Judging the Royals

Baseball 101: How to read an outfield defense

National League All-Star third baseman San Francisco Giants Pablo Sandoval watched his triple to right field during the 2012 All-Star Game.
National League All-Star third baseman San Francisco Giants Pablo Sandoval watched his triple to right field during the 2012 All-Star Game. The Kansas City Star

In 2012, the All-Star Game was held in Kansas City. In the top of the first inning, Pablo Sandoval hit a bases-loaded triple and that’s when it dawned on me that the Midsummer Classic was not baseball played at its highest level.

Sandoval was at the plate batting left-handed and the pitcher, Justin Verlander, threw an 81 mph curve for a strike. The right fielder, Jose Bautista, was playing off the line. So when Sandoval pulled the 81 mph curve down that right-field line, there was no defender in the vicinity.

There’s little time to coordinate pitching and defense before an All-Star Game, so the outfielders played straight up, while the pitchers continued to throw pitches their defense couldn’t defend.

The Midsummer Classic was a glorified pick-up game.

Outfield positioning; look for the open area

Most of what I’m about to write comes straight from Royals outfield coach Rusty Kuntz, so if I get anything wrong, it’s his fault and Rusty doesn’t much care what I write, so I think we’re all set.

The outfield has four open areas: two gaps, left and right-center, and two lines, left field and right field. According to Rusty, outfielders can cover three of the four open areas.

With a right-handed hitter at the plate, let’s say you push the defenders over to the pull side of the field. The left fielder will be able to cover the left-field line, the left fielder and center fielder will cover the left-center field gap, the center and right fielder will cover the right-center gap and the right-field line will be wide open.

Since the pitcher doesn’t want the ball hit down the right-field line, he shouldn’t throw fastballs away to a right-handed hitter, unless he’s pretty confident the hitter will pull the ball, or off-speed pitches to a left-handed hitter. The pitcher can show those pitches to the hitters, but they should be off the plate.

Whenever you see a big gap in the outfield, the ball should not be hit there; if it is, the pitcher made a mistake.

When you see an outfielder run a long way into an open gap and make a catch, the pitcher will tip his cap; he made a mistake and the outfielder covered for him.

The Jeter defense

When outfield positioning was first explained to me, the Royals defensive positioning against Derek Jeter was used as an example. I have no idea where my car keys are right now, but for some reason I remember how the Royals tried to defend Jeter.

The Royals believed Jeter would try to hit the ball to the opposite field, so they pushed their center fielder and right fielder toward the right-field line. The Royals pitchers would then throw Jeter inside fastballs; they wanted him to hit the ball to the right side, but didn’t want Jeter to get his arms extended.

If Jeter hit a weak grounder or flare toward right field, the pitcher had done his job; if Jeter drove the ball to right, the pitcher had left a fastball out over the plate.

So how about left field?

The Royals had Alex Gordon play straight up in left and, since the other two outfielders were pushed to the opposite field, that meant the open area was the left-center gap.

With Jeter trying to go to right field, the Royals didn’t think he’d pull a fastball to left; Gordon was playing straight up in case a pitcher made a mistake with an off-speed pitch. The Royals would show Jeter off-speed, but it was supposed to be off the plate and unhittable. But if a Royals pitcher hung a slider, Gordon would be in the right vicinity.

This defense — center and the off-side outfielder pushed to the opposite field, while the pull-side outfielder plays straight up — is a common one and when you see it, now you’ll know how the pitcher plans to attack the hitter.

What if the outfield is straight up?

Draw a line between first and second base, continue that line into left field for 70 to 75 steps and you have arrived at the right fielder’s straight-up position.

Make a similar line between third and second base, continue into the outfield 70 to 75 steps and you have arrived at the left fielder’s straight-up position. Make the same kind of line between home and second, continue for 70 to 75 steps and you’re standing in the center fielder’s straight-up position (although the center fielder has to stand a little off line so he can see past the pitcher).

Before games, some outfielder will walk this off and drop a handful of sunflower seeds to mark the straight-up position.

If you see the outfield playing straight up, here’s why: the pitcher doesn’t know where the ball is going.

Since the pitcher doesn’t know if the ball will end up on the inside corner of the plate or the outside corner of the plate, the outfielders don’t know if the hitter will pull the ball or go the other way. So outfielders play straight up; ready to go to their left or right.

And with some pitchers on the mound, the outfield will play straight up first time through the order and, if the pitcher shows he can hit the mitt that day, start shifting the later in the game.

According to Rusty, the Houston Astros outfielders can play extreme shifts because the Houston Astros pitchers hit the mitt.

When you look at a metric that allows you to see how far an outfielder ran to catch the ball, remember: to do well in that category, an outfielder has to be out of position or a pitcher has to make a mistake.

Outfielders that are correctly positioned, playing behind a pitcher who hits the mitt, won’t have to run a long way to make a catch and won’t get as many chances to demonstrate their range.

Distance covered is not a category you want to dominate.

If you can read the defense, can’t the hitters?

A look at outfield positioning gives you a pretty good idea of how hitters will be pitched and hitters aren’t blind.

Derek Jeter knew exactly how the Royals planned to pitch him, so the real question was whether the pitcher would leave a fastball out over the plate that could be driven to right field, or hang an off-speed pitch that could be driven to left.

Jeter could take one look at the outfield and know what to expect and now, so can you.

Friday: How to read an infield defense.