On a recent Sunday morning, just before a game against the Chicago White Sox, Royals outfielder Alex Gordon sat at his locker and studied a 3x5 card.
The card listed Chicago’s lineup and bench players and was divided into two categories: It told the Royals left fielder where he should position himself when the Royals had a right-handed pitcher on the mound, and where he should position himself when the Royals had a left-handed pitcher on the mound.
Those categories were subdivided into positioning before the hitter had two strikes on him and after the hitter had two strikes; that’s necessary because some hitters alter their approach once they get into a two-strike count.
Gordon doesn't carry the card with him to the outfield. He memorizes the card before the game starts. But some of the Royals' outfielders carry them in their back pockets or keep them in their hat and refer to them during games.
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Royals outfield coach Mitch Maier was happy to share what's on the cards — he said the team's outfield positioning isn’t a secret. All an opposing team has to do is look at the field to know what the Royals are doing.
There are a couple of keys to deciphering the cards.
If a box next to a hitter’s name says “ST,” that means straight up; if you drew a line between first and second base and continued that line into the outfield, and the left fielder stood on that line, that would be straight-up positioning.
“L” stands for line, and “G” stands for gap. The number that follows indicates how many steps in that direction the outfielder should position himself. “G-1” would tell the left fielder to move one step toward the left-center gap.
A white background indicates straight-up positioning; green means the outfielder isn’t playing straight up; and red means the outfielder should also play in. If a Royals outfielder gets confused, he can always look at Maier in the dugout and get help with his positioning.
That’s what the cards are.
Here’s how they’re created.
The Royals' analytics department supplies Maier with “heat maps” — color-coded charts showing where the opposing hitters tend to hit the ball. Cool colors indicate few balls hit into that area; warm colors indicate more balls hit into that area. But heat maps are only the beginning.
The heat maps might represent hundreds of at-bats against all the pitchers the hitter faced during a given time period. They give Maier an overall idea of where opposing batters tend to hit the ball.
But then he looks at specific matchups with the Royals' pitchers. For instance, where do opposing hitters tend to hit the ball when Danny Duffy is on the mound?
If the sample size is too small to draw conclusions, Maier can look for “similars” — left-handed pitchers who have similar stuff to Duffy's. That can help Maier decide where to place the Royals' outfielders when Duffy is pitching.
The matchups can get even more specific.
Say Royals pitcher Ian Kennedy likes to throw a back-foot slider to a certain left-handed batter once he has that hitter in a two-strike count. If Kennedy gets the slider down and toward the hitter’s back foot, he’s got a great chance of getting a swing and miss. But if Kennedy misses his spot and leaves the slider up and over the plate, the hitter will pull that off-speed pitch down the right-field line.
It’s Maier's job to make sure the Royals have an outfielder standing there when the ball comes down.
Hitters do not remain constant; they go through hot and cold streaks.
So advance scouts watch the teams the Royals are about to play and report back. A hitter might have a history of hitting balls up the middle and the other way, but right now he’s pulling the ball. The advanced scouting reports go into the mix of information used to decide positioning.
The radar gun
A pitcher's velocity can also affect the outfielders’ positioning.
It depends on the pitcher. Kennedy might throw a 92 mph fastball, but because of movement and deception, hitters react like it’s 96 mph. Another pitcher might actually throw 96, but because his fastball lacks movement and deception, hitters react like it’s 92.
Outfielders can’t just look at the radar gun and decide where to stand.
Know your enemy
Maier said it was interesting to see how other teams positioned themselves against the Royals' hitters; some teams would play a Kansas City hitter to pull, while another team might play the same hitter to go up the middle or the other way.
Former Royals outfield coach Rusty Kuntz said a divisional opponent would probably do a better job of positioning than a team the Royals see only once in interleague play. The divisional opponent would have a better idea of how to play them. Theoretically, the positioning in the third game of a series should be better than the positioning in the first game.
Appreciating what you have
One night, former big-league umpire Steve Palermo and I were watching a Royals game that wasn’t going well.
At one point during the game, he turned to me and said, “You know what? In this entire country, there are only 15 big-league baseball games being played tonight, and we’re lucky enough to be at one of them.”
The Royals' season has not started well. They have a losing record. But borrowing from Palermo's point of view, only 30 cities in the entire country have a baseball team, and Kansas City is lucky enough to be one of them. Palermo is gone now, but his words of wisdom live on: Until things get better, Royals fans should enjoy the game for what it is.
Even if your team loses, every game contains moments worth watching. And once you know a little more about outfield positioning and the work that goes into it, a routine fly ball to an outfielder can be one of them.