Without Carlos Rodón, the Giants are going into 2023 with Logan Webb and Alex Cobb as the top two starters in their rotation.
Both were terrific last year. Webb, a budding ace and the team’s most successful homegrown talent, posted a career-best 2.90 ERA in 192.1 innings — the most in his life. Cobb, a victim of poor defense behind him, used his splitter-sinker combination to post a 2.80 FIP, eighth best among pitchers with at least 140 innings.
Webb and Cobb, though, are the types of pitchers who could be most affected by the new shift limit rule. The right-handed pitchers who generate ground balls won’t get the benefit of a loaded up defense against lefties. Starting this year, defenses must always have two fielders on each side of second base.
Among all pitchers, Cobb and Webb ranked second and third among eight pitchers last year who posted a ground ball rate over 50% and a pull rate over 40%. In other words: they each produce balls in play that go to the right side of the infield against left-handed hitters, balls that will be less likely to be converted into outs this season.
The flurry of rule changes hitting MLB will undoubtedly change a myriad of factors of baseball. How vulnerable Webb and Cobb will be is unclear. Neither plan on changing their approach.
“I don’t know exactly,” Webb told KNBR when asked about how the shift ban will impact him. “I’m just going to have to see. I was the third-most helped out by the shift. It’s definitely going to be a different thing for me, I would say.”
“I really don’t have an opinion on if it’s going to be positive or negative,” Cobb told KNBR. “Hopefully, it evens out. I know there’s going to be some hits next year that would’ve been taken away by the shift, but I also know I’m going to have some good outcomes that the shift wasn’t there.”
In 2022, the Giants — an organization that prides itself on finding value wherever they can — shifted an average amount in any situation. They ranked 16th in overall shifts, 13th in shifts against left-handed hitters, and 17th against righties.
The analytically run Houston Astros, at the forefront of many new-age strategies, shifted a league-high 82.1% against lefties, often placing a defender in shallow right field to protect against hard-hit balls from pull hitters. San Francisco’s mark was 55.9%.
MLB’s shift limit, which prohibits defenses from overloading either side with three defenders and restricts all infielders to the dirt, is designed to boost offense by increasing batting average on balls in play. The idea is with more hits, there will be more base runners and more action.
There are other contributing factors besides defensive shifts, but the MLB batters hit .243 last year, the lowest league batting average since 1968.
It stands to reason that more grounders to the right side of the infield will squirt through for hits, then. But in the minor leagues where the shift ban has been in place, BABIP negligibly changed.
But the Giants are taking it seriously. Craig Albernaz, the bullpen coach who moved to the dugout during games last year to work closer to the catchers, is staying in the dugout this year. He’s set to help position the team’s defense by communicating the pitching staff’s plans with infield coach Kai Correa and outfield coach Antoan Richardson.
“They already do a great job on infield/outfield positioning,” Albernaz said. “Now we’re just layering on what Webby is going to be leaning on that day depending on the lineup. So both areas are aware of how we’re going to be attacking guys and if that has to change, how we position guys. Hitter to hitter, count specific. So just kind of being more collaborative and communicative across the board.”
Albernaz’s role comes with a new, fancy title: run prevention coordinator.
Only Framber Valdez produced more ground balls among qualified pitchers than Logan Webb last year.
Webb induced grounders on 56.7% of balls in play against him. Against left-handed hitters, San Francisco’s defense shifted slightly more than league average behind him. The Giants converted 68% of pulled ground balls from lefties into outs, a number likely to dip without an extra defender on the side.
And while Webb, at his best, can generate swing-and-misses as frequently as anyone, his 7.6 strikeouts per nine innings is nearly a full tick below last year’s league average. If fewer balls in play become outs, he might need to fan more hitters.
“I feel like in the minor leagues, I pitched pretty well and there was no shift,” Webb said. “It’s going to be a lot of new, different things. And it’s not like guys can’t move on the field and are just statues. It’s really just the guy in right field, the second baseman in right field. I don’t think that one was helping me much anyways.”
Cobb has a more varied approach, with a splitter that misses bats and led to him striking out a batter per inning in 2022. He’s also tinkering with a cutter and slider this winter to add options, but isn’t sure if he’ll implement them in games.
But his ground-ball rate was 61.5%, even higher than Webb’s (Cobb didn’t meet the innings threshold to qualify for traditional leaderboards). And at times, it felt like none of those balls get converted into outs.
The Giants’ league-worst defense hurt Cobb’s numbers possibly more than any other individual player. His expected ERA was 3.15 compared to his baseball card ERA of 3.73.
Hitters’ BABIP against Cobb was .338, well above the league average of .290. That’s as Cobb rarely got squared up; he was in the 96th percentile of barrel rate.
“I think that as a pitcher, it feels like you are more in control when you just have the guys straight up,” Cobb said. “You are protecting against hard-hit balls. Really, the shift is designed to protect against hard-hit balls. So now we just have to do a better job at controlling hard-hit rates.”
Cobb believes that pitchers are in control, and that BABIPs can be reduced when they avoid hard hits. But sometimes, like it did for him for much of last year, luck becomes dominant.
Manager Gabe Kapler said the pitchers who are able to overcome the shift limit most will be the ones with a “full repertoire” of ways to get batters out.
The onus behind the mound will fall mostly on the middle infielders. For the Giants, that’s 36-year-old Brandon Crawford and Thairo Estrada, the former of which had metrics more favorable when he was at shortstop than at second base.
In his first Cactus League game, Crawford kept a running dialogue with the second-base umpire, learning that not only can he not put his heels on the outfield grass, but that an infraction would be reviewable. Estrada, whom Kapler believes has superstar potential, was much better conditioned during the second half of 2022 than he was in the first.
How rangy Crawford and Estrada can be up the middle could decide how much the Giants will miss the shift, and how much the ban will impact Webb and Cobb.
“Yeah, it’s going to affect them,” Albernaz said. “How much or how little begs to be seen. But I think one thing with baseball, and especially Kai and our analytics department, they do their due diligence. They’ve got a pretty good idea on where to place guys. So now you kind of take that away from us and other teams. It comes to mind with Houston and Tampa, with how they were at the forefront of shifting and how much they leaned on it. It’s a valuable resource and great defense. Now we just have to be creative with how we place guys.
“But how it affects them? It’s really going to be interesting to see how it plays out. I think at the end of the day, it’s still baseball and everything will be fine.”