The Orioles and Holding Runners: Showalter’s Gambit

The party line is defensive coverage in the three-four hole, but it probably isn’t that simple. Knowing Buck Showalter, some gamesmanship is at play as well.

The Baltimore manager has his first baseman, Chris Davis, playing a few steps off the bag when holding runners. Not just the slow-of-foot — all runners, all the time. The situation doesn’t matter. According to Orioles broadcaster Gary Thorne, the practice began in spring training and has been in place for every game since the start of the season.

Here, see for yourself, as Davis shuffles back to the bag on a pick-off attempt.

OriolesPickoff2.gif.opt

Playing your first baseman off the bag obviously adds to his range. As Davis said, “There are a lot of guys, with a runner on first, who like to shoot the ball through that hole. This makes it easier for me to get off the bag and cover more ground.” Showalter echoed Davis, saying “Chris has good range and we’re trying to take advantage of his skills. The whole idea is to cover as much ground as you can.”

The numbers support the idea that perhaps cutting down on some ground balls through the hole might be worth the risk of losing a few pickoffs. With the bases empty last year, batters posted a .295 BABIP, but with a runner on first base, that jumped to .308. Holding the runner on isn’t the only variable between those two situations — for instance, bad pitchers are more likely to put runners on base, so the population of pitchers in the man-on-first sample is almost certainly worse than the population of pitchers in the bases empty sample — but the less than optimal defensive alignment almost certainly does lead to a greater amount of base hits with a man on first base. After all, the runner on second (.289 BABIP) and runner on third (.291 BABIP) states have the same selection bias issue but still had lower hit rates overall than the bases empty situation.

Perhaps Showalter has decided that it simply is not worth giving up additional hits to keep his first baseman’s foot anchored to the bag. It’s an interesting experiment, to say the least.

Something else Showalter said — and what he wouldn’t say — is where the gamesmanship comes into play. “You create some unknown in the runners mind,” he admitted cagily.

Showalter took pains not to elaborate, but the psychology behind the strategy seems apparent. Much like Joe Maddon’s shifts can create questions in a hitter’s mind, not being held on in a standard fashion puts runners in unfamiliar territory. Can they afford to take a bigger lead? Pitchers can still throw over, which they’ve done this year without incident. If runners can get a jump, are they willing to challenge Matt Wieters‘ arm? The Gold Glove catcher has nabbed four out of five runners attempting to steal so far this season. Asked if Wieters’ defensive ability plays a big role in his strategy, Showalter withheld comment.

Another issue for base runners is that they have to read more than the pitcher‘s move. If Davis leans, or jab steps, toward first base when the pitcher comes to his set, is he positioning to receive a pick-off throw or is he deking? There is no such thing a first baseman’s balk, so he is free to do so. He can also move between the runner and home plate, blocking his vision.

To this point — a grand total of eight games — Showalter’s gambit has been effective. Will it continue throughout the season? Much of that will depend on whether opponents can find a way to take advantage of it. Their scouts have certainly made them aware of what the Orioles are doing, but how will they response? Can they outsmart the crafty Showalter?



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David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from February 2006-March 2011 and is a regular contributor to several publications. His first book, Interviews from Red Sox Nation, was published by Maple Street Press in 2006. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.


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ToddZeile
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ToddZeile
3 years 5 months ago

Pretty sure bobby v’s mets did something similar

Jacob Smith
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Jacob Smith
3 years 5 months ago

Would not expect this to be the first time in history that it has happened. That would be really, really weird if nobody had ever tried this before, since it seems so inherently obvious an idea to give an attempt at.

ZenMadman
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3 years 5 months ago

Yeah, when Todd Zeile was at 1B they used this tactic.

Ruki Motomiya
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Ruki Motomiya
3 years 5 months ago

Hope this idea works out. It seems cool.

Ryu
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Ryu
3 years 5 months ago

Looking forward to seeing how this plays out. A minor correction – Gary Thorne, not Gary Thorn.

Pat
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Pat
3 years 5 months ago

Interesting gambit indeed. Can’t wait to see how this impacts numbers given a larger sample size.

speckops
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speckops
3 years 5 months ago

By my tabulation, the Orioles pitchers had about 1300 balls put into play where the first baseman would have likely been holding the runner on (1–, 12-, 1-3 situations). While this make a difference, I’d be willing to bet that any signal is going to be overwhelmed by the noise of BABIP being BABIP.

speckops
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speckops
3 years 5 months ago

Meant to add: assuming that the Orioles revert to league average with bases empty or league average, they’d probably be saving about 15-25 hits, mostly singles. We probably won’t notice that effect.

Brett
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Brett
3 years 5 months ago

It might not be noticeable but many of those singles result in a total of 3 bases since many runners can make it to 3rd on that play. Not all and doesn’t change the noticability much but if I can prevent a 0 out 1st & 3rd situation (or even 1st & 2nd) in the 8th inning I will.

the sauce
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the sauce
3 years 5 months ago

I don’t feel like doing the math on a phone and I could be way off, but wouldn’t preventing 15-25 singles in a season add up to about 1 or 2 wins worth of value? If so, then why not do it?

