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.”