The Nine-Man Defense

(Author’s note: This is the first of a series in nontraditional tactics that may be advantageous in a one-game playoff scenario)

It certainly wouldn’t be earth-shattering for me to tell you about baseball being heaped in tradition.  In fact, to most of us, that’s the appeal.  The tradition. The consistency. The ability to reconnect with old times, making the comparisons between Manny Machado and Brooks Robinson without fear of having to factor in the large changes of the game.  The traditionalists out there, the ones who surely disagree with interleague play, and maybe even the designated hitter, make up a large part of the viewing audience.  Unfortunately for them, this article is probably not for them.

With the way that sports have evolved in the past few years, the future seems to be innovation.  In football, there was the Wildcat Offense, which was only outlasted by the (similarly gimmicky) Spread Offense.  Of course, who can forget New Orleans opting to onside kick to begin the second half of the Super Bowl, something that “common sense” would dictate is a terrible idea?  Meanwhile in hockey, Uwe Krupp, coach of the German national team has decided that when on 5 on 3 power play, he will pull their goalie.  While football and hockey are more prone to innovation, it is surprising that, for the most part, baseball offense and defense is almost exactly the same as it was in 1950.  Or even 1900.  Sure, the traditionalists will cite the Designated Hitter, the rise of the relief pitcher who exists solely to get one out, the Joe Maddon-esque shifting that seems so prevalent.  However, the shifts that we’ve seen have assumed the traditional positioning of defensive elements.

It’s time to change that.

Now, like I have mentioned, what I’m about to propose is extremely radical. The reactions I’ve gotten from people I’ve told is twofold: one group telling me that I’m an idiot and it would never work; the other telling me that I should write a letter to the manager of my favorite MLB team to ensure success in a one-game playoff (likely the best venue for such a suggestion).

It’s simple.  Move the catcher.  For lack of a better name, we’ll call it the nine-man defense.

“What on Earth are you talking about, the catcher can’t move, he’s there to call pitches, position his glove, and of course catch the ball!”

Relax, traditionalists.  I realize the problems.  The passed third strike or fourth ball, the runners on base concerns.  This isn’t about that.

However, we’ve all surely seen the following: fewer than three balls or two strikes, the pitch is in the dirt, skipping past the catcher, and the ball is replaced by the umpire.

Did you see that sequence?  The catcher did nothing.  He sat there, providing marginal defensive benefit, while he could have been occupying valuable defensive space.

“Okay, but the rulebook says that’s how it has to be!”

Not exactly.  The rule book only has a couple of fleeting references to the role of the catcher, surprisingly.  The first is Rule 1.12 which cites that the catcher is allowed to have a different glove than most other positional players and section 1.16 which permits a protective mask.  You’ll note a complete absence of a mention requiring that a catcher be in the catcher’s position for every pitch.  Remove the mask and the glove, and your catcher is just your run of the mill positional player.  The chest protector and knee pads, according to the rules, may remain on.  The second section (rulebook owners or adept googlers, refer to section 4.03) references the requirement that only the catcher is permitted to be positioned in foul territory during an at-bat, and that the catcher must be positioned behind home plate.  However, that does not say that a catcher is a REQUIRED fielder. I’ll leave it up to the Joe Maddons of the world to determine the optimal position of the catcher, my initial suggestion would be to place him near first base, and shift the second baseman to directly behind the bag, while moving the first baseman to the previous position of the second baseman.  Perhaps there would be more value in a fourth outfielder,  that discussion is beyond the scope of this hypothetical discussion.

The 9 man defense, with fewer than 3 balls or 2 strikes and no runners on.


So that’s it.  That’s all the rules have to say about the catcher.  It’s almost silly how few references there are to the role of the catcher in the rulebook.

“Okay, Chris.  I acknowledge that there may be some value to this, but I just have to think there are entirely too many downfalls.”

As I see it, there are quite a few downfalls to the approach.  The balance of trade on these downfalls as compared to the opportunity will be left up  to you.

One: The associated hassle of moving the catcher from “behind the plate” to “in the field” and back (once a third ball or second strike has been thrown, or a baserunner has gotten on base.)  Of course, baseball has had to deal with the complaints about long games, this does absolutely nothing to rectify it.  In fact, every pitch flying to the backstop might frustrate everyone involved.  Which is why it would have to be done in a one-game playoff type scenario (or series deciding game), segueing us perfectly to downside number two.

