Quick Thoughts on Outfield Shifts
Today for the second time this Spring Training, the Phillies had their left and right fielders swap. As Matt Gelb wrote last week, the Phillies are looking to be more aggressive with their outfield shifts. Positioning players to be deeper or shallow based on game situation (outs, batter, pitcher, count, and potentially a lot of other variables) seems actually fairly normal given what we have seen on the infield. Shift don’t always work, and when they don’t, it can look pretty bad, but playing the percentages makes some sense.
Then there is your left and right fielders running past your center fielder before a batter steps to the plate. Having players change positions mid inning is something that we are seeing on infield shifts more. Last year it led to Anthony Rizzo gaining second base eligibility in some fantasy leagues. No one has really employed outfield positional switches regularly. But they make a lot of sense, because they are something very fundamental. Growing up, nearly everyone pulled the ball and nearly everyone hit right handed. The worst fielder on the team often played right field, because nothing was being hit there. When the big power guy on the other team came up you would play everyone deeper, and if you were on your feet your right fielder was practically playing center as you shifted the outfield. When the lefty came up, you would try to quickly get the poor sap in right field out of there.
In the majors, right field is considered a more demanding defensive position, and often comes with a requirement for a strong arm. On most teams the range difference between the corner outfielders is not a huge gap. At least not enough to make playing some tiny percentage advantage move. Enter the Phillies with Rhys Hoskins in left field. Rhys Hoskins is a first baseman. This year, and probably for the next few he will partaking in a grand tradition. Phillies left fielders who try really hard, but just don’t have the speed to really make up a lot of ground with that hustling. In the other corner the Phillies will be deploying Aaron Altherr and Nick Williams. Both are plus runners who can cover plenty of ground. Williams is a minus defender because his routes are rarely direct, but Altherr is a plus defender in a corner because he has great instincts and can seemingly cover half the outfield in a few strides. To top it all off, Altherr has experience in both outfield corners and often makes switches between the two has normal defensive changes in a game.
This large gap in defensive ability makes this whole thing interesting, because there might be a marginal advantage in having Altherr in the better defensive position. I am sure the Phillies have run the percentages on this to actually know the answer to that question. Gabe Kapler and Chris Young will likely also take into account how the outfielders and pitchers feel about this experiment before putting it into an actual game, but there is some merit here. So while this all looks really strange, is it really that different from playing baseball as a kid?