The Next Big Thing in Defense?

On Tuesday, in Grapefruit League play, those in Clearwater, Fla., witnessed what might possibly represent the future of defensive alignment. They at least saw how aggressive and creative first-year Phillies manager Gabe Kapler is prepared to be.

As Matt Gelb reported for The Athletic, non-roster invite outfielder Collin Cowgill and Tommy Joseph (who is playing some outfield this spring) were told before the game that, if Tigers switch-hitting prospect Victor Reyes batted left-handed, they would swap corner-outfield positions. Reyes did bat left-handed, and when he did, Cowgill and Joseph swapped their positions mid-inning.

While I don’t have video evidence to offer as proof, there is a box score that recorded this curiosity for posterity.

Per Gelb, it seems as though the Phillies are considering this as a regular practice.

“This is not one of those situations that will catch the opposition by surprise,” Kapler, the rookie manager, said. “It’s actually not a brand-new concept. It’s just more straightforward. It’s putting a guy who has a really good defensive capability in the spot where you think the ball is going to go. Is it a little unorthodox relative to what is done every day? Sure. But, at the same time, we want to be prepared for it during the season.

“I played, what, 3 2/3 innings in left and a third of an inning in right?” Joseph said. “That was pretty neat. That was part of the ‘Be Bold’ slogan we’re working with here. We’re trying to be trailblazers when it comes to the shifting. That’s the hitter that it worked out for.”

Infield defensive shifts have become commonplace, as we know. While they declined last season, in terms of total volume, teams have simultaneously become more interested in outfield shifting. Perhaps the next generation of defensive alignment was on display Tuesday afternoon — one that includes just shifting in one direction or another actually switching positions based on a hitter’s batted-ball tendencies.

Perhaps the Phillies’ motivation is to mask the defense of Rhys Hoskins, who is converting to left field after the club signed Carlos Santana to a three-year, $60 million deal earlier this offseason.

But batted balls lifted in the air are distributed differently, more evenly, in the outfield than in infield, so even if what we saw Tuesday becomes a regular practice, it would still likely be less common — and perhaps have less effect — than infield defensive-alignment practices.

Last season, 29.1% of line drives and fly balls were pulled, 36.1% were hit to center, and 34.8% were hit to the opposite field. That’s in comparison to ground balls, 53.7% of which were pulled last season, 33.6% hit to center, and 12.7% to the opposite field.

Most ground balls are pulled, while fly balls are more evenly distributed — even, perhaps, with a slight tendency toward the opposite field. Only six batters last year (of the 317 to record 90-plus plate appearances) hit 50% or more of their batted balls to a particular field. All six favored the opposite field, let by Joe Mauer (63.1%).

So even if this is a new thing, it’s probably more limited in scope and potential impact. Yet even if it’s a small thing, it’s something — particularly if a club is fielding a particularly weak or questionable outfield option like Hoskins. Even little things are important at a time when all the low-hanging analytical fruits have been picked. The Phillies should want Hoskins to be exposed to as few batted balls as possible. When the Phillies face, say, Mauer or a similar left-handed batted-ball profile, positioning becomes more important, as such batters concentrate their batted balls to the opposite field.

What the Phillies did Tuesday is not so much a shift as it is a switch. We’ll have to see if it’s part of the next generation of defensive alignment. Maybe it’s nothing more than showing that Kapler is going to be an open-minded, progressive manager. If nothing else, spring is a time to explore and, to date, Tuesday’s experiment is one of the more interesting we’ve seen.

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A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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Fireball Fred
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Fireball Fred

Shouldn’t this approach be more applicable to ballpark configurations than to individual batters? For example, the Red Sox and Yankees might do LF/RF switches depending on whether they were at Fenway (big RF, tiny LF) or Yankee Stadium (LF much bigger than RF). Don’t remember seeing this done with regulars.