Neal Huntington Talks About the Upcoming Outfield Shifts

Over the weekend I wrote about how the Pittsburgh Pirates are planning on utilizing more outfield shifts in 2014, much in the same way that they went to the extreme with infield shifts during the 2013 season.

One of the first things that comes to mind when thinking about outfield shifts are the shifts that the Pirates employed a few years ago. They would position the left fielder close to center field, cutting off the Notch. I spoke with Neal Huntington about the upcoming Pirates outfield shifts, and he said that what they have planned is different from the old “no triples” defense.

“It’s a little more advanced,” Huntington said. “The ironic part about the two center fielders — and then Travis Snider does a nice job, Tabata does a nice job — we could actually theoretically be less aggressive with the outfielders because they cover so much ground. But in our minds, we can be more aggressive, and they’ll cover the odd hit that goes against where the odds say the ball is going to be hit, and still cover that. And not have a double turn into a triple, or a single turn into a double because we are playing the percentages. But Dan Fox and Mike Fitzgerald, and our analysts in the office have done a good job of crunching the data even more, and we’ve got some things we’re working through and some things that we’ve discovered that can allow us to feel better about the positioning, because it’s just better data. It’s a better breakdown of the data. It’s deeper, and yet it’s more consistent as well.”

The premise for the outfielders will be the same as the approach with the infielders: put the players where the opponents are most likely to hit the ball. There are some challenges to this approach, and people often notice when it goes wrong. Huntington pointed out how people tend to notice when a four hopper rolls by where the second baseman is traditionally positioned, but don’t remember when a two hopper behind the second base bag goes for an out because the second baseman or shortstop was positioned there. There’s less risk involved with infield shifts, because if you’re wrong, it’s only a base hit. There’s more risk in the outfield shifts.

“If you go too aggressive in your outfield shifts, and a ball finds a gap, it’s two bases instead of one, or it’s three bases instead of two, or that runner scores at first instead of being kept in front,” Huntington said. “So there’s a little more risk/reward involved in the outfield defense, but again the basic premise is putting our defenders in position to make the most number of plays possible. And sometimes that will result in a little bit of an unorthodox look, and it will result in some unorthodox outcomes where a ball that’s traditionally a single is now a double, because Marte has had to go so far, or because our right fielders had to go so far.”

I’ve been talking about infield shifts and outfield shifts as mutually exclusive things, mostly because it’s easier to write about them when separating them. However, I asked Huntington if it is possible that the team could look at the shifts in the context of an entire field, rather than the infield and outfield operating as separate units.

“They do work as a unit, but there may be opportunities where an infield shift is different than an outfield shift,” Huntington said. “We may be to pull side on the infield, and to the off side in the outfield, and it may look a little unorthodox, and it may create a hole somewhere. But the reality is that we’re going to position guys in a spot to make the most number of plays that they can, while again in the outfield, taking consideration of the risk of a well hit ball finding a gap, versus what would normally be a single or a ball that’s caught.”

Tim Williams

Author: Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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  • loehr22

    Are those guys in the pic seriously asking Neal for his autograph? That could be the funniest pic that I have seen in awhile. Wow, how desperate some have become.

    • imadushbag

      i think he is serving beers.

  • skliesen

    This appears to be a natural extension of the infield shift philosophy. Now that the theory infield shifts will result in runs saved over 162 games has been proven true, it only makes sense to apply same logic to the outfielders, too.

    In essence this has been going on to a certain extent forever. Outfielders have always moved in, out, right or left based on who’s at bat and the circumstances of the game. So to me, this isn’t a big deal at all.

    I do like that the Pirates are taking a leader of the pack approach to defensive shifting to save runs. Now if only CH would start managing the bullpen based primarily on leverage rather than roles, I’ll be completely stoked.

    • buster09

      The ” leader of the pack ” when it come to shifting is the guy in Tampa,Joe Madden. He is one of the best Managerial innovators of the decade in my mind.

      • skliesen

        I agree with that assessment.

  • IC Bob

    I will be curious to see some of the shifts. My only worry is when you have OFs like Marte and Cutch and soon Polanco, I would not want to get them to close to each other and give hitters field they would not otherwise have. That said I could see these types defenses really cutting down on long balls as hitters try to beat the shifts.

  • buster09

    IC : don’t you think that LF/CF gap into the notch is probably the main area being addressed ? I could be wrong,but it would be the main area of the outfield I would try to cut down.

    • IC Bob

      Based on the comments I don’t see them just addressing the notch or general holes in the outfield. I see all shifts based on where a guy hits the ball which in some cases may mean a bigger gap in the notch. Like I said it will be fun to see how it works or if we can even tell that they shifted much.

