Conventional wisdom, as both a phrase and a construct, is a bit like a piñata. It exists to be displayed and then quickly beaten down. No one dangles the familiar way of thinking in admiration. They do it so you can get a quick look before they blow it to smithereens. Welcome to the internet.
One of the many piñatas of the baseball universe right now is the profile of the corner outfielder as a bat-first player to be “hidden” on defense. In a particularly well thought-out rebuke of this bit of conventional wisdom, Baseball Prospectus author Jeff Quinton recently wrote that the Mariners and Rays are among the teams moving to take advantage of what might be one of those famed market inefficiencies.
This is all to say that the sluggers-in-the-corners logic could be flawed in that a) players provide value by both creating runs and preventing runs, and b) there are a lot of runs to be prevented in the corners.
The run-saving approach that so suited the Royals teams of recent vintage is now popping up elsewhere – and looking reasonable for other large-ballparked clubs like the Mariners. However, this is not an approach you’ll see everywhere, as someone has to hit the ball, and it’s not always feasible to find lineup anchors who are also capable of playing the infield – a fact that is relevant to our eventual topic.
But first, Quinton’s examination does a couple things that are useful to lay out here before we string up our own bit of take-bait. He differentiates between the idea of ponying up for Adam Eaton or Jason Heyward’s excellent corner defense and the idea of finding a fringe center fielder (aka 12-months-ago Adam Eaton) to play a corner. The latter is a potential inefficiency for teams with a lot to gain in the outfield run-saving department, while the former is just a really good way to put a lot of stock in a very volatile player profile. That’s not to say Heyward and Eaton aren’t great corner outfielders, just that they aren’t inspiration for an exploitable strategy.
They are something of an inspiration for the not-terribly-original idea I’m about to unfurl. The chief reason that Eaton’s 2016 season might look like the emergence of a superstar, to aliens who speedread FanGraphs, is not that his defense improved, but that the defenders he was compared to became drastically worse. The wider implications of that for Eaton and Mike Rizzo and the baseball intelligentsia are fodder for a different post. Right now, we will focus on that chasm between a mediocre center fielder giving right field a try and the people who usually play right field.
The implication is that teams give up a lot of runs there, and the conventional wisdom says it’s in the service of fielding a player who will make up those runs and more on offense. It seems to be getting easier to spot a team’s priorities with each roster spot, to separate the Eatons and Heywards and Gordons from Nelson Cruz and Matt Holliday and Carlos Gonzalez.
Occasionally, you can spot a team – the Cubs, for instance – playing both sides of this coin in the same outfield, and opening up the possibility up for an actual break from convention: A dynamic outfield personnel shift.
I just made up that term, but more plainly: What if a club swapped its corner outfielders based on the higher priority field for each plate appearance? It’s not actually a shift so much as a matchup-based alignment of skill – the platoon advantage pitching change of defensive alignment, minus the commercial break. It’s not a market inefficiency so much as a strategy to keep the table constantly tilted toward the strengths of two diametrically opposed skillsets sharing the same roster territory.
The question is whether this gambit could be implemented effectively, or whether there is real wisdom in the conventional way of doing things.
When you’re preparing to field an outfield with Kyle Schwarber in one corner and Heyward in the other, the optimal usage is fairly easy to figure out: You want Schwarber to receive as many at bats as possible, and do as little fielding as possible. You want Heyward to field as many balls as possible (to maximize the impact of the skill we’re most confident he will display) and take as many at bats as his performance warrants.
(We don’t really know what Schwarber is defensively, but it’s safe to say the gap between he and Heyward is significant, probably the largest between corners in the majors.)
The batting order provides an intuitive, daily opportunity to set the offensive priorities. The defensive priorities? They are a bit harder to work with. Heyward (or any superior defender) plays right field for a variety of reasons based partly in tradition and partly in math.
First, the math: While pulling the ball is more common overall, it is not the most likely outcome for balls hit in the air. Major League hitters send flies and liners to the opposite field about 35 percent of the time, and pull them about 28 percent of the time, based on the last five years of play. Especially when you consider that far more home runs are pulled, the number of playable balls is routinely higher in right field, the opposite field for right-handed batters.
