How The Loss Of The Shift Has Already Shifted The Free Agent Market

As the qualifying offer window has ended, and a handful of names have slowly begun the start of the 2022 MLB off-season, an expected trend has already shown to be more of a factor than anticipated.

Of the 11 Major League signings so far, 3 big-swinging lefties have led the position player market: Joc Pederson, Anthony Rizzo, and Carlos Santana.

While the type of deal they signed may not be similar, all 3 of them received an added bonus to their worth heading into 2023: the loss of the shift, which could be a sign of what’s to come for the rest of free agency.

Let’s start by breaking down Pederson’s return to San Francisco.

Joc Pederson – 1-year, $19.65 million (Qualifying Offer)

Joc Pederson was 1 of 2 players to take the qualifying offer this year (a 1-year deal valuing at $19.65 million), which in terms of length is nothing new for the lefty slugger.

Since leaving the Dodgers, Pederson has signed a 1-year deal with the Cubs (worth $7 million), was traded to the Braves, turned down a $10 million option to sign a $6 million, 1-year deal with San Francisco.

So, when the qualifying offer was sent his way, valuing just over $6 million less than his career earnings after 9 years in the bigs, it was almost a no-brainer for someone comfortable playing on an expiring contract.

But what shot his value so high?

A large portion of this pay jump came courtesy of his best year since 2019, posting an .874 OPS with 23 homers on a team with 0 other .800+ OPS hitters. But what maybe made the decision to give the 30-year-old veteran just shy of $20 million was the lack of the shift.

In 2022 alone, the league-wide leading year of shifted defense (32.5% of every at bat), Pederson faced a shift in 77% of his at bats. Despite that, Pederson did produce a .310 batting average on balls hit in play (BAbip) in comparison to his .274 batting average on the year. While there is a luck factor to this metric, it shows what could be to come if he gets the right side of the infield open again.

Specifically when his strikeouts were down in 2021, with a 52.3% hard hit percentage and a 32% pull percentage.

Soon after Pederson made his return to the Giants official, Anthony Rizzo declined his qualifying offer, but quickly resigned a multi-year deal with the Yankees, which had a similar bump due to the upcoming rule change.

Anthony Rizzo – 2-year, $40 million with a club option

Anthony Rizzo was the only batter so far to get a multi-year deal, which was for several reasons.

Whether it was due to the hole that losing Rizzo would leave in New Yorks’ lineup, his level of defense at first base, or the lack of talent at the position this free agency, it never seemed as though Rizzo would go anywhere else.

But of the three bats signed thus far, Rizzo may see the greatest jump offensively without the additional fielders on the right side of second base.

Rizzo saw a shift in 82.6% of his at bats, but still finished the year with an .817 OPS with 32 long balls.

While he had more homers than Pederson and Santana, Rizzo usually prides himself in his contact tool instead of purely aiming for the fences like he did this past year.

However, the shifts have changed this to a certain degree, especially considering the short right field in Yankees Stadium, which not only entices a pull hitter to emphasize their launch angle, but also does not allow any real estate to squeeze a ball through.

And the numbers back it up. Since 2020, Rizzo has lost the 4th-most hits due to the shift in baseball, losing 46 knocks. If those hits were to have went through the shift, his batting average of .234 would transform to .273, essentially keeping his power numbers the same, if not improving them.

Due to this change of the game, the 33-year-old first baseman could see similar numbers to his prime in Chicago, as through 2014-2019, Rizzo maintained a .284 BA, .901 OPS, and 179 homers.

Carlos Santana – 1-year, $6.725 million

While the argument for Pederson and Rizzo may have been believable without the shift argument, it’s much more difficult to explain the Pirates shelling out this money for the 37-year-old first baseman.

Coming off the end of his 2-year, $17.5 million contract with the Royals, Santana found himself falling from the everyday first baseman in Kansas City, to a depth piece for Seattle in a midseason trade.

Since putting ink to paper with the Royals, Santana produced back-to-back sub .700 OPS years, a mark he had not found himself in ever in his career.

For reference, his entire career up to this point had a slash line of .250/.367/.450, good enough for an OPS+ of 121.

Now, this is clearly a no-risk move for Pittsburgh, who yet again is not heading into the upcoming year with lofty expectations. But there is a ceiling to Santana that still exists, which may be one shiftless season away from flourishing.

As a hitter, the 2 things Santana is know for is simple: one of the best eyes in the game, and one of the most consistent pull hitters in the game.

Need proof? Just look at his 98.3% shift percentage in 2022, which led all of baseball.

Santana has not lost his patience in the box since 2020, as he lead the American League in 2020 with 47, then totaled 86 and 71 in 2021 and 2022.

The biggest downfall in basic statistics has been his BAbip, which on average was .218 in his last 3 seasons compared to a .268 in his career before 2020.

So, while the monetary values or teams may have been different for Pederson or Rizzo, Santana may owe his career to the banning of the shift.

And, for the remainder of the free agency period, not only can everyday players leverage their contracts, but also guys like Cody Bellinger and Joey Gallo can build up a case to be signed to an MLB rosters.

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