Shortly after Major League Baseball announced rule changes for the 2023 season, Washington Nationals’ skipper Davey Martinez was asked how the ban on defensive shifts, which was part of the latest changes, would affect things going forward.
“I think it will help the offense for sure,” Martinez said, while noting it would all depend on how the rules are interpreted and worked around.
“I mean, I think when the ball is hit in right field, a lot of times it probably should be a hit. We don’t know what all is going to transpire out of all this. Do guys need to have both feet on the dirt? Right? How far are they going to allow you to go to second base? All that stuff. There’s still no answer to that, but like I said, if it does happen, I want to make sure we’re prepared for it and it doesn’t sneak up on us next year and we’re trying to figure out what we’re going to do.”
He was sure, he said, teams around the league will test the limits of what they’re able to get away with within the new rules.
“Obviously we’re going to play kind of a normal defense, what we consider normal, but how much can we get away with moving guys?” he asked.
A few months later, when Martinez spoke to reporters at the 2022 Winter Meetings back in December, the manager talked about how, if at all, the rule changes, and the shift ban in particular, affected their approach to the moves they explored as they looked to add a bat or two to the lineup this offseason.
“We had a list of nine, ten guys that we thought could fit,” he explained, “… and we looked at Jeimer [Candelario] 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.
“Here’s a guy that he’s hit doubles before. Last year after talking to him for a while, he got caught up in really trying to hit home runs, and I told him, I said, ‘Let’s get you back to using the whole field, and good things will happen.”
Candelario did hit a lot of doubles two years back, before a down year in 2022, including a league-leading (tied) 42 in 2021, so what was working for him when he was hitting all those two-baggers with the Tigers?
“I was controlling really good through the strike zone, I was hitting the ball from gap-to-gap, taking what the pitcher is giving to me in the moment, and I was doing that [consistently], and that’s the right thing to do, and that’s what I’m going to do,” Candelario explained.
“Be consistent, just bring that to the Nationals, and be consistent with that, hitting the ball on the barrel, putting the barrel on the ball, and hitting the ball the right way is going to allow me to contribute and allow me to help the team win.”
The 29-year-old switch-hitter said he did think the rule changes with the shift would help him and other left-handed hitters around the big leagues.
“They’re going to help not only me, a lot of guys,” Candelario said. “They’re going to help a lot of guys because they’re not going to worry about, ‘Oh, I have to hit the ball the other way, or I have to hit the ball [for] a home run. It’s going to be true, and for — and it’s all mental, and I think it’s going to take a lot of stuff from the mental side of the guys, of the lefty hitters, and it’s going to be more free. You’re not going to think too much, you just got to hit the ball and it’s going to play somewhere.”
Did the shift get in his head at times? Or affect how he approached at-bats?
“I wouldn’t say in my head, I would say when you see the guys moving it’s like, ‘Oh, they’re moving,’ so it’s like, ‘Oh, they’re moving this way,’ why are they doing this? Or why are they doing that? So you got to hit the ball this way or that. Sometimes they get on you. But you just got to be able to — it is what it is — I’m putting the barrel on the ball and let’s see what happens. But you see back these 2-3 years, they’ve been shifting really hard and they’ve been taking a lot of hits from guys and it’s been really crazy, but I think it’s going to be natural now, it’s going to be regular, and we don’t have to worry about that.”
Left-handed hitting first baseman Dominic Smith, who signed a one-year deal with the Nationals this winter as well, said he thought the shift ban would definitely help lefty hitters.
“I don’t feel like I’m the only lefty to feel this way,” Smith said. “I’m sure there are a lot of lefties in the league feel this way. I think it’s going to help a lot of guys. That shift — whether the numbers say it did or didn’t affect me — I feel like personally it did affect me, so to just have that even playing field where all the defenders are normally, where they should be, I think it will open up a lot of hits for lefties, especially line drives up the middle, those line drives to short right field, now you’re not worrying about three guys on one side of the field. I think it will help a lot of lefties out in the long run and I can’t wait to see some of our numbers at the end of the year.”