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.
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?