By Sam Bush
New Phillies manager Gabe Kapler plans to flip-flop outfielders in the middle of an inning to put his best defensive player in the position where the spray charts indicate a batter is most likely to hit the ball.
That’s an illustration of his devotion to analytics, as he told the AP:
“We know that different players have different skills. One hitter may crush fastballs. Another may hammer change-ups. That doesn’t mean either is a better hitter. They just have different strengths. Outfielders are similar. Whenever we have a chance to maximize a man’s strengths to get an additional out, we’ll do so.”
Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon tried a four-man outfield last season against Cincinnati’s Joey Votto. Third baseman Kris Bryant moved to left-center field and shortstop Javier Baez remained on the left side of the infield. Votto hit a double down the first-base line.
Houston Astros manager A.J. Hinch took the strategy a step further against Miami’s Justin Bour this spring. Third baseman Alex Bregman moved to left field and shortstop Carlos Correa slid over to the right side of the infield, giving the Astros no fielders between second and third. Late in the count both Correa and second baseman Jose Altuve dropped deep, essentially playing short right field, so that only first baseman Marwin Gonzalez was on the infield dirt.
Hinch also experimented with four infielders on the right side of the diamond in a game against Washington.
“It’s happened before but that’s one of the most extreme shifts I’ve ever seen — you’ll probably ever see,” pitcher Dallas Keuchel said. “I think unless you have an athletic pitcher on the mound, you probably won’t see that. I pride myself on the defense and A.J. knows that so I think he’s willing to take a risk and try it out. What better way to try it out than in spring training.”
But these shifts aren’t as drastic as Kapler’s plan.
Moving outfielders back-and-forth mid-inning is a bold concept. It might require ego-massaging because some players may be offended if they are moved away from the ball. Even weekend warriors in beer leagues across the country would be embarrassed if a coach makes that kind of switch.
Rhys Hoskins, a converted first baseman (above), is the Phils’ least experienced outfielder. He’s slower and has less range than Nick Williams and Aaron Altherr, who are expected to play right field.
“I think it’s going to give us a chance to get more outs throughout the season,” he said. “Kap has stressed he wants to put his players in the best position possible to succeed and I think we’re pretty blessed with some good outfielders. Logically, it only makes sense to use those guys as much as we can. And if gets us one, two, three more wins, that could push into the playoffs.”
“It has nothing to do with any individual other than the guy we’re moving to put in the ideal spot,” he said. “Think about it like this. If you have Ozzie Smith and you knew a ball was going to be hit where Ozzie can catch it, you would want Ozzie Smith near that ball. It’s really about an exceptional defender and putting him in the right position to succeed.”
Kapler could be an innovator. Perhaps he starts a trend other managers will follow. Of course, it’s not for everyone.
“I’m not going to experiment with it,” Kansas City Royals manager Ned Yost said. “I’m not into moving my outfielders hitter to hitter, no. I’ve got confidence in my outfielders so I’m not into moving them hitter to hitter.”