Outfield defence revolution could see more shifts, fourth man

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TORONTO — You wonder where it’s all going.

Catchers with plastic-and-velcro “cheat sheets” on their forearms, checking them like NFL quarterbacks the way David Ross did in the World Series, outfielders carrying cue cards in their back pockets, laser range finders being used to mark out positions on the outfield grass — and Houston Astros manager A.J. Hinch suggesting that if everybody keeps talking about launch angles and all that stuff then he might just say to hell with it and stick a fourth outfielder out there some day.

As in tomorrow.

Really.

Don’t get Manny Acta started on this. You wouldn’t believe the things the third base coach for the Seattle Mariners sees going on in the outfield. This is the post-PED era and it’s now a game of youth, speed, power, and defence. Crazy defence; Statcast defence.

Yet even with all that going on in this game, Acta did the same thing before the first pitch of a recent series at Rogers Centre that he does at the start of every new series on the road: he walked out onto the field very early before batting practice and placed a ball at each spot where one of his team’s infielders would be stationed if they were playing straight up. Then, he walked back to the visitors’ dugout on the first-base side, sat down and pulled out an iPad. He checked sight lines and angles from the third-base bag and picked out signs and cues in right field and left field.

“I look at every ball and see what the signs on the outfield wall are behind that position,” said Acta, formerly a manager with the Washington Nationals and Cleveland Indians. “Like, I’ll be sitting where we are right now and if I look out to where (third baseman) Kyle Seager will be playing and I’ll say to myself: ‘OK, in order for him to be lined up he has to be over there by the H on the Schneider’s sign,’” Acta said, pointing to an orange advertisement on the padding of the outfield wall in the left-field corner. “If I see Kyle in front of the S, I’ll whistle at him and shift him over. I’ll write it down on my iPad, and refresh my memory every game.”

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Mention “shifting” and the natural instinct is to think of the way MLB teams shift their infielders around. In a piece for the website FiveThirtyEight in June, 2016, writers Ben Lindbergh and Rob Arthur referred to the infield shift as “this decade’s defining baseball statistic,” and they’re probably right.

The article was written just a few months after data on shifting and balls hit into the shift were made available for public consumption. Teams shifted just under 35,000 times last season and almost one-fifth of balls put into play were hit into an infield shift. Six years before that, it is estimated that teams – and only some teams at that, against a mostly select group of pull-happy hitters – shifted less than 3,000 times. It’s become so much of a factor in games that commissioner Rob Manfred has openly talked about eliminating the strategy or placing some type of restriction on it.

But “shifting” has moved beyond simply moving the infield around. The strategy has moved a couple of hundred feet back, in fact. Now, teams such as the Astros have started to aggressively shift their outfielders – to the point where Houston outfielders and, for that matter, outfielders such as Steven Souza Jr., of another shift-happy team, the Tampa Bay Rays, take cue cards with them to help with their alignment.

Last season, New York Yankees outfielders had information underneath the bills of their caps, and the Los Angeles Dodgers asked the New York Mets if they minded them using laser range finders – the same kind golfers use – to help set their outfield alignment during BP, with spray painted spots added for game time. The Mets, it turned out, did mind. It all makes sense, right? Isn’t it time outfield positioning received its due and become as over-thought as anything else?

“I’m fairly neutral,” said Tim Leiper, the Blue Jays first base coach who is also responsible for positioning the team’s outfielders.

“For me, it goes to the pitcher and whether we want to defend hard and soft contact. You look at a spray chart, and you see there’s a bunch of balls hit in one area but that doesn’t tell you the trajectory. I mean, if it’s a high fly ball to left field – and it’s high enough – well, you could be playing in right field and still catch the ball. So to me, there’s no sense in defending where the guy’s hit the ball. I’d rather defend the ball in the gap where there will be damage. The high fly ball? That’s going to be caught.

“When I first got here, we played in a lot more and I think now we’ve moved back to a more neutral spot,” Leiper continued. “I’ve seen other teams and they’re back on the warning track basically all the time and that’s not good either. If a guy hits the ball deep, I want to be deep; if he hits it shallow, I want to be shallow. I don’t think there’s one certain way to play guys or position guys because there’s a lot of mis-hits in this game. A guy’s swing is off timing-wise, and the ball can literally go anywhere. Really, what you’re trying to do a lot of the time is get yourself in position to limit any damage.”

Blue Jays centre-fielder Kevin Pillar rolls his eyes at the notion of cue cards or cheat sheets – although his teammate, second baseman Devon Travis, admitted that he makes one up for himself and sticks it in his back pocket when he takes the field for the first game against every team in a particular season, checking it every now and then. Pillar is no Luddite; as he noted “it’s the era of information, and you’d be naive not to use it.”

But shifting in the outfield? Nah, he’s not even comfortable with the word.

