When Yankees shortstop Aaron Hicks batted from the left side last season, he was almost always greeted by an infield change — a wall of defenders in shallow right field.
So it was a bright moment in the New York dugout when Hicks — before the traditional infield alignment — hit his first clean single into right field earlier this spring in training.
“He probably hasn’t seen that hit in about eight years,” manager Aaron Boone said.
Hicks and the rest of baseball’s most-changed players are getting used to a new reality — or rather, adjusting to an old one — after Major League Baseball adopted rules limiting infield changes ahead of this season.
So far, these limits seem to be lifting the batting sentiment, and they may also boost the averages.
“I really hope this isn’t the year I start hitting ground balls to shortstop,” Yankees lefty Anthony Rizzo said with a smile. “Especially the young lefty hitters will get to know the 3-4 holes that they haven’t had in about seven or eight years.”
Teams must now keep two infielders on each side of second base, all with their feet in the dirt when pitching. The goal is to open up space for multiple singles every game after data-driven teams have spent the last decade painstakingly designing defensive formations geared toward each hitter’s tendencies.
It’s too early in spring training to draw conclusions from the numbers, but the key stats are pointing in a promising direction for the offensive linemen. Batting averages through the first 10 days of spring training rose to .263 in 2023 from .259 last season.
More importantly, left-handed hitters — the most frequent targets of the modern infield change — are batting .274 this spring, compared to .255, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Right-handed batsmen dropped from .262 to .255. The total is 11.3 runs per game, up from 10.6.
There has been some disagreement in the sports analytics community about how much of an impact the shift limits will have, but it seems to at least affect the psyche of hitters.
“It’s going to be nice not to get thrown out of deep right field on a line drive,” said Rizzo, who converted 82.6 percent of his plate appearances last season.
Tampa Bay manager Kevin Cash said he’s noticed some difference already this spring, but expects more offense later as the big league regulars play deeper into games.
“I think there have been so many balls already this spring that if you look at when it happened last year, they were out. We had a quarterback there,” Cash said.
Referees have broad powers to enforce the league’s new guidelines, but some clubs are already testing how strict the rules are.
When Minnesota Twins left-hander Joey Gallo, who has changed in 90% of his plate appearances, entered last week’s game against the Boston Red Sox, Boston experimented with a loophole in the new rules by moving center fielder Adam Duvall to shallow right field , and left winger Raimel Tapia in center field.
The shift didn’t matter much as Gallo drew the no-hitter, but that’s the new reality in baseball as teams begin to look for rule advantages in 2023.
Marlins first base coach Jon Jay, who has 840 singles in 1,087 career hits, believes the change could lead to more small ball.
“We’re seeing balls already going up the middle, which, with the shift, was auto,” he said. “It will definitely lead to more offense. I think this single is a big player right now. You see those 10 bunkers in the center and those ‘tipping balls’ in the hole…it’s hits again.”
Philadelphia Phillies left fielder Kyle Schwarber, who has been replaced 90.5% of the time in 2022, believes the shift could also lead to more contact.
“I had 200 hits last year,” Schwarber said during Phillies spring camp. He had a career-high 200 strikeouts last season. “This is unacceptable. If I can cut 50-75, that’s more balls in play. And without that wall (shift), there might be a few people there to push through.”
MLB’s change has so far limited the uptick in sentiment and batting averages