  • leadoff

    Russell tried the no doubles and it was a disaster, would have cost him his job if I were hiring and firing.
    Last year they tried the no doubles in the 8th and 9th inning and it was also a disaster, however they would not do away with it even though it did not work. What bothers me about this new invention of the wheel is the Pirates don’t seem to go away from things when they don’t work. If the stats say it should work, they stick with it no matter what.
    Playing the hitter is the way all fielders are supposed to work.
    What is the difference between shifting and positioning?
    I am all for positioning and shifting if necessary, but I don’t remember the Pirate outfielders running all over the field very often last year, so their positioning must have been fairly good.

    • jon6er

      I agree with you that they get a little stubborn about dropping something or not changing it when it doesn’t work. I certainly hope they get everybody on the same page on some of these shifts. I remember the one game against the Reds, Frazier was on first and they had the shift on and Pedro at short and Frazier walked into third on the play to first because I’m assuming the pitcher should have covered third.

  • Mr. Goodkat

    “Disaster” seems a bit of a stretch…

    Can’t find the stat, but I’m pretty sure they finished Top 5 in baseball when leading after 7…Which is one of the main scenarios your claim highlights.

    That’s not to say that the “no doubles” was the cause for success, but it certainly wasn’t a “disaster”.

    • leadoff

      Okay, lets just say instead of disaster that it made more sense to let bloopers and cheap hits fall in front of outfielders in the late innings when they were playing back at the fences instead of playing the hitters the way they played them the rest of the game. We can remove the word disaster and insert stupid on their part instead. I guarantee you that if they play that defense against the Reds this year and Hamilton is at the plate, they might as well let him walk to 2nd base, because that is where he is going to end up. He will dump something over the infield and steal 2nd and I don’t care who the 8th and 9th inning guys are, they are going to be in trouble in one run games. They did not use that defense early in the year last year.

      • Mr. Goodkat

        Who said they’re going to play that way against Hamilton? If anything these quotes suggest the exact opposite.

        “No doubles” is a very, very basic strategy. Little Leaguers employ it. It’s basically the same as “No 3′s” in basketball. Sometimes it makes sense, other times it’s far too conservative backfires. This article suggests that they will be moving towards shifting based on the player at the plate and his tendencies, just like the infield did last year.

        I highly doubt that means playing at the fence when Hamilton is at the dish, but hey, what do I know?

        • Andrew

          Hardball Annual had a piece on shifts that noted from the 2013 season.

          No shift: BABIP .300 Extra Base Hits 7.3%
          No doubles: BABIP .394, XBH% 5.5%

          So there is a tradeoff, I think Calipari has a good point below. I’ll add that with shifting the infield based on groundballds you are taking away singles, there is not really a tradeoff. The same does not hold for outfield shifts, but I assume Dan Fox and the Pirates have run the simulations.

          • https://www.facebook.com/scott.skink Scott Skink

            What tradeoff?
            I don’t know how Hardball Annual figured this, but a home run shouldn’t be dependent on shifts. It’s going to leave the park regardless. So an XBH means either a double or triple.

            The split on doubles vs. triples is roughly 90/10. So for purposes of an equation, an XBH is 2.1 bases vs. a single at 1 base.

            If you just look at the “no shift” numbers you posted, for 1000 ABs, you’d have 227 singles and 73 XBHs leading to 153.3 bases for those XBHs. For a total of 380.3 bases.

            So you’re already 14 bases ahead of the game playing a shift BEFORE you even figure in the XBHs for the “no doubles” scenario.

            Given HA’s figures, I can’t imagine why you’d even consider “no doubles”, except possibly in a late game one-run or tie situation.

  • CalipariFan506

    I’m of the opinion that this is a better strategy to make up for weaker ranged fielders like Alvarez and Walker. It’s not so necessary if you’re eventually going to have Marte, McCutchen and Polanco in the OF.

    • Mr. Goodkat

      I agree for the most part, and NH even acknowledged as much.

      Should be interesting to see it in action — although no matter how they play it those 3 are going to be fun to watch back there.

    • stickyweb

      Great point Calipari. Also makes more sense in the IF since the fielders have much less time to cover ground than they do in the OF.

      But with the speed of Marte, Cutch and Polanco, a little shading may be all that’s necessary instead of some drastic shifts. That said, I wouldn’t mind seeing Marte a little shallower to catch any squibbers over the IF and Cutch a little deeper to cover into the notch. Cutch seems to go back on balls much better than he comes in on them.

  • CalipariFan506

    My general philosophy on shifts is similar to mine on a zone defense in basketball. If you have inferior players it gives them a better opportunity at success. If you have superior players it lowers their potential for greatness. So I think there is a time and place for it. I just think evaluating your own personnel is more beneficial than your opponent in determining when to shift.

    • IC Bob

      I like your analogy. With the outfield we soon will be employing not sure how close you want those three to be to each other.