“I wouldn’t refer to what we do as shifting,” he said. “We kind of shade one way or another, I guess that’s what I’d call it. We play tendencies, and as a centre-fielder, my part in it is a little bit less drastic than the guys on the corners. I mean, I’m usually just on one side of second base or another – there’s no such thing as ‘straight up’ any more because the pitcher’s in the way – so I’m basically shading either side of the bag. It varies with depths, and sometimes it’s so minute you don’t even notice it in the stands.”

Joe Sheehan is the Blue Jays assistant general manager, who oversees both the team’s analytics and professional scouting department. He’s been with the organization since former GM Alex Anthopoulos hired him in 2011 to develop the Blue Jays analytics department, which at the time lagged behind organizations such as the Pittsburgh Pirates, from whom Sheehan was hired.

The Pirates dig this stuff; two years ago, reporters noticed spray painted white dots in the outfield during spring training drills. The organization had decided its outfielders would play unusually shallow, and wanted the positioning to become second nature. On this day, Sheehan and general manager Ross Atkins sat in the latter’s office and discussed in general terms the team’s approach to outfield defence, calling up a spray chart — or heat sheet — for the Mariners’ Nelson Cruz: a diagram of a field all red, orange, and yellow with dots where balls had actually landed.

“If you click on it, it pulls up the actual pitch and you see whether the pitcher was trying to throw to that spot or whether he didn’t execute and the pitch leaked back,” said Sheehan. “There’s a broader context beyond where the ball was going or where it landed. Tim translates it for them.”

Most of the time, Leiper said, that means breaking it down between soft contact and hard contact and then factoring in the Blue Jays starter. “For example, if (Marcus Stroman) is pitching on a certain day and he has great sink on his pitches, chances are we might position differently than if he doesn’t have great sink,” said Leiper. He trusts Pillar and Jose Bautista for their input, lauding Bautista’s ability to read bats.

“It’s pretty simple,” Leiper said. “When I give them something it has to be short and quick.”

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Similarly, one of the hallmarks of folks such as Sheehan is a pronounced ability to keep the uncomplicated just that: uncomplicated. Asked why it seems as if infield defensive metrics and shifting seem further along than in the outfield, Sheehan shrugged and said: “You’re talking four guys in a smaller area … so, it’s probably more easily solved than the outfield, where you have three guys in a larger area.”

Sheehan offered a reminder about the risk between infield shifting and outfield shifting: “The ball gets through an infield shift, and it’s a single. If something funky happens and the ball gets through the shift in the outfield? You could be talking a triple. The stakes are higher.”

Do not believe for a second that the Blue Jays have taken a kind of benign attitude toward this. Rather, as Sheehan said, the key is “making sure you’re creating an efficiency instead of just adding stuff.”

Atkins doesn’t have an issue with a player wearing an information sleeve or taking a cheat sheet into the field, as much as he has an issue with someone questioning the reasoning behind it. In fact, he believes it can contribute to the type of open-mindedness that he wants to foster both at the major-league and minor-league level.

The Blue Jays, he said, do shift at the double-A and triple-A level even though the availability of analytical data is not consistent. “In a lot of ways, you can do it more readily in the minors,” Atkins said about the possibility of creating a greater acceptance of defensive analytics. “One, there is less pressure. Two, the people involved – players, managers, coaches – are at different junctures of their career. The players are professionals, but they’re still pieces of clay ready to be moulded. In some cases, they might not even be as good as guys who are still amateurs; it’s just that they have contracts.”

Added Sheehan: “You might be giving up more hits than saving hits, but you’re setting an expectation for what you want to do up in the majors.”

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But, c’mon … four outfielders? It’s something that Hinch talked about last month in one of his pre-game media availabilities, noting that bigger outfields – such as Comerica Park – will “for sure” see teams experiment as more and more attention is paid to driving balls in the air – especially if, like his team, the left side of the infield (in this case, Alex Bregman and Carlos Correa) are both shortstop-calibre defenders.

“We’ll probably be the team that does it,” Hinch was quoted as saying. “We might as well, just to get our brand out there.”

Atkins just shrugged when that possibility was placed before him. “We’re sort of doing that already, aren’t we?” he asked. “You see the way some teams shifts, and it’s like there’s somebody already there in, say, shallow right field.”

Added Leiper: “Oh yeah, in this day and age I can see somebody doing it. Do I think it’s good? No, but I can see somebody trying it.”

He paused for effect, adding with a chuckle: “You might see it in Chicago,” referring to the Cubs and Joe Maddon, whose predilection toward shifting as manager of the Rays is widely considered to make him the one of the game’s defensive gurus.

Which brings us back to Acta, who broke into the game in 2002, when he was hired as third base coach for the Montreal Expos under Frank Robinson, who managed the team when it was owned and operated by Major League Baseball. He received his first of two managerial jobs with the Nationals in 2006 and has also managed the Dominican Republic in the World Baseball Classic, and Acta can remember how initially it was pitchers who fought the infield shift because the notion of leaving an entire side of the field open to a hitter seemed too inviting.

“It took a while to convince pitchers that what we were really doing is just trying to minimize as much risk as possible,” Acta noted. “That’s really all we try to do in this game.

“It’s really what it’s all about.”

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