August 7, 2015
Ducks on the Pond
A couple of weeks ago I wrote about how the Astros were aggressively shifting their outfielders to the opposite field during a series in July against the Indians. Toward the end of the article, I speculated that some of the other teams that had led the charge in the infield shift revolution were doing something similar to Houston in the outfield. And sure enough, last week, Jason Mastrodonato of the Boston Herald tweeted this view from the Fenway Park press box of an extreme outfield shift by the Red Sox against Adam Eaton:
Boston was playing Eaton to go the other way to the extent that Houston had been against the likes of David Murphy, Jason Kipnis, Michael Brantley, Michael Bourn, and Yan Gomes during its series in Cleveland. While Boston's defensive alignment is astounding given how rare radical outfield shifts are, Eaton seems like the type of hitter you would theoretically play to hit he ball to the opposite field. He's your prototypical scrappy, slap-hitting player, and his heat map on fly balls and line drives to the outfield confirms what the Red Sox were thinking.
So that led me to think: Who are some other possible outfield shift candidates? Using data from Baseball Savant, I was able to create a list of players with the highest opposite-field rate on fly balls and line drives fielded by an outfielder since the start of the 2014 season. Any ball hit to the opposite-field side of straightaway center field was defined as a ball hit the opposite way.
Left-handed batters (min. 100 balls to the outfield):
Right-handed batters (min. 100 balls to the outfield):
As expected, Eaton checks in seventh among left-handed hitters since 2014. The name at the top of that list shouldn't surprise, either. Joe Mauer has always had the reputation of a hitter who can drive the ball with authority to all fields; as it turns out, no hitter has sprayed the ball the opposite way in the air more than the Twins' first baseman since the start of last season. We saw how the Red Sox stacked their outfield against Eaton. What would their setup look like up against Mauer?
This comes with Rick Porcello on the mound during his May 27th start and it might be the most aggressive outfield alignment I've ever seen. Hanley Ramirez is hugging the left-field line tighter than Freddie Freeman at the trade deadline and Brock Holt isn't just shaded towards right-center field, he's playing smack in the gap. Sure enough, Mauer's heat map checks out.
A player's opposite-field rate isn't the most refined tool to determine against which players a team should or shouldn't shift their outfielders. There's clearly more to a team's preparation of a defensive alignment. They might consider not only where a batter hits the largest distribution of fly balls but also where he most often hits line drives or balls with a high exit velocity. The speed and defensive skills of their own outfielders probably play a role as well. Then there's the matter of the count and who is pitching.
We can tackle the last one, at least based on the handedness of the pitcher. Using Baseball Savant, I created a similar list of with opposite-field rates for players on balls to the outfield, but this time I split up their rates based on pitcher handedness. There are fewer left-handed pitchers in the league, so the samples against right-handed pitchers are larger and more heavily weight a overall opposite-field rates. Nevertheless, I looked at the players with the largest differences in opposite-field rate based on the opposing pitcher's handedness to search for hitters that a team might play significantly differently depending on whether they have the platoon advantage.
Left-handed batters, split up by pitcher handedness (min. 40 balls hit to the outfield vs LHP):
Right-handed batters, split up by pitcher handedness (min. 40 balls hit to the outfield vs LHP):
There are a handful of candidates here for shifting based on the handedness of the pitcher. Earlier we looked at Eaton's heat map, which indicated that he was a strong candidate to play the other way, just as Boston did. But against left-handers he almost never pulls the ball to the outfield. This is what a 94 percent opposite-field rate looks like.
While Eaton's opposite-field tendencies reach a new extreme against southpaws, his rate against right-handers also justifies shading the other way. (Recall that the image earlier was with right-hander Rick Porcello pitching.) But a hitter like Carlos Gonzalez, who ranks third among left-handed batters in the table above, may only justify outfield shifting when he's facing a same-sided pitcher. That's what the Dodgers appeared to being doing against Gonzalez during their most recent series against the Rockies. Compare the Los Angeles defensive alignment against Gonzalez with right-hander Mike Bolsinger pitching against Gonzalez on June 3rd
with their setup the previous day against left-hander Ian Thomas.
For Joc Pederson that's a change in starting position of maybe 20 or 30 feet. You can also see a clear shift in starting position by the right fielder if you look at his position relative to the orange image next to the outfield scoreboard. This isn't nearly as extreme as what the Astros are doing and whether you want to refer to it as "shading" or "shifting" is a matter of semantics, but this is certainly another example of teams using data and spray charts to inform their decisions on outfield alignment.
