righties. And of the 59 hitters who faced the shift the most in 2018, 58 were left-handed. The lone righty was Edwin Encarnacion, a pull-happy power hitter. 

Imagine being Ryan Howard right now hearing about this. It would be like the government erasing all student loans the year after you finally pay yours off.

The two Phillies affected most by the shift in 2018 were the two high-priced free-agent signings, Carlos Santana and Jake Arrieta. Santana faced a shift in 85.5% of his plate appearances, the most of any NL hitter. Interestingly, Santana’s numbers were nearly identical whether or not he was facing a shift. It doesn’t feel like it after a season filled with groundouts to second base, but it’s the truth.

Arrieta was vocal about how much he disliked the shift, more specifically the way the Phillies were shifting. “We’re the worst in the league with shifts, so we need to change that,” a pissed-off Arrieta said in San Francisco in early June.

His complaint made sense. Arrieta had come over from the Cubs, who shift less than any team in baseball. (It helps that they’ve had a tremendous infield defense the last three years.) And the most successful years of Arrieta’s career came in Chicago, so of course, he’d look to shifting or a lack of shifting as a contributing factor.

But there were 222 pitchers in baseball in 2018 whose infields shifted more often behind them than Arrieta. The Phillies shifted 19.8% of the time behind Arrieta. They actually shifted much more frequently behind Aaron Nola — 26.4% of plate appearances.

With Santana now in Seattle, the Phillies don’t have any extreme pull hitters who would benefit greatly from the shift being eliminated. Defenses did shift against Rhys Hoskins 43% of the time — one of the highest marks vs. a right-handed hitter — but he had a .389 wOBA against the shift compared to a .349 wOBA against a normal alignment. In other words, Hoskins was much better against the shift than against a normal defense.

The 10 hitters across baseball who would stand to benefit most if the shift goes away: Matt Carpenter, Brandon Belt, Freddie Freeman, Eric Thames, Mitch Moreland, Michael Conforto, Yasmani Grandal, Carlos Gonzalez, Mike Moustakas and Jackie Bradley, Jr.

If you’re wondering about Bryce Harper, his 2018 was almost a 50-50 split of being shifted vs. facing a regular alignment.

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