(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.
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?