PITTSBURGH – If you watched the Pirates during the 2015 season, you would have noticed that their outfielders played deep. A lot.
There would be several plays when it seemed like they played too deep, with a single dropping in shallow that might have otherwise been caught with a normal positioning. And with outfielders with range like Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte, and Gregory Polanco, you wonder why the Pirates would worry about playing guys so deep and guarding against the deep ball.
This year, the Pirates have been playing their outfield shallow, which is one of many changes they’ve made to their strategy from previous seasons.
“Organizationally, we reflect every year on how we can get better,” Pirates’ outfield coach Rick Sofield said. “As far as the group, we looked at our positioning as we look at everything. One of our things, outfield play wise, we looked into a philosophy of trying to improve our positioning. One of the things that popped up is we decided we were going to play more shallow in all three spots. And it’s all situational.”
When I talked to Sofield earlier this week, he said that this wasn’t a move that was made in response to a trend of balls dropping in shallow last year. Instead, it was something Clint Hurdle brought up, trying to look at how the team might change their positioning to better utilize their speedy outfielders.
“They have the ability to run well, and this was something that was brought up by Clint that we wanted to take a shot as a starting place, playing more shallow,” Sofield said.
The usual starting point for the Pirates will be shallow, although that’s not always going to be the case. There have been some situations this year where they’ve played just as deep as last year. That tends to come with power hitters who are more likely to hit the ball deep. As for everyone else, the Pirates are employing the outfield shifts much in the same way that they’re using infield shifts — playing guys in one spot and challenging hitters to hit the ball where they aren’t. In the case of most batters, they challenge them to hit for power and hit it deep.
“They can run. And this is a big ball park out in left-center field. There’s a fine balance,” Sofield said. “You can’t take everything away, so you pick your poison based on who is hitting. When we get guys who don’t have as much power, we like to challenge [them]. And there’s guys who force us to play a little deeper in certain situations.”
Even when starting shallow, the outfielders can still get to the wall. Starling Marte had two plays this week where he ranged far for a fly ball in the notch at PNC Park. The first one was just out of his reach. He caught the second one, and made it look easy. Andrew McCutchen also had a play where he ranged back to the wall in deep center field to make a catch, all from a shallow starting point.
There is a graph that has been shared on Twitter from Daren Willman, showing the range for the three Pirates outfielders on caught balls from the 2015 season. They pretty much cover the entire field.
— Daren Willman (@darenw) April 3, 2016
This range is not surprising, as one of the reasons this outfield has been nicknamed a Dream Outfield™ is because of their defensive abilities, and the ground you can cover when you put three center fielders in one outfield. I talked with Sofield about the chart, and their ability to get to most fly balls.
“I think when they leave the dugout, they believe they can get anything, and want to get everything,” Sofield said. “The reality is, if the ball goes up in the air, expectations are huge for the ball to be caught. When it’s not, it’s almost surprising, because they’re so talented, they’re so quick, their God-given abilities are so extraordinary that it catches you off guard.”
As for that Dream Outfield™ title, the Pirates are certainly putting them to the test, challenging the trio with this new approach. The downside of playing too deep is that you let a single drop in on a play that might have been an out. The downside of playing shallow is that an out could now go for a double or a triple if you can’t get back quick enough, as we saw earlier this week when Gregory Polanco took a poor route to a ball in the right-center gap. But the Pirates are banking that McCutchen, Marte, and Polanco can get back to the wall if needed, which wouldn’t make this a big risk.
“I think we’re the best outfield in baseball,” Sofield said. “And we’ve got to go out and prove it now.”