Pirates Are Challenging Their Speedy Outfielders With Shallow Positioning

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.

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.”

  • Off topic: This lineup is killing us just like I said it would. Yes, I know it is only 6 games into the season, but it isn’t working…..our LOB numbers are atrocious, and would be worse if not for the double plays we’ve been hitting into to end innings. Cutch has 1 RBI through 6 games and is hitting well…….and he is not scoring runs because no one is driving him in. Just-Like-I-Predicted. Also, the speedy guys STILL are not running hitting later in the order, so that isn’t playing out either. #endtheexperiment

    • A little impulsive this morning?

      • just really angry after watching the last 6 games………even the ones we won were painful

    • Complaining after two series is just as premature as bragging about a team OBP of .390 after one series.

      Everyone, let’s keep the hot takes under wraps until at least May, shall we?

    • This post makes me laugh since i read it for the first time after todays game.

      Let us overreact either way only after a decent number of games, or we are all prone to looking dumb. 5-2 in April, lets just be happy after last years start.

      • I just already hated the lineup so i have less patience than usual. We only did better today because we were getting doubles instead of singles……..so today really doesn’t show anything. Mercer still managed to hit into another double play with the bases loaded……….3 in two games…….has to be a record. That being said, we had some long and tough at bats today which I really liked.

        • I think you’ve proven at this point you have an opinion and its firm and unwilling to change. So while you are free to not deviate from that already made opinion, its useless to discuss it since no new information alters your thinking. You disagreed with the lineup late in spring training, hated it within 3 games, and will continue to do so.

          Yes, we did better today because we hit better. Funny old world we live in.

          If you choose to be unhappy after that game, its going to be a long season.

          • If we can consistently manage to hit well with RISP with this garbage lineup- i’ll be quiet……but until then, i’m going to complain endlessly as long as our OBP and batting average is near the top of the league and we are in the middle scoring runs. This is just warming up 🙂

    • Slow down Nostradamus, there’s still plenty of baseball left to play. Your expertise is based on 50 some innings, while they implement what they’re doing based on thousands of innings of data. They’re 5-2, so they seem to be doing something right. Afterall, they can’t win every single game.

      • what expertise? I have no expertise, just an opinion

      • ……their data is only useful in practice, so their data is the same 6 games experience that mine is (plus spring training i suppose)

  • As a paying customer, I feel that I have the right to complain….That said, where is the MLB coverage? Tim swore that once he went to a paid subscription he would have more MLB coverage and here we are, without a single article about the Reds series…I get it’s called Pirates prospects for a reason, but all winter he had articles about the parent club.

    Also, would it kill you to have a weekly Osuna article?

    • I’m with you Catch 22 on the MLB coverage esp not explaining Liriano and Gerrit Cole. I was thinking almost every game would be covered because I was already prepared w more than a few comments.

    • Personally, as a fellow paying customer, I think I get my money’s worth just from the Prospects coverage.

      MLB coverage is just a bonus to me.

    • I can’t tell if this is real or not.

      • Obviously, the last line was sarcasm, but the initial paragraph is real. By no means am I being disrespectful, just looking for an explanation. Thanks

        • That’s why I couldn’t tell. The last line, plus the comment comes in the second MLB-related feature of the weekend.

          We didn’t have an article about the Reds series because no one was there to cover the Reds series. We have a limited budget for road coverage, and we’re taking the same approach as last year and saving that for important series down the stretch. I am going to write something about the OBP/LOB topic. I think that’s the most relevant topic from that series.

          • Tim. I’m a paying subscriber too. Any chance of getting daily coverage of the players wives and girlfriends. I’d prefer some pictures and possibly some sharing of the best nail salons.

  • Good article, and I always like to read or listen to Rick Sofield. But, ‘Cutch has been in CF for 7 years, Hurdle has been the Manager for 6 years, and playing more shallow in the OF just occurred to us? I hope not.

    The reality of this is that In the upper levels of baseball – beginning as early as HS – the fielders, including the OF’s, are re-positioned depending upon the pitcher, the pitch being called, the tendencies of the batter, and the situation. And, after Rick Sofield drives us around the block explaining this “new” re-positioning process, he comes right back to saying that it is all situational, which is where I think we have been for years.

    I could be missing the importance of this altogether, but if ‘Cutch or Marte want to move in, they will do so on their own, knowing full well their comfort zone and the area they have to cover. They are both Gold Glove Winners, and very intelligent defensive ballplayers.

    • Yeah, but no player literally ignores his coach and just positions himself where he wants.

      On every team, the coaches are letting players know where they want them in situational play. Players are smart, but they arent moving wherever they feel like.

      No, Cutch and Marte wont move on their own if the coaches dont want them to. The entire point of shifting and having serious situational differences in positioning is to have everyone on the same page and in certain areas.

    • emjay… playing more shallow in the OF just occurred to us? I hope not.

      That was my very first thought, also.

  • Cutch made a spectacular play going back on the ball on the 1st game in Cinci. But maybe there’s a happy medium between too shallow and too deep as that catch would have been a lot easier if he hadn’t been in so far. Maybe the Pirates didn’t appreciate how much “pop” the hitter, E Suarez, has. Playing shallower may work best in RF at PNC because of small dimensions there…..

  • I’m not really following this logic. How does their speed make it easier to catch balls going back but not have the same effect if they’re coming in on shorter fly balls? I’m sure there is a reason for this but I don’t think they’re letting us in on it. Or maybe they’re just wrong on this one.

    • I did read a comment from Cutch that he felt he was much better at tracking a fly ball over his head than in front of him. So maybe he personally needs the advantage on shallow balls but not deeply hit balls.

    • The deep ball is in the air longer- Shorter fly balls are in the air for less time.

      • Good point, but not always necessarily true. It would depend on the trajectory too.

    • It’s also about what’s statistically more likely to happen.

    • There’s a bit of evidence that suggests that ground ball pitchers induce more weak contact in the air, meaning our philosophy is prone to some shallow flys.

      Playing deep all the time does allow for more soft contact hits.

      • Also good point. I’m still not totally sold on it. When I see things online talking about Keirmaier playing deep it leads me to believe that’s probably a pretty good idea. So Idk, I’m going to have to think on this one.

  • I have ALWAYS thought they’d played too deep. I really think it will work. How often will they get burnt, though, is the question.