First base has a disproportionate number of hitters who are left-handed and hit for power. As such, there is no position in baseball that has been as impacted by the defensive shift. Pretty much every team has bought into the shift on one level or another, and while some players with extreme pull tendencies escape notice because they do not fit the stereotype (hello Jimmy Rollins!), teams are going to err on the side of shifting players who look like Matt Adams and Lucas Duda.
In fantasy, the big fallout is in batting average. Last season, 14 left-handed hitters qualified as first basemen (excluding dual position players like Carlos Santana who you would play elsewhere in fantasy). Some enjoyed breakouts like Anthony Rizzo, but, by and large, they showed worse BABIPs and averages in 2014 than they had over their careers.
Note: the combined averages and BABIPs are arithmetic means for ease of calculating.
The ship has sailed on the career averages for players like Adam LaRoche and Ryan Howard and even newer stars like Chris Davis. But just because a hitter is left-handed and plays first base does not automatically mean he will be inhibited by the shift. For example, Joe Mauer hits his groundballs to the opposite field more often than an average left-handed hitter, never mind a power lefty. Just look at the grounders on his spray chart from 2014 next to those of Howard and you can easily understand at least part of the reason for the 54-point discrepancy in their BABIPs in Mauer’s favor.
These spray charts are critical in evaluating the potential negative impact shifts will have on players, especially left-handed ones who have had less exposure to the increased shifts across baseball the last year or two.
Case in point, Joey Votto and Brandon Belt. Both players were limited to between 200 and 300 plate appearances in 2014 because of injuries and both suffered severe drops in their BABIPS and averages relative to their career norms. Votto hit .255 with a .299 BABIP in 2014 and has hit .310 with a .355 BABIP in his career. Belt hit .243 with a .288 BABIP in 2014 and has hit .268 with a .332 BABIP in his career. Was this bad luck over a smaller sample or was it the effects of defensive shifts?
The contrast between the two is nearly as stark as between Mauer and Howard. I used two-year samples in this case because of the limited plate appearances in 2014, and Votto shows a clear ability to use the entire field while Belt looks like a clear shift candidate who should suffer because of shifts against him moving forward.
Votto provides his fair share of reasons for pessimism, specifically his declined power and extensive injury history. However, he remains one of the 10 safest players to draft expecting batting average. Because of that, I still like Votto in my top 10 at the position, even though I do not expect more than 25-100-70-5 in the other four roto categories.
Belt remains an upside play entering his age 27 season, but that is mostly about power potential, which he flashed with his 12 home runs in little more than a third of a full season. However, I don’t think I’d project Belt to exceed a .250 average even though he hit .275 and .289 in his two full seasons in 2012 and 2013. In standard leagues, that will restrict him to being a low-end corner infield option.
Scott Spratt is a fantasy sports writer for FanGraphs and Pro Football Focus. He is a Sloan Sports Conference Research Paper Competition and FSWA award winner. Feel free to ask him questions on Twitter – @Scott_Spratt