MLB Column: Let’s talk about outfield shifts

FILE - In this Feb. 20, 2018, file photo, Philadelphia Phillies manager Gabe Kapler watches batting practice at baseball spring training camp in Clearwater, Fla. Kapler has brought a new-school philosophy, a ton of energy and plenty of positivity to an organization that needed revitalization after five straight losing seasons. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky, File)

Have you guys seen what’s been going on with the Phillies this Spring Training? Bringing in a new coach has opened the organization to an intense sabermetric revolution. Gabe Kapler has taken on some pretty extraordinary techniques in his path to rebuilding the organization.

Aside from taking the time to sit down with each player individually or in small groups to go over statistics and charts to better improve their game, he’s developed a pretty crazy idea for positioning outfielders.

Outfield shading is nothing new. We’ve seen the center fielder playing much closer to left or right, depending on the tendencies of the hitter, and corner infielders adjusting to fill the gap. It’s proven effective, and it makes complete sense given that the data is not showing that ground balls are typically incredibly ineffective. Hitters are now striving to hit the ball in the air, and defenders need to adjust to that.

Kapler agrees, but he is taking it one step further. Instead of shading his outfielders, he is repositioning them all together to allow his best defensive outfielder to play in the region the hitter normally places the ball. That could mean the same outfielder playing in left, right and center on a constantly rotating basis throughout the entire game.

Personally, as a nerd, I’m ridiculously intrigued by this concept. It makes complete and total sense, and there’s no reason to think that it won’t be effective. I’m reminded of when the Mets had to play Travis d’Arnaud at third base because their options were depleted, and he was constantly rotated with Asdrubel Cabrera over to second base with the hope that he would need to touch the ball as little as humanly possible. What Kapler is suggesting is similar, but not a one game fix. This is a season-long strategy.

Now, those of you who remember that Mets game remember that the box score looked absolutely ridiculous. That’s something that we may have to start adjusting to if this technique pays off.

My only concern lies in how well the players are conditioned in preparation for this. Outfielders will be running back and forth, potentially for each hitter in a game. Over time, that is going to add up, and they need to be physically prepared for the tax all of that movement will put on the body. I’m not saying it’s particularly difficult (soccer players, for example, will run far more in a game), but it is not the kind of exertion their bodies are used to and that will naturally take adjustment. The outfield just became a game of endurance as opposed to short bursts of speed. The potential for injury there is high at the beginning, and I don’t think the Phillies can afford to lose their young players if they want to be contenders this season.

That’s the objective analysis. Low-key, this is the coolest thing to happen to baseball in a while. I’m a Mets fan, and I want this to work. The complete logic behind this move is mind-blowing and the fact that it has taken until 2018 for someone to begin implementing it is astounding. Analytics is completely revolutionizing the game, whether you’re willing to accept it or not. Players have already made adjustments that they can’t go back on. The game is played differently than it was twenty years ago, and this evolution will continue for as long as we care about who wins a baseball game (so, basically, forever).


Rachel Schaefer is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at rachel.schaefer@uconn.edu.