Carlos Santana knows a different game of baseball than almost anyone else in the game.
Last year, Santana was shifted 98.3% of the time. When he stepped to the plate and looked out to the field for an area where he could put the ball in play, he almost exclusively saw defenders knowingly lining up right where he’s likely to hit the ball.
According to Baseball Savant, no player in the game was shifted more last year than Santana. When you look down the leaderboard list, you start to see some more familiar names that have recently become relevant.
For example, there’s Lewin Diaz, the low-key addition the Pirates made before adding Santana. Diaz is a defensive wizard at first, who was shifted 92.5% of the time last year — to the tune of horrible offensive results. He was the 12th most shifted hitter in baseball, despite not having the history backing him that Santana has.
Still inside the top 50, you’ll find Ji-Man Choi at number 48, with an 83.9% shift rate. The Pirates added Choi prior to adding Diaz and Santana.
First base and the designated hitter spot are open, and these three hitters seem to be the prime candidates for those two spots. They have all been heavily shifted, and that’s important to note because the shift is changing in 2023.
Starting in 2023, teams will be required to have two infielders in the infield on either side of the second base bag. This will remove those extreme shifts that impact lefties like Santana, Choi, and Diaz with a fielder in shallow right field.
I was going to run some numbers on what type of impact these hitters might have with the removal of a fielder from shallow right field. Alex Stumpf at DK Pittsburgh Sports did that, and honestly, this is his wheelhouse and you should check out his results. The conclusion was that these hitters could see an advantage, but not to the frequency that you would think. It’s not like Carlos Santana is going to become a .300 hitter now. He won’t have that many extra hits drop into shallow right field, and if he does, they’ll be extra singles.
Instead, I want to highlight an area we can’t quantify, and which is hard to qualify. What is going to happen when Santana gets up to the plate in 2023 and sees a wide open hole into right? What happens when Choi and Diaz see the same thing, likely for the first times in their younger careers?
Diaz entered the majors in 2020 and was shifted just under 70% of the time. That went above 80% last year, and above 90% this year. His numbers have struggled, but there’s the fact that teams quickly picked up that it was beneficial to stack the right side of the field against him.
What will happen in the mind of Diaz when teams can’t stack the field against him anymore? Santana played in baseball before extreme shifts took over. He might be able to remember what a normal defensive alignment looked like from the lefty batter’s box. Diaz has never seen that.
Choi might be the most interesting look into the head games of the shift. He has been shifted above 75% only in the last two seasons. His strikeout rate, previously in the 22-24% range, jumped to 28-29%. His walk rate didn’t decline. His power dipped in 2022, when his shifts went up. There could be another reason for his increase in strikeouts, but it seems too coincidental that his swing and miss went up right when he was faced with more extreme shifts. Almost like the shifts got in his head.
There would be no way of knowing if this is the case, or how much damage the mental toll of the shifts took on these hitters. I also wouldn’t say that the correlation here represents a causation that the Pirates were targeting guys who have seen extreme shifts.
What I will note is that the Pirates have added enough of these previously-shifted types in the wake of the new rule that they’ve increased their chances of getting a sleeper first baseman.
They don’t need all of these guys to see a massive boost in production with the removal of the shift. If just one of them has a breakout season, and benefits from the removal of the shift, the bulk addition of lefty first base types will work out.
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Tim started Pirates Prospects in 2009 from his home in Virginia, which was 40 minutes from where Pedro Alvarez made his pro debut in Lynchburg. That year, the Lynchburg Hillcats won the Carolina League championship, and Pirates Prospects was born from Tim's reporting along the way. The site has grown over the years to include many more writers, and Tim has gone on to become a credentialed MLB reporter, producing Pirates Prospects each year, and will publish his 11th Prospect Guide this offseason. He has also served as the Pittsburgh Pirates correspondent for Baseball America since 2019. Behind the scenes, Tim is an avid music lover, and most of the money he gets paid to run this site goes to vinyl records.