When Dale Sveum was the manager of the Chicago Cubs, we became increasingly aware of defensive shifting. It wasn’t a new concept, of course, but moving your infielders around the diamond in extreme ways (i.e., all but one infielder on one side of second base) was relatively new.
But Sveum swore by the data, and implemented changes accordingly. And the shifting strategy has largely survived the organizational changes from Sveum to Rick Renteria to Joe Maddon. Although the times that the shift didn’t work probably stick out in your memory disproportionately, it ultimately worked to the Cubs’ benefit, and I think most fans are on board with the practice at this point.
In fact, most of baseball is very much on board with the practice at this point.
But now, extreme shifting might expand into the outfield and again, change the way we think about defensive alignments. In a deep dive at Baseball Prospectus, Chris Mosch takes a look at that very trend and wonders if extreme outfield shifting is a thing of the future.
To be sure, outfielders have always shaded one way or another, depending on the count, batter or type of pitcher, but Mosch is addressing something far more extreme. The example he shows from last year, though it could theoretically get even more extreme:
Never seen a defense so drastically shaded toward opposite field. Then Adam Eaton homered to right field. pic.twitter.com/K8tYmsWEPP
— Jason Mastrodonato (@JMastrodonato) July 29, 2015
Thanks to the ever-increasing mounds of data and new analytics, teams are able to better anticipate where balls will land, with what frequency, and with what intensity. And with the vast amount of data indicating the likelihood of a particular outcome, repositioning your outfielders feels almost obligatory.
So then, with a forward thinking manager like Joe Maddon, should we expect the 2016 Cubs to partake in extreme outfield shifting?
In 2015, you might have been surprised to learn, the Cubs were one of the least aggressive shifting teams in baseball. However, it’s not as though Joe Maddon has anything against it – the 2013 and 2014 Rays were among the top five teams to utilize infield shifting. So, I think it’s fair to say, if the data points him in that direction, he will respond with shifts.
Shifting in the outfield will occur, of course, as it always has. But will the Cubs ever pull the trigger on a really extreme outfield shift? The line between a “shift” and an “extreme shift” in the outfield is kind of nebulous, but I’m talking about something like the picture above, where it looks like one corner outfielder is effectively being tasked with covering an entire half of the outfield.
With an outfield composition like the Cubs, it’s conceivable that positioning (both in general, and of the extreme variety) could work as a way to “hide” the relative range limitations of a corner outfielder like Kyle Schwarber or Jorge Soler, because Jason Heyward and Dexter Fowler can cover a great deal of ground. Perhaps, then, against a right-handed hitter with significant pull tendencies in the air (or left-handed hitter with significant opposite field tendencies in the air), the Cubs could extremely shift everyone over to the left, and call upon Jason Heyward to cover an enormous amount of ground in right field in the unlikely event that the pull hitter goes to the opposite field. That would shrink the area Schwarber/Soler has to cover even further, and, in theory, the risk of big-time damage in right field would be limited, both by the batter’s tendencies and Heyward’s range.
If the shift were required to the other side of the field, it might be more difficult to pull off, though, unless Heyward were moved to the other side of the field, or unless the batter so infrequently went the other way that it was worth the risk of leaving a huge portion of the field to be covered solely by Schwarber/Soler.
What could also be difficult is the relationships and responsibilities of outfielders on balls not directly hit at any one of them. Yes, the trio can communicate, but you become so used to knowing roughly what balls are “yours”, it can riskier in the outfield to have guys playing out of position than in the infield. That’s true not only because the damage that can occur in the outfield is much more significant, but also simply because eyes are up, guys are running full speed, and injuries can happen when there is confusion.
All in all, it’s going to be something to watch this year, be it with the Cubs are league-wide. I just think thing is worth consideration, especially as a new season approaches.
Extreme defensive shifts in the infield aren’t going away any time soon, and it’s possible that the outfield is the next frontier.
Michael Cerami contributed to this post.