Left-handers, hurt by the increasingly popular practice of stacking defenders on one side of the field, are getting their revenge by signing sweet contracts after the shift.
siaseball fans are in for a real treat this coming season: More Joey Gallo. The hit-prone 6-foot slugger is as close to a perfect example of the state of Major League Baseball in 2023 as you’re going to get. This season, which begins March 30, MLB is introducing three changes that are arguably the most revolutionary in professional baseball’s century-and-a-half history. One of them, a pitch clock, aims to keep game action moving faster after a generation of yawners. Another is larger bases — what Red Sox manager Alex Cora called “pizza boxes” — that will undoubtedly make stealing easier while keeping players’ tender body parts out of harm’s way.
But it’s the third change, the so-called shift ban, that has already enriched left-handed hitters like Gallo. The new rule prohibits the fielding team from bundling their players on either side of second base, which has been an increasingly popular practice. Over the years, the shift has been particularly detrimental to lefties, who for some reason have a harder time hitting the ball into the opposite field, where hitters aren’t, than righties.
The prospect of major league games without shifts has already changed the way teams assemble their rosters, according to experts who spoke to Forbes. Scott Boras, who Forbes who was named the most powerful shortstop in all of sports last year, put it succinctly: “Having a cooler at second base that can just hit isn’t going to fly anymore.”
It also means big changes to player compensation.
“Clearly, left-handed batsmen will benefit,” Boras said Forbes. “All of them were dramatically affected by the shift. Abolishing the change held the promise that these players’ performances would benefit.”
Agent singled out Rangers left-handed hitter Corey Seager, MLB’s No. 3 highest-paid player in Forbes’ 2022 annual ranking, and the Phillies’ Bryce Harper, the ninth-highest, as two players who will benefit from the rule change. Both are signed through 2031, so their luck will be mostly statistical.
Gallo, a client of Boras, can also benefit from the statistics, but despite his shortcomings, he has already improved his results. Gallo hasn’t hit over .199 in the past three years. His 2022 was particularly anemic: he hit .160 in 126 games, which equates to 16 strikeouts every 100 at-bats. (The MLB average was .243.) In baseball, there’s a derisive expression for a player who doesn’t punch above his weight. Gallo tips the scales at around 235.
Although he has hit as many as 41 home runs in one season (2017), making him the top hitter, Gallo’s most consistently impressive offensive statistic has been the frequency with which he strikes out. During his career, Gallo averaged 226 K’s over a 162 game season, a feat that would have him in contention for the hitting crown in almost any league in almost any year. By comparison, Babe Ruth averaged 86 hits in a full season, and most recently, the player who replaced Gallo in the Yankees lineup last season, Andrew Benintendi, has a more modern average of 125 per 162 games. None of this has not stopped Gallo from increasing his income. With the change, Boras negotiated a salary increase in 2022 of $10.275 million. This offseason, Gallo signed a one-year contract with the Twins for $11 million.
More proof that the death of the shift means a career reborn, at least financially: Cody Bellinger. Another left-hander and Boras client, Bellinger has endured three inexplicably awful seasons since winning the National League Most Valuable Player award with the Dodgers in 2019. That year, he had a 1.035 OPS — a key offensive metric that is a combination of on-base percentage and slugging percentage (total bases divided by at-bats). In 2021, Bellinger’s OPS was .542 and in 2022 it went up to .654. He made $17 million last year, an arbitration-settled contract, before the Dodgers fired him. Then came the rule change and suddenly Bellinger was a hot commodity again. He signed a one-year deal with the Cubs in December for $17.5 million — $12 million plus $5.5 million if the team chooses to buy him out in 2024, according to Spotrac.
Michael Conforto is another example. Boras was successful in signing the left-hander to a two-year, $36 million contract with the Giants despite the former Mets shortstop missing all of last season with a shoulder injury. His last salary with the Mets was $12.25 million a year.
Not to be outdone by Boras’ clients, Excel Sports Management also got Benintendi a raise. After earning $8.5 million last season, the outfielder signed a five-year, $75 million contract with the White Sox.
Guess which side of the plate Benintendi hits from. That’s right: the left one.
Boras said he believed MLB teams were doing their homework to understand how the new rules would affect different players, but he and his organization weren’t leaving it to chance. In negotiations this offseason, he came prepared with a trove of data showing how much some of his clients were going to make in a world where change was persistent.
“We had a lot of evidence to show the teams that this was going to be the case,” Boras said Forbes. “This would allow the clubs to see how many of these players were burdened by the change.”
Boras said his data indicated that 30-point increases in batting average could be expected for lefties like Gallo who were used to facing consistently unbalanced innings.
If that turns out to be true, Gallo will hit .190 in 2023, just 45 pounds under his weight.