For the Dodgers, improving their outfield defense was seen as a priority coming into the season. The arrival of Pederson was seen as a major upgrade over what the team ran out in center field last year, but optimizing defensive alignment was another way that Andrew Friedman and Farhan Zaidi sought to improve. Dylan Hernandez of the Los Angeles Times delved into this back in April, talking to several Dodgers outfielders and third-base coach Lorenzo Bundy, who oversees the team's outfield defense.
The statistics come from the new front office, which is headed by the team's new president of baseball operations, Andrew Friedman.
Within that article was a quote from Pederson, who told Hernandez that he embraces the use of statistics and said, "Numbers don't lie. It's accurate. It's pretty funny. Sometimes, they hit and you don't even move, and you're like, 'Wow.'"
Recall from earlier that DJ LeMahieu has the second-highest opposite-field rate to the outfield among right-handed hitters since 2014. During the aforementioned series between the Dodgers and Rockies in early June, Pederson experienced what would probably qualify for him as one of those "wow" moments on this ball hit to the right-center-field gap by the Rockies' second baseman.
But as far as I can tell, such aggressive positioning in the outfield appears to be occurring only in very select cases. I went back and looked at the outfield alignments of some of the hitters atop the leaderboards above and it didn't look like guys like Christian Yelich, Dee Gordon, and Ender Inciarte were being aggressively shifted against in the outfield. Even with a hitter like Mauer, it is apparent that the way the Red Sox were playing him is the exception, not the rule, even with teams that are regarded as aggressive infield shifters. Take a look at how various teams have positioned their outfielders against Mauer over the past month.
Toronto appeared to have Mauer shifted the most aggressively, but for the most part, we're not seeing anything too crazy. If this is a trend that teams are heading toward, it appears to be in its infancy, as we're currently only seeing it applied in the most extreme of cases and by only a few teams.
While this may be the case in the big leagues, some teams are already experimenting with outfield defense in the minors. Last September, Sam Fuld suggested to Eno Sarris that we might not be far away from a world in which corner outfielders would switch positions in the middle of a game based on the hitter's tendencies and the defensive strengths and weaknesses of the two outfielders. Shortly after Sarris' article, Gabe Kapler—employed by FOX Sports at the time—wrote a post about organizations effectively communicating information and ideas to their players. Kapler wrote specifically about the idea proposed by Fuld and how getting organizational buy-in could lead to implementing what would be considered by many to be a radical concept.
To prepare a major-league club for something truly unorthodox – like switching outfielders on a batter-by-batter basis to minimize the impact of weak arms, poor jumps, or lack of range – the practice should begin at the very lowest levels of the organization. By implementing new ideas in rookie ball, players are less likely to balk when they're asked to do something different in the name of capitalizing on every bit of leverage they can during an MLB game.
Kapler now works as the Director of Player Development for the Dodgers and, sure enough, the idea he proposed in that FOX Sports article nearly a year ago is being implemented in the organization he works for. In a recap of a game last week between the Idaho Falls Chukars and Ogden Raptors—the Rookie affiliates of the Royals and Dodgers—Victor Flores of the Idaho Falls Post Register noted:
Ogden made an odd defensive move whenever Chukars' right fielder Brawlun Gomez came up against a left-handed pitcher Thursday. Raptors' center fielder Deion Ulmer and left fielder Matt Jones switched positions.
While this isn't exactly the same as outfield shifting, it's a similar move toward defensive-alignment optimization that we might not have thought fathomable even 10 years ago. Many teams now implement infield shifts throughout their minor-league systems as a way for players to get comfortable with playing out of position by the time they reach the majors. Maybe similar actions will be taken with regard to outfield shifts, both as a way to get future big-leaguers comfortable and to see how opposing hitters are able to adjust to bigger gaps in the outfield.
As to the place of outfield shifts at the major-league level, I don't think it will take nearly as long for other teams to catch on as infield shifting did, largely because the abundance of infield shifts in the game today makes the idea of doing something similar in the outfield appear less radical. Maybe it's something we'll see more of next season, as we've heard stories of teams communicating their thought process behind increasing infield shifts to their players during spring training. But it does seem that, down the line, outfield shifts could have a more prominent role in baseball.