Why the ban on shifts could help Nats hitters

We don’t really know yet what effect Major League Baseball’s ban on the infield shift will have on hitters next season, but teams are taking the change into consideration as they make roster decisions this winter.

That includes the Nationals, whose first offensive addition of the offseason could be among those who benefit from the lack of a shift.

Jeimer Candelario is coming off a down year in Detroit, one in which his batting average fell 54 points, his on-base percentage fell 79 points and his slugging percentage fell 82 points from the 2021 season, when he hit .271/.351/.443 and led the American League with 42 doubles.

So, why did the Nationals target the 29-year-old corner infielder after the Tigers didn’t tender him a contract last month? In part because they saw peripheral numbers this season that suggested he was especially hurt by the shift.

“We had a list of 9-10 guys that we thought could fit,” manager Davey Martinez said last week at the Winter Meetings. “And we looked at Jeimer and his numbers and the amount of ground balls he did hit to the pull side, and we thought: ‘Hey, it could definitely help him.’ ”

Candelario’s groundball rate did go up from 40.6 percent in 2020-21 to 42.6 percent this season. According to Baseball Savant, he “topped” a ball 32.7 percent of the time, way up from his 26.5 percent rate in 2020. All this while continuing to pull the ball at roughly the same rate (39.8 percent) as he has his entire career (40.7 percent).

Opposing teams perhaps benefitted from shifting their infielders around to gobble up all those grounders to the pull side. And perhaps sensing the futility in trying to keep hitting the ball on the ground, Candelario began trying too hard to hit the ball in the air. He wound up popping up 9 percent of all of his balls in play, nearly twice his rate from the previous year.

“Here’s a guy that has hit doubles before,” Martinez said. “Last year, after talking to him for a while, he got caught up in really trying to hit home runs. And I told him: “Let’s get you back to using the whole field, and good things will happen.’ ”

It’s never a bad idea to use the whole field, but Candelario (and others in the Nats lineup) might also benefit from pulling the ball more thanks to MLB’s new rules. Teams are now required to keep two infielders on each side of second base, none of them allowed to position themselves beyond the infield dirt cutout, before every pitch is thrown.

This doesn’t only apply to Candelario. The Nationals as a team hit a lot of ground balls this season. In fact, their 47.1 percent groundball rate was highest in the majors. Wouldn’t you know they also led the majors grounding into 140 double plays.

Martinez hopes young hitters like CJ Abrams, Luis García and Keibert Ruiz will see some of those pulled grounders turn into singles next season. But it’s not as simple as doing the same thing they did at the plate and counting on better results. There are improvements that need to be made.

Most notably, Martinez wants all three of those hitters to cut down on their chase rate, laying off more pitches that aren’t in the strike zone. Though their contact skills are impressive, it doesn’t help much to produce weak contact on pitches out of the zone if there’s a chance to produce better contact on pitches over the plate.

There already were signs of improvement in that area late last season, especially from Abrams, who hit .160 in August and then raised that number to .303 in September and October.

“I thought we were pretty successful with CJ,” Martinez said. “When he came over to us, he hit (.232) for San Diego. I think for us he ended up hitting (.258). Because his chase rate went from 46 percent to 36 percent. If we could get him down even in the lower 30s next year, he’s going to be that much better.”

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