Two: The rules committee  would come down hard on this loophole after the first application of the nine-man defense.  There’s no getting around this.  This is a nuclear defense.  It’s only to be used in the most critical of situations.  Indeed, even the on-field crew may have difficulty in permitting it, which brings us to point number three.

Three: The poor home-plate umpire is just left behind the plate to have to somehow deal with being directly thrown at with 90-100 MPH pitches.  I feel sorry for the umpires, and this may be why I’ve gotten a less-than-receptive response from the MLB umpires I have contacted. My only remedy to this issue is a simple one: the umpire move to the side…or work on his reflexes.

Four: The defending team is now susceptible to a bunt.  Now, this may seem the case, but with a fifth infielder, the corner players would be able to play a lot closer in on the infield without worrying about range as much.  The additional infielder perhaps discourages the practice of bunting by having true fielders located along the baselines in a position to better field bunts.  In fact, it may make the fielding of bunts simpler without the opportunity for the pitcher to collide with the catcher running out from behind the plate to field a ball.

Five: The relatively minor concerns about pitch selection and positioning.  It may take some time for a pitcher to adjust, given a lifetime of throwing pitches to a target, but it is not unreasonable to think that pitches could be called from the dugout, or even the catcher positioned in the field.  As for targeting, I would hope that is something that the team would address with their pitching staff before implementing such a plan.

That’s it.  For many, even the non-traditionalists, I realize this is a quantum leap in the defensive mentality of baseball teams, normally limited to an infield shift, or the ever-so-rare 5-infielder-2-outfielder-hope-to-keep-the-ball-in-the-infield-to-save-the-game-in-the-ninth defense.  And sure, the rules committee may take exception, but in a one-game playoff, which MLB has tacitly admitted an affinity for (by forcing an annual one-game playoff), this seems like it would certainly cause a buzz about October baseball.  And after all, isn’t that the point?

Okay FanGraphs, what do you guys think?

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28, Baltimore Orioles fan living in Phoenix (for now). My wife advises me to tell everyone I'm married. I run and in my spare time, which practically doesn't exist.

26 Responses to “The Nine-Man Defense”

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  1. Reddickulous says:

    Interesting. I had mused about this before, but always assumed there was something in the rules about it, so thank you for the information.

    The biggest issue I see is the calling of balls and strikes by the umpire. Short of squatting behind a SWAT-style windowed shield, I think it’s a practical impossibility.

    It’s interesting to think that if this became an accepted practice that the counter-move would be players skilled at making the shortest, softest bunts possible. The pitcher would either have to field it himself, or else your C/3B/1B would have to play so far towards the plate that any defensive value of having an extra infielder would be minimized.

    What value could they provide but the ability to catch screaming liners or knock down ground balls? Wait a second… EUREKA! The next-next level: the soccer style human wall just in front of the batter’s box! Someone get Joe Maddon on the phone!

    • Paul says:

      The catcher is still allowed to wear his equipment…he can stand right in front of the plate and block hits if you can convince him to.

      • alfons bedoya says:

        No use crying “that’s not cricket” ( in any case a poor choice of phrase here)….in cricket there is just such a player, called “silly mid-off”, no equipment though.

  2. Anon says:

    I think you are underestimating the possible difference in strike zone. Without a computer automated ball/strike system, this could have a large effect.

    Also, I agree with the previous reply. A soft bunt that is just in front of the plate is likely a hit. This is an easy out with a catcher due to his momentum being in the right direction and having time to throw at a good angle. Both of those benefits are lost with a pitcher fielding.

  3. Michael Barr says:

    I think rule 4.03 might be tough to get past. 4.03 (a) actually states very specifically – The catcher shall station himself directly back of the plate. He may leave his position at any time to catch a pitch or make a play except that when the batter is being given an intentional base on balls, the catcher must stand with both feet within the lines of the catcher’s box until the ball leaves the pitcher’s hand. Pentalty: balk.

    There are others, but that one seems pretty clear.

  4. Chris Ford says:

    Reddickulous – I agree that a bunt is likely the best counter to this defense. That being said, the dramatic shifts that we’ve seen more and more frequently in MLB also lend themselves to being defeated by the bunt but bunts are infrequent because managers value their players swinging the bat over taking the easy single (though the value of that one can definitely argue). As I tried to get to in Figure 1, I would likely move my C (playing 1B) and 3B in rather close, then shade the middle infielders out a little bit, since there is less of a range concern with a defender behind second base.

