Once upon a time, defensive shifts were the Yankees’ bugaboo. A lineup filled with plodding veteran sluggers was consistently done in by the shift, and the team’s unathletic infield didn’t take easily to the concept on defense.
Oh, how times have changed. Gone are the days of Brian McCann, Mark Teixeira and Stephen Drew smacking line drives into shallow right field only to be turned into groundball outs. Now, the Yankees are actually one of the teams least-shifted against in the majors. Not only that, but it’s a pivotal part of the team’s defensive strategy.
Major League Baseball, however, is discussing limiting or banning the shift, and has mandated that each infielder at the Double-A level must have their feet permanently in the dirt this season. There could even be a further rule change at that level that would require two infielders positioned on either side of second base. Prominent MLB voices like Mets shortstop Francisco Lindor and ex-Yankees manager Joe Girardi have spoken out about their distaste for the shift, and the conversation about its place in the game has only grown louder.
The funny thing is, the 2021 Yankees would actually be negatively affected if the shift was to be banned. There wouldn’t be much difference offensively, as the Yankees aren’t shifted against that often anymore, but the team’s defense would no longer be able to be deployed in the most sensible way.
The Yankees on offense were shifted against in the seventh-fewest plate appearances of any team last year. There’s a good reason for that – their hitters aren’t hemmed by the shift. Their most-shifted hitter is Aaron Hicks (79.4 percent of left-handed at-bats), but his wOBA against the shift is within two-tenths of his wOBA without it, so it doesn’t much faze him. Shifting against Aaron Judge, Luke Voit or Giancarlo Stanton is just a bad idea – they hit the ball hard and all over the field. Gleyber Torres and Clint Frazier posted lower offensive numbers when hitting versus the shift, but they only see the shift on roughly a third of their plate appearances anyway.
The only Yankees hitter with a true issue versus the shift is Gary Sánchez. Although he hits the ball hard, he’s a dead-pull hitter and isn’t particularly fleet of foot. Still, if the Yankees’ lineup has one player who is hemmed by the shift, that’s a huge improvement from the doldrums of 2014, when no team had a lower average against the shift than the Yankees.
Defensively, though, the Yankees depend on the shift. They use it against 56 percent of left-handed batters and 21.7 percent of righties, good for the 15th-highest usage overall. Although the Yankees’ 36 percent shift rate was sixth-highest in 2019, it was only 15th in 2020 – proof that shifting around MLB reached record highs last year.
Shifting benefits the Yankees immensely on defense. They don’t have the rangiest infield as is, so being able to place Gleyber Torres or Gio Urshela in a more optimal position batter-to-batter goes a long way in helping them get to balls they might not normally reach. Just because some other hitters cannot adjust to the shift does not mean that the Yankees should be punished for a smart usage of analytics. Heck, if the Yankees, the team most synonymous with shift futility in the early stages of the fad, can beat the shift, then any team should be able to.
Implementing a ban or restriction on shifts could, in theory, lead to more offense in the game, but it doesn’t feel like the right way to achieve that goal. It’s the responsibility of the hitter to outsmart the defense (and vice versa), not for the defense to cater to the hitter’s limitations. It’s their job to get the hitter out, however possible.
A limitation on defensive shifts probably wouldn’t reach the majors until it is tried out in the minors first, but the more that prominent players keep talking about it, the longer it remains a possibility. For the Yankees’ sake, they should hope things stay exactly the same. Now that they’ve finally beaten the shift, the last thing they should want is a rule change to take away a team strength.