It was a kind of conventional wisdom that the rule changes regarding the shift — two infielders on each side of the diamond, feet on the dirt — would not hurt the Guardians’ offense too badly. Compiling a roster of slap hitters will do that, I suppose.
Last season, Guardians hitters made soft contact 18.1% of the time, fourth-most in MLB, and had the most ground balls (2,028) and highest batting average on ground balls (.262). It seemed logical, thus, that the team could have even better luck with the new shift restrictions in place than it did in 2022 when the Guardians had an xBA of .237 (25 points worse than the actual and 17th among all 30 MLB teams).
As with everything Cleveland so far this year, things are not as anticipated.
In 2023 the Guardians are again hitting a lot of ground balls; that is, 402 so far, or 8.2% of pitches (just under the 2022 rate of 8.6%). The BA-xBA rate has switched, however, and Cleveland has gone from outperforming to underperforming. This year, Guardians hitters have an average of .232 on grounders and an xBA of .256.
The way the team’s luck has switched might just be the law of averages at work, as their good luck was likely unsustainable. But it could also have something to do with how the team is hitting the ball. The most common shift, of course, was moving three infielders to the right side against a left-handed batter, including the second baseman in shallow right field. Although the second baseman can no longer drift into the grass, everything else about that shift is still in play (including having the shortstop move to the hitter’s right, so long as he does so after the pitcher has thrown the pitch).
You can see this illustrated below in the lack of difference between fielder positioning against Guardians batters in 2022 and 2023.
Because the difference in positioning seems so minimal (play with the visualizer yourself at Savant), the problem seems to be with the Guardians’ approach — specifically the lack of hitting the ball to the pull side. For lefties, in particular, using the pull side is the way to take advantage of the new shift restrictions, but Cleveland just doesn’t seem interested in pulling the ball more.
In 2022, the Guardians hit to the pull side 38.5% of the time, which was 26th among all MLB teams. In 2023, they’re hitting to the pull side even less, 35.2%, dead last among all MLB teams.
This development is baffling and troubling. As José Ramírez broke out a few years ago, one of the most prominent reasons for his success was his ability to get out in front of a pitch and pull it. This was supported by science and borne out in the numbers. Travis Sawchik wrote a great article explaining how it works for FiveThirtyEight:
“Home run probability is maximized about 10 inches in front of home plate. And to pull a ball, the bat almost always has to make contact out in front of home plate. At that contact point, the barrel is typically going to be on the way up in any swing path.”
Ramírez, though, is not to blame for the team’s reduced pull rate, he’s been sticking to what works for him and his pull rate (50.8%) is above his career average, which perhaps explains why he’s got xBA, xSLG, and wOBA in the 73rd percentile or greater. Cleveland’s problem, it seems, lies with others, including the underwhelming duo of Andrés Giménez and Josh Naylor to pick on just a couple.
Giménez has looked downright miserable at the plate so far, slashing .218/.295/.328 with a .279 wOBA. However, when he pulls the ball as either a right- or left-handed hitter his numbers improve dramatically. On pulled balls, Giménez is slashing .343/.343/.600 with a wOBA of .401 — unfortunately, this is still a small sample of just 36 pitches (7.2% of those he’s seen in 2023). Naylor’s poor numbers versus expected numbers have been detailed elsewhere, but the fact he’s still hitting .202/.256/.321 with a .251 wOBA is not fun. Like Giménez, Naylor’s numbers all look better when he pulls the ball, to the tune of .258/.250/.516 with a wOBA of .316. Also like Giménez, this is a tiny fraction of Naylor’s season: 32 pitches (7.1% of those seen).
So it seems they should just hit the ball to the pull side more, simple as that. Nothing is ever that simple, of course, not least because hitting a baseball thrown by a major-league pitcher is a minor miracle in itself. But getting out in front of the ball to create better outcomes and use the pull side to your advantage is not some whimsical lucky thing that fluctuates throughout the season, it is a coachable skill.
We know this because Ty Van Burkleo (and other Cleveland hitting instructors) coached Ramírez and Francisco Lindor to do so and made them better players. I can’t say whether Chris Valaika is working on this with Giménez and Naylor, but it sure seems like he should be. Increasing their pull rates from 38.3 and 35.2%, respectively, and closer to or above the league average of 40.7% would almost certainly help their scuffling offensive numbers. All we can do is hope it’s a point of emphasis.