    Michael – I agree that 4.03 is likely the sticking point, but that seems open to interpretation. Rule 2 states that, “The CATCHER is the fielder who takes his position back of the home base.” but does not state that the catcher is a required fielder. 4.03 (a) reads as you mentioned above. I can see how there is an implication that this position is required, but the rule book stops short of stating that specifically. In fact, they even use the word “shall” instead of “must,” which I think is an interesting use of terminology. And again, like I said in the article, the rules committee would come down with an APPROVED RULING: in about 15 minutes after the game was completed, so one would likely only be able to get away with this exactly once.

    Overall, this is likely an academic discussion because I think the conversation would go like this:

    Manager: I will be moving my catcher to the field and he will be removing his required equipment per Rules 1.12 and 1.16.

    Umpire: Like hell you will

    Manager: I’d like to play the remainder of this game under protest

    Umpire: Sure, whatever you want

    League (after game): Protest request denied.

    • Rick Rivas says:

      Enjoyed your article on several levels. Probably the most interesting aftermath of the article is the ensuing legal semantics game that it stimulates. But this is a correct response because laws and rules are created, defined, and improved by being tested with argumentation.

      I believe that the “shall” of this rule is a normative shall as applied to laws, rules, and directives; it is a must. Also, moving the catcher to another part of the field assumes the existence of a catcher on the playing field (out of his legal position). The best way to attempt this (for legal and defensive purposes) would be to remove the catcher from the game and replace him with a utility infielder on the bench who would give you a better legal argument and a better defensive option (speed for bunts, range for groundballs).

    • Henry says:

      I agree with the above about 4.03(a) — does seem pretty solid to me. Additionally, 4.03(c) reads “Except the pitcher and the catcher, any fielder may station himself anywhere in fair territory,” which seems pretty clear about the catcher’s inability to move.
      I get that your argument is that the catcher isn’t a required position, but as far as I’m aware, no position is explicitly required, right? And that includes the pitcher, since rule 2 similarly defines the pitcher without stating he’s a required fielder, but the game cannot continue without a pitcher — the actions required to play the game can’t be taken. I think based on that the umpire can clearly require a pitcher to be a player, and similarly, without a catcher, the act of pitching (and specifically calling balls and strikes) really isn’t possible, so I think there is a strong “legal” case to be made that this isn’t an allowable move. Really interesting article though!

  5. J. Cross says:

    I like the *way* out of the box thinking here. I was going to advocate sticking a fielder directly in front of the batter fully blocking his view (and hopefully diving out of the way at the last minute) but sadly this violates some rule about not distracting the batter. I’m wondering if at some point some manager could object to a fielder playing directly behind the pitcher based on this same principle.

  6. Casey says:

    Loved the article. I also wanted to throw something out there in the realm of non traditional tactics.

    I wrote about this a couple of years ago and was asked to stop smoking crack at my keyboard (please confirm insanity). I believe managers (especially AL managers) should utilize first inning defensive replacements during away games. Ideally, managers would submit lineup cards with their best bench hitters batting 1st, 2nd, or 3rd when the bench hitters are better offensive options than the regulars. In practice, this would result in some managers submitting a card with Jason Giambieqsue batting 2nd. Giambiesque would then be replaced by the Cosart/BJ Upton (that said manager insists on batting 1st or 2nd) in the middle of the first.

    There are a couple obvious issues with this. One is the shortened roster, though this is less important to teams with a DH and even smaller for NL and AL teams in September. I also imagine managers would object to not having their bench slugger available for a high leverage situation (though it may never come). Perhaps use of this tactic would encourage teams to carry more than one DH type.

    As far as the rulebook is concerned, the only restriction is placed on NL pitchers (who must face at least one batter before any substitution).


    • Casey says:

      *The same rule applies to AL pitchers.

