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Shift ban incoming: How will Yankees pitchers adjust?

Breaking down the two pitchers most affected by 2023’s new infield alignment rules.

MLB: New York Yankees at Houston Astros Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Lots of ink has been spilled over the impending doom of the shift, and what it means for the pitchers, hitters, and defenders who have been victimized by it and the beneficiaries of it in increasing numbers the last several years. The Yankees aren’t in a position to bear the brunt of the changes, fortunately. Baseball Savant had them shifting on just 25.8% of plate appearances in 2022, the fifth-lowest rate in the game. Of course, that wasn’t spread out evenly across their entire staff. I’m here to talk about the two Yankees in particular who look to have the biggest adjustments to make in terms of defensive alignment in 2023: Luis Severino and Domingo Germán.

First, note that some of these numbers might not completely line up with the Baseball Savant leaderboard pages. In its breakdown, Savant differentiates between “shifts” and less-extreme “strategic positioning.” However, the new rules in place for next season — two players on each side of second and four sets of feet on the dirt — will eliminate the majority, if not all, of the latter category as well.

MLB: Cincinnati Reds at New York Yankees Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

That’s why even though the leaderboard lists Germán as having pitched with the shift 42.8 percent of the time, highest on the team, in reality that number should be even higher. Defenders lined up in standard positioning just 48.7 percent of the time, accounting for now-illegal “strategic” positioning that we would probably recognize colloquially as a shift. Severino followed him at 53.3 percent, then Gerrit Cole at 56.4 percent. Now-Cub Jameson Taillon slotted in between at 52.1 percent.

The Yankees weren’t necessarily partial to shifting for their starters. Nestor Cortes and Jordan Montgomery both threw with a standard alignment around 70 percent of the time, and somewhat surprisingly, Frankie Montas had no activity behind him nearly 60 percent of the time in New York, nearly flipping his number in Oakland. Let’s take a closer look at Germán — who now seems destined for a swingman/spot-starter role — and Severino, and where they’re going to have to change things up the most.

Luis Severino

Severino was one of the most shift-heavy pitchers in the league against left-handers in 2023. His standard alignment rate of 23.6 percent against southpaws ranked 208th out of 257 pitchers who faced at least 100 batters, and looking at his arsenal and approach, it’s easy to see why. His fastball-slider combination makes him an elite strikeout-chaser against right-handers, running a 33.8 percent strikeout rate last year that ranked sixth in all of baseball. But against lefties, he pitches more to contact. His slider and cutter become show-me pitches, and he rolled with his fastball and changeup more than 80 percent of the time, to the effect of just a 19 percent strikeout rate but an excellent .275/.287 wOBA/xwOBA split on the strength of a .199 BABIP.

The elimination of the shift won’t destroy his batted ball results — he actually only managed a 40 percent groundball rate against lefties, a 10-point drop from the same-handed side, and on a granular level, Outs Above Average says that Yankees second basemen and shortstops were actually two outs below average when playing up the middle or shaded towards second base. Still, Severino’s left-handed spray chart shows just how much his approach towards lefties is geared towards weak contact to the pull side. It’s quite easy to see why the defense would virtually abandon the left side of the infield, the way he pitches:

Whatever the rate stats say, that’s a lot of field outs in the shallow right field grass, and there’s a significant possibility that the second baseman won’t be able to do anything about batted balls like these in 2023:

It’s impossible to say exactly what’s going to happen, but it wouldn’t be surprising if Severino spent the winter getting a bit more comfortable throwing his breaking stuff to opposite-handed hitters. The fastball-changeup combination is good enough to be effective, but without the ability to fully optimize the defense to the type of contact it typically allows, the results are simply going to get worse, point blank. It will be interesting to see what he does with his pitch mix in the upcoming year.

Domingo Germán

The 30-year-old swingman was the only Yankee whose defense shifted for him more than Severino, but his platoon profile was a little bit more balanced, seeing a fair bit of shifting against righties in addition to the significant left-handed adjustments. He threw more than 27 percent of his same-handed plate appearances with three infielders to the left of second base, which ranked in the top 20 percent of the whole league. And while strategic alignments with two men on each side of the base made up roughly a third of all of Severino’s shifts, more than four-fifths of the alternative defensive alignments employed with Germán were of the “extreme” variety, with three fielders on one side.

As with Severino, it doesn’t take a deep look at Germán’s arsenal to understand why. He’s always been the rare starting pitcher that leads with his curveball; it’s been his most heavily-used pitch in every season since 2018, reaching a career-high 37.8 percent in 2022. It’s a good breaking pitch, faring well in the swinging strike department, but when hitters connect, they connected relatively hard with a .375 expected wOBA on contact (think of this as a bit like a Statcast-supported BABIP) that checks in about 25 points higher than average. Nonetheless, when hitters put the curveball in play — especially when he kept it down in the zone — it was obvious where it was going, hard contact or not:

With two overall Outs Above Average on the infield and three on plays going back or to an infielder’s right, Savant thinks Yankee fielders did a pretty good job of converting those balls to outs. Given that we’re still only talking about less than a third of his PAs, it doesn’t seem like Germán will need to adjust his approach to righties quite like Severino might do for lefties.

Still, for the individual hitters that the Yankees feel are best attacked with a heavy mix of curves and sinkers — which accounted for nearly 70 percent of his arsenal against righties — his capacity for mistakes will simply be lower. If he misses a little more up in the zone or over the middle with a curveball in 2023, good positioning won’t be there to potentially rescue him on a well-struck ball up the middle. The same can be said of his approach to lefties. Although they rarely put the curveball on the ground, the rest of his approach towards them echoes Severino’s with a healthy does of changeups on top of the four-seamer.

It’s unlikely that the lack of a shift will dramatically change either of their fortunes, but there’s just a little bit more uncertainty with these two players, whose defenses were clearly in alignment with their arsenal and approach on the mound. The Yankees are typically excellent at playing to their pitchers’ strengths and putting them in a position to succeed. and it should be interesting to see how they adjust without one of the game’s more impactful tools for doing so.