When the Royals are on defense, watch the top step of their dugout and you’ll see Rusty Kuntz positioning the outfielders. If he wants to move Alex Gordon, he’ll use his left hand. If he’s moving Jeff Francoeur he’ll use his right hand. If he’s moving the centerfielder — Lorenzo Cain or Jarrod Dyson — Rusty will use both hands. He’ll wave them in the desired direction and then give them a stop sign when they’ve reached the right spot.
Outfielders start in the “straight up” position. Draw a line from third base through second base, continue that line on into the outfield and if Jeff Francoeur were standing on it, he’d be playing straight up. Same thing for left field: a line from first base through second base, running on into the outfield, defines “straight up” for Alex Gordon. On some fields with odd configurations, an outfielder can find himself drifting out of position. The eye gets fooled and a guy can find himself standing in the wrong spot. On those fields Jeff Francoeur will draw an “X” in the grass to make sure he knows where straight up is.
Jeff will also use the patterns mown in the grass to position himself. When some hitters get ahead in the count, they tend to pull the ball. When some hitters are behind in the count, they go the other way. Outfielders are moving with the count and Rusty Kuntz is helping them from the dugout.
Rusty said he has to be careful not to over-shift Cain or Dyson. Those two guys have such outstanding speed they can cover both gaps. Shift them too far to one side or another and you not only leave a gap open, but the territory they can cover might overlap with the territory a corner outfielder can cover. When a centerfielder has less range, the defense might have to gamble a bit more and shade the player in a more exaggerated manner — he can’t cover both gaps so pick the one you think the ball might be hit to.
This is just an introduction to outfield positioning; spend minutes talking to Rusty Kuntz and it gets a lot more complicated. But when you Rusty waving his arms on the top step of the dugout, now you’ll know what he’s doing.
Sunday morning the Royals worked on rundowns. Afterwards, Billy Butler came into the dugout and said no matter how much they worked on it, every major league team would screw up a rundown at some point this season. Nobody asked me — nor should they — but I assume whatever you do a lot, you’ll do well — or at least you’ll do it better than the things you don’t do that often. During the course of a season, how many rundowns will a team conduct?
Put players in an unfamiliar situation, and they may make some bad decisions.
In any case, if you see the Royals conduct a rundown, you should know that their goal is to throw the ball as few times as possible. They don’t want to make an extra throw just to get the runner headed back to his original base. Make enough throws and something bad will happen, so the Royals want to keep the throws to a minimum.
Sunday afternoon right fielder Jarrod Dyson threw out a base runner attempting to advance from second to third base. The throw was made on one bounce. The Royals want their outfielders to make their throws on one hop because that keeps the ball low. If a throw from the outfield comes in high, it can overthrow the cutoff man. If the ball can’t be cutoff, a trail runner can advance. If the throw is kept low — and the cutoff man gets into the right position — the threat of the ball being cut off can freeze a trail runner.
Watch for this in games: high outfield throws allow trail runners to advance, low outfield throws keep runners where they are.
By now, all baseball fans have seen the dramatic shifts teams are using against left-handed power hitters: the third baseman standing somewhere around where the shortstop usually stands, the shortstop somewhere around second base and the second baseman back on the outfield grass.
It’s an attempt to neutralize the left-handed boppers; they can pull the ball if they like, but they’ll pull it right into the teeth of the defense (unless they manage to hit it over that defense). The other option the hitter has is to take what the defense is giving them: a shot at a single the other way.
If the hitter opts for the single, the defense has taken him out of his game: they’ve made him try to do something he probably doesn’t do well. There’s a fair chance he’ll hit the ball poorly. If the lefty power hitter does hit a single to the opposite field and the single doesn’t hurt, the shift may have been worth it. Better than having the ball hit into the cheap seats.
So pay attention when you see one of these shifts: if there’s a runner in scoring position and the hitter takes his opposite field single and a run scores, maybe the shift didn’t pay off. But if the bases are empty and the lefty power hitter takes his single, then clogs the bases — lots of these guys don’t run well — and never comes around to score, maybe the shift was worth it. And be aware that some of these guys are paid to hit the ball in the seats; they never adjust. Even with two strikes, they’ll keep looking for something they can yank. If pitchers make 30 mistakes a year, and these guys don’t miss those mistakes, they’ve earned their paycheck.