Banning the defensive shift was undeniably a controversial decision amongst baseball fans. Many have differing opinions about how it affects the sport. Some fans believe that it gives batters an easier job by not having to morph their hitting style or capabilities to beat the shift. Conversely, others see it as an opportunity for defenders to showcase their abilities, as well as a way to see more hits since they won’t be so easily countered by extreme positioning.
Regardless of how fans may feel, there are certain teams and players that will likely see a marked increase in offense from the ability to put more balls in play that will not be sent right at the outstretched gloves of defenders. While many hitters will likely benefit from this, there is one team that stands out that could possibly reap the many offensive rewards of the lack of a defensive shift: the Washington Nationals.
The Nats weren’t exactly an acceptable example of a team that lifted the ball last year. The team lacked pop in their bats overall, and often sent the ball across the ground of the diamond right at a shifted and prepared defender. Washington capped off the season with the second-highest ground ball percentage in all of the major leagues, keeping the ball low exactly 46% of the time. This was 2.6% higher than the Reds, who sat right in the middle of the table for ground ball percentage, and a whole 9% higher than the Dodgers, who held the lowest GB%. This percentage would lead the Nats to many inning-ending problems.
The Nationals grounded into a league-leading 140 double plays last season. This was 24 more double plays than their NL East rival Phillies had, who ranked 15th in GIDP, and 58 more than the Texas Rangers, who had the least in MLB with 82. Washington also had an abysmal wGDP, which is an advanced statistic that FanGraphs describes as “the number of runs above or below average a player has accumulated based on their ability to stay out of double plays.” They recorded an abysmal -9.9, a full 4 points lower than the closest team, and a number that was staggeringly low compared to the Dodgers 10.4.
The easiest fix to these issues would obviously be just to get more power at the plate through training or acquiring players that can lift the ball. Unfortunately, baseball is never really that simple. Many Nats fans will remember when Washington skipper Davey Martinez said in an interview last season that he had talked to CJ Abrams “about just hitting hard ground balls” and encouraged the behavior that led to the Nationals double play and advanced metric woes. With it only being Spring Training currently, it’s hard to say if this mindset is still in place. If it is however, the shift ban could likely at least be somewhat of a saving grace.
Through the Nats’ few Spring Training so far, we’ve actually seen some solid examples of this new advantage taking place. There have been several players who have snuck hits past defenders that likely would have been snuffed out if the opposing team was shifted to compensate for the hitters’ tendencies. Again I would like to reiterate that this is a small sample of cases and it is only Spring Training. It is able to instill some hope nevertheless.
This rule change by MLB may end up being a way for Washington hitters, if Lady Luck is on their side, to grit and grind their way into more scoring chances. If they continue to keep the ball on the ground but with better placement, the Nats may have found a way to use their lineup’s lack of raw power to their advantage. While the aforementioned power disparity with better teams is still undoubtedly an issue, the shift being gone could serve as somewhat of a patch to minimally repair one of the worst problems with the offense. Scoring runs was not always a strong suit for this team last year, so maybe this change will help to ease their troubles.