What I’d really be interested in is looking at the range component of Chris Davis’ UZR if they keep this up all year. Or, better yet, a first baseman with an established fielding talent level trying it out.

Ruki Motomiya
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Ruki Motomiya
3 years 5 months ago

I think he meant more “it might be hard to measure” rather than “it won’t be worth anything”.

Hank
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Hank
3 years 5 months ago

You should drop the 1st and 2nd situation… I don’t know of any teams that hold runners on at 1st when there is a guy on 2nd (some might cheat the 1st baseman up a little)

Midpoint
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Midpoint
3 years 5 months ago

It increases the uncertainty in the runner’s mind whenever Davis is in front of him. For instance, a noise is heard from the batters area….was it a swinging bunt, a foul tip to the catcher…which way do I go?? Definitely advantage Orioles to cost a runner a step or two.

Evan
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Evan
3 years 5 months ago

Davis has further to move the ball from the catch position to the tag position than he would if he played in a more conventional place. The runner is also more likely to be able to avoid a tag since Davis is reaching behind himself to tag him. On the other hand with this alignment it is less likely that an errant throw to the 2B side will hit the runner, roll away and allow him to advance.

John Roberts
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John Roberts
3 years 5 months ago

Does this increase the risk of injury?

CB
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CB
3 years 5 months ago

I like the jarring, modernistic opening sentence to this article

rustyspatula
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rustyspatula
3 years 5 months ago

It seems to me like the more apt comparison would be “BABIP on grounders” in those baserunner configurations. Other factors, like players swinging for the moon to drive runs home (regardless of how quantifiable it is) or pitchers throwing low for the double play, could change the composition of batted ball types, which would explain the BABIP variation you describe in the post.

BlackSabbathia
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BlackSabbathia
3 years 5 months ago

The words “Showalter’s Gambit” make me think this:

Showalter’s Gambit 1BB Enchantment

If Showalter’s Gambit is in play and a runner is one first, you may assign a -1/0 token to the batter. If you do so, the runner on first receives a 0/+1 token. If Showalter’s Gambit leaves play or the runner on first advances at least one base, remove all tokens created by Showalter’s Gambit.

“You create some unknown in the runners mind.”

Shinriko
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Shinriko
3 years 5 months ago

Looks like someone is excited it is spoiler season.

Inspector Gadget
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Inspector Gadget
3 years 5 months ago

WHY DOES NO ONE MAKE BASEBALL CARDS LIKE THIS

Shibboleth
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Shibboleth
3 years 5 months ago

Gotta love any manger who challenges the other team to test the backstop, especially if he is above average like Wieters. Also, taking a slight edge off the pitchers mind has to count for something, especially with a young rotation.

Baltar
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Baltar
3 years 5 months ago

I like it! I like it! I like it!

algionfriddo
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algionfriddo
3 years 5 months ago

The Mariners opted to go with Wedge over Buck Showalter. Yeesh.
Chris Davis does have good range at 1b, but not very good hands. He actually looked surprisingly good though in the corner OF last year and he has a very good arm too. Whodda thought… other than Buck?
Color me a Showalter fan.

Hank
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Hank
3 years 5 months ago

“Playing your first baseman off the bag obviously adds to his range.”

Does it? Watching the game tonight, I’m not so sure.

Davis is one stride from the base, and is not moving much more when the ball is delivered. I’m not sure he is any farther off the base than the average 1st baseman who moves once the pitch is delivered. Maybe there is some small impact to being set earlier (which helps reaction time?), but I think this is looking for a benefit instead of identifying if it is one.

I also don’t understand why the runners have to read the 1st baseman at all. While he could be a distraction, there is zero “need” to read the 1st baseman – you either come back to first when you see a pitcher start a pickoff move or take a secondary lead when he’s going home. While some less savy runners might get confused, what the 1st baseman is doing is irrelevant.

Finally the BABIP #’s with a guy on 1st are confounded by two other key variables when there are less than 2 out – the position of the 2nd baseman and the position of the SS. I’d suspect these positions influence the BABIP shift much more than the 1st baseman.

I think this is an interesting tactic, but this article seems to be reaching in some areas to make it seem potentially more impactful than it probably is.

Carson
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Carson
3 years 5 months ago

I could see how runners might get mixed up in some situations. Maybe not with a RHP on the mound since they’re only looking at the back foot or whatever their trigger is. But as a runner, if a LHP is staring me down and the 1B makes a move toward the bag, I’m going to be a little less ambitious with my lead.

VeveJones007
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VeveJones007
3 years 5 months ago

Good call, Carson. Pedroia had this exact issue a couple of times when Chen (LHP) was pitching on Monday. Pedroia was in the middle of a step back to 1st every other pitch.

Jamie
Member
Jamie
3 years 5 months ago

Corey Hart did this much of last year, and at a few games at MP I noticed the opposing team’s first baseman doing this as well. First time I noticed it, so it may have started league-wide last season.

wpDiscuz