    • Dan Ugglas Forearm says:

      I think the issue is that you’re using your best bench hitter when the leverage is pretty low. Would you like a solo homer to make it 1-0 in the first, or save the potential for a homer that may mean more later in the game? It’s obviously not that simple, but I think for that role, the leverage plays into their at bats more than usual. Another thing is that bench hitters probably face more relievers, and probably have a better chance of getting some fastballs from 2-pitch relievers that believe they can pump their fastball by anybody (I’ve got nothing to actually back that up). But guys like Evan Gattis, for example, are best used in high leverage ABs against relievers with fewer offerings to keep hitters off balance. Bench players are probably there because they have more limited batting profiles, just as relievers probably have more limited repertoires.

      In sum, would you rather have your best bench bat face Yu Darvish or Tanner Scheppers?

      • Henry says:

        This gets into the question of the actual value of things like running up the pitch count and getting into the opponent’s bullpen — I know some authors on Fangraphs have said studies have shown that bullpen pitchers are generally more effective than starters, but I haven’t seen any of them personally. (A link would be nice!) But my point is I don’t think it’s totally clear cut who you would rather have your best bench bat face — for every time it’s Yu Darvish or Tanner Scheppers, it could also be Felix Doubront or Koji Uehara.

    • leapfrog says:

      Earl Weaver used to do exactly this with Mark Belanger. Write in a better hitter as his starting shortstop and leadoff man. Then bring in Belanger for the bottom of the 1st.

      Easier to do with the smaller bullpens of the day allowing for larger benches. That and a manager who didn’t mind pissing off one of his own players.

  7. AD says:

    I like the way of thinking that leads to ideas like this.

    In passing, you mentioned the matter of timing of baseball games. On that I would add the aside that baseball doesn’t really take any longer than any of the other major sports, and it packs more action time than football.

  8. Dan Ugglas Forearm says:

    I think the biggest issue would be the umpires. Until balls and strikes are determined by computers, I don’t think MLB will stand for this type of alignment. Also, the rule Michael Barr brings up makes it seem like the rule book somewhat clearly prohibits this alignment, though I’m sure you could find a way to make it work. It would be fun to see the added value of versatility in this instance. Sure, moving a catcher to 1B is easy, but could a 1B handle even a small gap in the hole? Would there be lost benefit having a left-handed 1B making a play to his right, in the occasion the now-shifted 2B can’t get there? The Allen Craig’s of the world could pop into the OF in a cinch. Evan Gattis could catch, play 1B, and OF in the same inning, potentially. I’d love to see it, but I’m not sure it’s feasible.

    I think there are other effective ways to shift, though, that I would like to see in a game. We’ll use the Braves as an example, not only because they’re the team I watch the most, but because they have two defenders that would make this ideal. But if there is a pull-heavy lefty at the plate, why not move Andrelton Simmons over to 2B, or at least on that side of the bag, and have him patrol that entire area? If there is a pull-heavy righty hitting, why not move Jason Heyward to LF for that batter? Surely there can’t be rules limiting those switches. I’m sure using two Fielding Bible winners (or one soon-to-be winner) as examples is somewhat extreme. But it is available.

    • harpago17 says:

      While I think the rule that Michael Barr mentions would prevent the use of the catcher this way, I do like the idea of moving other players around the field. I could easily see a situation where a ground ball has a huge advantage that it might make sense to play with either 5 infielders and 2 outfielders or 4 outfielders and 3 infielders (in fact, one team used to do this with their 2nd baseman back when McGwire was playing; they moved the 2b to right-center and played a softball style 4 outfielders). But in a situation where a double-play would GREATLY increase your chances of winning, wouldn’t it be great if you could call in your left-fielder to play behind the 2nd base bag, ensuring that no groundballs get through?

  9. Paul says:

    Should there be any concern about fielding throws to first with a catchers’ mitt instead of a first baseman’s?

  10. Justin says:

    Just swing three times and run to first base. Easy game.

  11. Old Blue says:

    The rules also do not state that a pitcher is a required position. Trying to play the game without either and could easily be deemed making a travesty of the game.

    Lets say you can get the umpire to allow this re-positioning. How do you get past the first batter? 3 strikes or 4 balls and he’s scoring. You’ll never get an out.

  12. Tim says:

    I’ve been wondering about this lately for a reason nobody has mentioned: limiting concussions. I think the nattering about reducing catcher concussions is inevitably pointless and that 20 years from now we may see baseball played without catchers at all.

  13. The Wawyard O says:

    Can’t umps award or punish teams if they delay? Rampant catcher repositioning could yield said sanctions.