A hitter steps to the plate while the outfield coach stands on the top step of the dugout and waves his hands in the air. The coach is repositioning the outfield and If you pay attention you can get a decent idea of what the pitcher is about to throw to the batter.
Here’s how it works:
Take a look at where the outfielders are standing. There are two lines and two gaps and an outfield defense can cover three out of four. That means—most of the time—you’ll see a big wedge of undefended territory down a line or in one of the gaps. Which area is left unprotected is decided by the pitcher on the mound and the hitter at the plate.
If you see a ball hit into that unprotected area, you probably just saw a pitcher miss location—the ball was not supposed to be hit there. And if you see an outfielder race over and make a diving catch in that unprotected area, you’ll probably also see a pitcher wait and give that outfielder a high five—the outfielder just saved the pitcher’s bacon (which is not really the word I wanted to use).
But what if you see the outfielders playing straight up?
If there’s no discernable gap in the outfield—if the outfielders are evenly spaced— there’s a good chance the pitcher on the mound doesn’t really know where the ball is going. The defense can’t shift much because nobody knows if the pitch will wind up on the inner half of the plate or a foot outside.
For an example of how outfield defense is supposed to work, let’s take a look at how teams sometimes defend Derek Jeter.
When the Yankee’s shortstop comes to the plate, you might see the right fielder close to the right field line, the centerfielder shaded toward the right-center gap and the left fielder playing straight up. The undefended part of the field is the left-center gap. It doesn’t mean Jeter neverhits
a ball there, it just means with this outfield alignment the pitcher wants him to hit the ball elsewhere.
Jeter tries to inside-out the ball (hit the inner half) and that will send the ball toward right field. Bust Jeter in with fastballs and if he hits the ball to right, it should be fairly weak; the pitch location keeps him from extending his arms. Any ball poorly hit to the right side means the pitcher did his job. But if the ball is hit hard to the right side the pitcher probably left a fastball out over the plate; Jeter extended his arms and drove a bad pitch.
So what about left field?
The left fielder plays straight up because that’s where Jeter will hit a hung off-speed pitch. Pitchers mightshow
Jeter off-speed, but they want to throw those pitches out of the zone. Back when I had all this explained to me I was told that if Jeter hit a ball between the left fielder and the left field line, it would be on a hung breaking pitch. As I recall, Jeter had three extra base hits in that series and all came on off-speed pitches thrown in a bad location.
Defensive positioning starts with the pitcher: he tells the infield and outfield coach how he intends to pitch each hitter and the coaches position the defenders accordingly. Be aware that the outfield might play a guy to go the other way while the infield is playing the same hitter to pull. That’s because when guys hit groundballs, generally speaking, they’re more likely to hit those groundballs to the pull side of the field.
This all sounds pretty scientific until you find out pitchers sometimes to decide to go away from their game plan without telling anyone. They get in a bind and suddenly decide to zig when they told everyone they would zag. That can screw over the defense—they won’t be standing where they’re needed. Say the pitcher tells everyone he’s going to throw fastballs away to the 4-hole hitter if he gets two strikes on the guy. Then the pitcher changes his mind, throws a changeup and leaves it up in the zone. When the 4-hole hitter pulls that pitch—and he probably will—there won’t be anyone there to catch the ball.
And a hitter can beat the defense and pitcher by doing something out of the ordinary: if a guy normally doesn’t go down the right field line and then for some reason does, he’s got a great chance of dropping in a base hit—they won’t defense that part of the field.
Here’s yet another thing you need to think about:
With two strikes some hitters will try to wait longer so they won’t get fooled. If that’s the case the outfield needs to shift a bit whenever the pitcher gets two strikes on that particular hitter. And try this one: say a hitter is in a 3-2 count—how he got there matters. I’ve been told that if a hitter was 0-2 and battled back to 3-2, he’s feeling good about himself and his at-bat—he’s more likely to pull the ball. If he was 3-0 and now finds himself in a full count—he’s feeling defensive and is more likely to hit the ball the other way.
And you also need to pay attention to the velocity of a pitcher’s fastball; if a hitter can’t get around on Yordano Ventura, the defense will probably leave the pull-side line open. When the same hitter faces Bruce Chen, the defense is more likely to play that hitter to pull.
Once you begin to understand outfield defense and how it works with the pitching, a routine fly ball becomes a marvel of strategy and execution. Pay attention to outfield positioning and it can tell you a lot.
"Throwback: A Big League Catcher Tells How the Game Is Really Played" is an inside look at our national pastime, co-authored by Jason Kendall and Lee Judge. The book will be in stores on May 13th, but can be pre-ordered right now.