Judging the Royals

Which outfield position is hardest to play and why is Jorge Soler playing it?

Royals outfielder Jorge Soler was in left field Tuesday when he couldn’t make a play on a ball that ended up as a triple for the Diamondbacks.
Royals outfielder Jorge Soler was in left field Tuesday when he couldn’t make a play on a ball that ended up as a triple for the Diamondbacks. jsleezer@kcstar.com

Ask people who don’t play baseball for a living which outfield position is the hardest to play and they’re likely to say right field; after all, right field has that long throw to third base.

Ask Royals outfield coach Rusty Kuntz which outfield position is the hardest to play and he’ll say left field.

Ask Rusty why and the answer is interesting.

Left-handed hitters tend to be low-ball hitters and to hit a low pitch you need to use a lot of bottom hand and that puts backspin on the ball and that produces balls in the air: fly balls, pop-ups and flares.

Right-handed hitters tend to be high-ball hitters and to hit a high pitch you need to use a lot of top hand and that puts topspin on the ball and that produces sinking line drives.

So when a hitter pulls the ball, there’s a good chance right fielders will have more time to get under the ball while left fielders will be faced with more sinking liners.

But if left field is the toughest field to play, why are the Royals tinkering with having Jorge Soler play that position while their Gold Glove outfielder Alex Gordon plays right?

Last season the Royals had more balls hit toward right field than left

In 2016 right-handed hitters facing Royals pitchers pulled the ball in 589 at bats, left-handed hitters went to the opposite field in 281 at bats; so 870 balls were hit in the direction of left field.

In 2016 lefties pulled the ball in 694 at bats, righties went to the opposite field in 515 at bats; so 1,209 balls were hit in the direction of right field.

You might want Gordon in right field because last year more balls were hit in that direction.

Right fielders need to charge the ball more aggressively than left fielders

Outfielders who aren’t athletic tend to play deep because it’s easier to come forward on a ball than go back. That being the case, guys who lack confidence tend to back up. A flare will fall in front of them for a hit and it makes the pitcher looks bad, but it was actually the positioning of the outfielder that allowed the ball to drop.

Right fielders do have that long throw to third, so it’s important for them to charge ground balls in front of them and shorten that throw as much as possible; left fielders can lay back a bit more.

Even though he plays left field, Gordon is terrific at charging the ball, so that’s one more reason to put Gordon in right — at times.

The ballpark will make a difference

The Royals open the season in Minnesota against the Twins. In Target Field the right-field foul pole is 328 from home plate and right center is 367 feet away; the left-field foul pole is 339 feet from home plate and left center is 377 feet away.

After three games in Minnesota the Royals will move on to Houston for their second series. In Minute Maid Park the right-field foul pole is 326 feet away from home plate and right center is 373 feet away; the left-field foul pole is 315 feet from home plate and left center is 362 feet away.

Just in case you haven’t had your first cup of coffee yet and those numbers didn’t sink in: in Minnesota left field is bigger than right, in Houston right field is bigger than left.

So you might see Soler in right field when the Royals play in Minnesota and Soler in left when the Royals play in Houston.

Conclusion

Right about now it would be highly convenient if I had one, but I don’t. Unlike a whole lot of people, I don’t think I’m smarter than the people who play, coach and manage baseball for a living.

Dayton Moore, Ned Yost and Rusty Kuntz will figure out how they want to handle Soler and what position he’ll play; all I wanted to do is give you some of the reasons behind the decisions they’ll make.

Left field is the hardest outfield position to play, but if you see Jorge Soler playing it, now you know why.

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