I shared some ideas about a draft strategy in my last column, with recommendations that I hope will improve your chances of acing your draft. Today, I want to touch on another suggestion that could give you another edge in your upcoming fantasy baseball draft. This idea is a bit more subtle, but it could pay big dividends if you implement it.
If you haven’t been hiding under a rock, you know there are major rules changing to Major League Baseball this season. These include a pitch clock, a limit on the number of pickoff attempts, an increase to the size of the bases and limits on the defensive shift a team can use. The latter rule change will be especially important to left-handed hitters.
Indeed, it is left-handed batters that have been affected most by the shift managers utilize against hitters. This is changing with the new rule that prevents teams from positioning a player in shallow right field where pulled ground balls and line drives frequently land off the bat of lefty pull hitters. This is a game-changer for some of these batters.
If you think I’m exaggerating, consider that more than half of the balls put into play were hit into a shift. This means thousands of base hits were taken away by those shrewd defensive coaches utilizing all those fancy advanced analytics. Left-handed batters were influenced the most by the shift. Estimates were that there was a 30-point decrease in batting average.
With the removal of said shift, left-handers are going to see an increase in fantasy value across the board. But some batters will benefit more than others. The purpose of this column is to give you an idea of how these batters are, and I’m also going to tell you whether there is enough benefit to make them worth drafting at their current average draft position.
In other words, I’m not telling you that every beneficiary of the rule change will suddenly become a screaming value at their current ADP. That’s why I’m not going to just give you the list and wish you good luck. There are some players that will still be busts and others that won’t return enough value because of other factors weighing against them.
The player who hit the most balls into the shift last year was Texas shortstop Corey Seager. It’s not as though Seager had a bad season after signing a 10-year, $325 million contract. He reached a new career high with 33 home runs. He also scored 91 runs and drove in 83 more. On the negative side, Seager’s batting average plummeted to a career-low .245.
The drop in batting average was attributed to a .242 BABIP that should be expected to return closer to his career norm (.317). The Statcast numbers suggest it was mostly bad luck as he hit the ball hard, finishing with a 97th percentile xSLG. Seager gets the bat on the ball consistently, with a strikeout rate ranging from 15.5% to 16.1% over the past three seasons.
How much will the elimination of the shift help Seager? Steamer projects him to bat .271 in 2023, with 87 runs scored and 82 RBI. Since my name is Doubting Thomas, I can’t afford to sound too optimistic, but what if they are underestimating the 28-year-old? A three-time All-Star, Seager is the type of player that could be an MVP candidate if he stays healthy.
The one thing you won’t get from Seager is stolen bases. Even with the rule change, it’s unlikely that he will have double-digit steals since four is his career best. However, drafting a four-category contributor at his current ADP of 67 would make him a good value. But a return in value is dependent on the batting average returning close to his .287 career average.
The players profiled below all hit more than 100 balls into the shift in 2022. Since they are all left-handed hitters, they will also benefit from bigger bases. The reason is that with the removal of the shift, there will be more close plays at first base on pulled balls. Bigger bases will mean more runners called safe as they reach the base a fraction of a second earlier.
JOSE RAMIREZ, 3B, CLEVELAND
Did you really need another reason to draft Ramirez? If you did, please note that he pulled a ball into the shift 175 times. Ramirez is a machine who consistently pumps out terrific fantasy seasons. He finished as the third best player in fantasy last year, behind Aaron Judge and Paul Goldschmidt. He’s a five-category player and is worth drafting No. 1 overall.
KYLE TUCKER, OF, HOUSTON
Another five-category player, Tucker hit a ball into the shift 170 times last year. As good as he was in 2022, his batting average dropped 37 points, compared to the previous year. The new rule could certainly add points to that average, which would make him even more appealing. If you want Tucker, you’ll need to spend a first-round pick. His NFBC ADP is 6.
SHOHEI OHTANI, SP/UTL
Ohtani is a freak of nature. He’s an elite pitcher and five-category hitter. In a league where you can change your lineup every day, he’s the most valuable player in fantasy. In a weekly league, he’s still a first-round player. Ohtani hit 134 balls into the shift last year. Could he actually improve on his .273/.356/.519 slash and 11 stolen bases with the new rules?
YORDAN ALVAREZ, OF, HOUSTON
Alvarez’s Statcast page is a sea of red. He led MLB in average exit velocity, HardHit%, xwOBA, xBA, xSLG and Barrel% in 2022, which is why his ADP is 12. Alvarez drew 78 walks while striking out only 106 times in 561 plate appearances. Alvarez finished as a top-10 roto hitter in 2022. But consider that he hit into the shift 134 times. Could he get even better?
MATT OLSON, 1B, ATLANTA
Coming off a career year in a bad ballpark with a lesser lineup, Olson regressed. He took advantage of the lineup to drive in runs and had 34 homers. His numbers were still solid but his strikeout rate climbed and his BA dropped 30 points. Olson hit 138 balls into the shift in 2022, and with the new rule is batting average could jump back up.
KYLE SCHWARBER, OF, PHILADELPHIA
Schwarber hit 142 balls into the shift last year. With 46 home runs last season, he finished second behind only Aaron Judge. He also scored 100 runs and had 94 RBI. Surprisingly, Schwarber even added 10 stolen bases. The problem was a 73-point in his batting average. How many points could be added back by the new rule?
The new rules on limiting the shift and bigger bases should spell a meaningful increase in OBP for many left-handed hitters. There are many others, including Max Muncy, Anthony Rizzo, Josh Naylor, Charlie Blackmon, Seth Brown, Rougned Odor, Anthony Santander, Rowdy Tellez, Max Kepler, M.J. Melendez, Keibert Ruiz and Carlos Santana.
Thomas L. Seltzer, AKA Doubting Thomas, writes about football and baseball for CreativeSports. Be sure to follow Thomas on Twitter@ThomasLSeltzer1.