A right-handed hitter walks to the plate and the left fielder stays straight up—in line with first and second base—but the centerfielder and right fielder shift toward the opposite field side.
It could be the pull-side fielder—the guy in left—stayed put because that’s where the batter will hit a hanging breaking pitch. The center fielder and off-side fielder—the guy in right—are moving toward the opposite field because that’s where the hitter will hit a fastball. If the outfield plays the hitter "away" (to the opposite field) the pitcher needs to pitch him "away" (to the outer part of the plate). If you move your outfield to guard against a ball hit to the opposite field, the pitcher needs to be able to put the ball on the outer half of the plate. If he can’t—if the pitcher’s missing in the middle of the plate or on the inner third—the game plan goes out the window. Sometimes a ball gets hit into an open gap, but it wasn’t poor outfield positioning that was responsible; it was the fact that the pitcher missed his location. If that continues to be the case, the outfielders will just go back to playing straight up because nobody knows where the pitcher will put the ball or where the guy at the plate will hit it—the pitcher and defense can’t coordinate.
Recently I spent some time talking with Royals outfield coach Rusty Kuntz about outfield positioning and, as usual, it’s a lot more complicated than you might think. Outfield depth for instance—Rusty suggested it would be helpful to put hitters in four categories:
Power hitter: 25 home runs or more
Gap to gap hitter: not as many home runs, but enough pop to produce lots of doubles
Contact hitter: a guy who doesn’t have a lot of power, but hits for average
Slap hitter: the type of batter who puts the ball in play and runs like hell
You adjust outfield depth based on what kind of hitter you’re defending. With Toronto’s Jose Bautista, you play deep. Bautista’s got lots of power and if he drops a flare in front of you, live with it. You want to catch those deep drives that would go for extra bases and do extra damage if you played in. If Jarrod Dyson’s at the plate you play shallow. Jarrod makes a living hitting the ball just over the infield and if he catches one and puts it over your head; you played the best odds available and lost—you live with that.
Outfielders also might move by the count: if a hitter is ahead in the count he might be more likely to try to get the bat head out in front on a 2-0 fastball and wind up pulling the ball and hitting it hard. The same hitter might take a totally different swing 0-2: now he’s trying to let the ball travel deep in the zone so he doesn’t get fooled and that means he’s much more likely to hit the ball to the opposite field; now a flare is more likely.
But you’ve got to know the hitter.
Some guys have no two-strike approach. If a guy makes a living putting the ball in the cheap seats, he might keep doing it with two strikes—he won’t try going the other way. His job is to find 30 mistake-pitches a year and hit them out of the park. But, according to Rusty, there are way too many guys who can’t hit 30 home runs a year doing the same thing. Even though they have two strikes, they don’t choke up, they don’t spread their feet out, they don’t try to go the other way.
Guys without power-hitter ability should have a two-strike approach. As Rusty said; if you’re not going to hit 30 home runs, try hitting .300 instead. Fans can see what Rusty is talking about: once a hitter has two strikes does he choke up? Does he spread his feet out to simplify his swing? Does he try hitting the ball to the opposite field? You can see this stuff and know whether the guy is making a two-strike adjustment, then look at the scoreboard and know whether he’s the kind of hitter who should.
Outfield positioning is no big secret: everybody has spray charts, everybody can walk to plate and see the where the defense sets up. Very few guys have enough bat control to see a gap in right center and aim for it—in Rusty’s day Rod Carew could do it, Miguel Cabrera can do it today—but most guys don’t have that kind of bat control. But theycan
tell how they’re going to be pitched by looking at the outfield defense. (Be aware that a hitter might take the ball the other way when he hits it in the air, but pull it when he hits it on the ground.) If a hitter sees the outfield playing him away he knows he’s probably going to be pitched away. The pitcher might show him a pitch in—out of the strike zone—but stay away with the pitches he wants the batter to put in play.
Rusty and I stood down by first base and talked for quite a while about outfield positioning; we were nowhere near finished talking when it was time for him to go do something else. I get the feeling this is a going to be a long conversation.
But if a fan pays attention to the outfield positioning as each hitter comes to the plate, he’ll have a better idea of what the pitcher trying to do—and when he fails to do it.