The tradition dictates a right fielder should also have the stronger arm, in order to discourage runners from advancing to third base, or to cut down those who aren’t discouraged. I’m not sure how much of a difference this makes, but since we are currently in the process of digging for a small advantage, it seems silly to disregard any reasonable idea of one.
So, in order to implement this idea and maximize the advantage of having a stellar defensive corner outfielder, you’d have to figure out, essentially, when right field is the sub-optimal position. And that gets complicated in a hurry.
Test case: You’re facing Mark Trumbo, one of the least likely hitters in baseball to hit a grounder. Thus, he is one of the most likely hitters in baseball to put the outfield defense to the test. Great! Let’s see where he usually hits the ball. Using the FanGraphs splits tool, without which I probably would have simply given up on this exercise, we can remove grounders from the equation. When we do that, we find that on the batted balls most likely to be handled by outfielders in 2016, Trumbo… pulled 33.6 percent of them, and went oppo with precisely 33.6 percent of them. What do you do now?
Last year, league-wide, those balls hit in the air produced a .352 BABIP, from a mix of 37.5 percent line drives and 62.5 percent fly balls (all numbers that are in line with the past several seasons). To figure out this strategy, we need to decide where we could make the biggest dent in that BABIP, while still taking into account other factors such as the difference a fielder’s arm could make in a runner’s thought process.
At its most basic level, you’d think the shift would simply be platoon-based. Whichever corner outfield spot is more likely to see the ball from a given hitter gets the better defender. Of course, it isn’t be that simple.
Deciding where the better fielder might make the greater difference is hard! If we’re talking about the Cubs, they might choose the route by which Schwarber and his surgically repaired knee have to field the fewest fly balls. But that leaves them open to his ground ball defense and his arm – which, for all intents and purposes, are unknowns.
Back to Trumbo for a second.
His spray chart of non-homers that landed in the outfield, labeled with exit velocities, squares with what those numbers imply. He hits the ball harder when he pulls it.
So could you negate more damage by putting your premier corner outfielder in left field? In that case, you’d have the defensive star playing the most well-hit balls, as well as the vast majority of grounders that get through. The less-good defender might get more total action, but it would theoretically be easier to handle. Would the more agile defensive wizard suppress the high pull-side BABIP more than the slugger allows oppo-BABIP to rise? Maybe.
And for a different hitter, this exercise might reach a different conclusion. Clubs almost certainly have the brain power and technology to work through this problem on a much deeper level, for every single hitter. Maybe some club has already done this. Yet this type of strategy hasn’t surfaced.
Why might that be? Well, one issue could be the difference in reading a ball flying toward right and flying toward left. Is that adjustment too strange to make 15 or 20 times a game?
It could be that clubs feel the potential benefits are not worth making a scene of doing this little maneuver in the middle of innings – but I sincerely doubt big league clubs are ditching strategies to avoid violating decorum. Surely, Pedro Baez would be out of a job if clubs were so considerate.
Another reason, though, might have more to do with it. We all remember the Hanley Ramirez experience, and perhaps the offensive slump Marcus Semien endured while directing serious attention toward improving his defense at shortstop. It seems possible clubs are loathe to insert this idea into the heads of their players – specifically the one being moved to minimize his involvement. Whether it’s shaken confidence or simply an extra thing to think about, someone will roll out the anecdotal evidence to say that it could affect the player’s offense or overall locked-in-ness. And I’d have a hard time formulating any sort of concrete comeback.
Maybe Joe Maddon is capable of navigating around such a drag effect. Or maybe he’s wary enough of the risks that he’ll decide against the idea.
In the absence of an actual in-game experiment, we won’t know. The safety wrapped up in “the way things are done” is usually more alluring than the itch to blow it up. It may not be time for this yet – teams are still sorting through the answers that came spilling out of the Royals’ three-headed outfield defense monster – but it just takes one blind connection, and the Cubs have as good a reason as any to give it a whirl.
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Zach Crizer is a featured writer at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @zcrizer.