MLB Tools of the Trade

MLB Trends: On The Expedited Disappearance Of Position Players

The idea in Major League Baseball (MLB) of having eight players assigned to positions in the field has never made much sense to me from the standpoint of defensive strategy. Finally, though, a few brave souls are questioning the whole idea of how defense should be played, and the changes are startling.

Major League Baseball (MLB) and pro football, as played in the NFL, have never had much in common. And nowhere is that more apparent than in how the two sports diverge when it comes to playing defense.

Visualize the moments just before the center makes the snap to the quarterback. Scurring around on the other side of the football are players swapping positions, moving inches left or right, and calling out last second zone or man-to-man coverages.

Now visualize the moments just before a pitch is made in MLB. The right fielder has carved out his little niche in the grass that will need re-sodding before the next game, the left fielder is goaded into moving a couple of steps left by a frantic bench coach trying to get his attention, and the second baseman moves back a step or two to combat a notorious lefty pull-hitter.

What is so sacred in major league baseball about players being assigned exclusively to “positions” in the field?

For decades, these are the images we recall seeing on a baseball field, MLB snapshots of stationary players in stationary positions.

Joe Maddon, when he was managing the Tampa Bay Rays, made the first inroad to altering that by implementing what became known as “The Shift”. This is a defense that moves the bulk of your players to one side of the field, or the other to thwart pull hitters, who no matter what refuse to hit the ball the other way.

More recently, the Houston Astros dramatized this defensive ploy when they played the Texas Rangers and Joey Gallo. The Rangers pay Gallo to hit home runs, and he makes a living by pulling balls far into the night when he doesn’t strike out. Here’s what the Astros defense looked like against Gallo:

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Granted, that’s pretty extreme. But according to Baseball Reference, the strategy has worked. Against, Houston in ten games and 40 at-bats this season, Gallo is hitting .205 with 21 strikeouts and only three home runs.

But the shift is merely the tip of the iceberg as some MLB observers see no reason why teams will not continue to devise alternate defensive strategies. Additionally, as the following video demonstrates, some players are already adapting to playing “out of position” when the need arises. So, why not take the next step?

Consider, as an example, the Boston Red Sox, who signed J.D. Martinez during the offseason. Martinez is, with no argument, one helluva hitter, who currently has the MLB lead with 15 home runs in the American League.

At the same time, though, no one will dispute that Martinez falls short when playing in right field. In left field, the Red Sox have young and very athletic Andrew Benintendi, who quickly rises over Martinez as a defender.

So why not switch the two fielders when the situation calls for it from batter to batter, ensuring your best fielder is in position to field balls where they are most likely to be hit? In the example above, J.D. Martinez would take the place of Marwin Gonzalez as the least likeliest to have to field a ball.

And the switch between the two Red Sox fielders would continue throughout the game as situations dictate. The only consolation the Red Sox might make to Martinez is to excuse him from running sprints in the outfield before game time.

The same might hold value in this scenario. What if you have a human vacuum cleaner playing shortstop? He rarely misplays a ball, and he has a shotgun arm to go with it. Why not move him to second base when a situation calls for it? Or even third base if it’s late in the game and your team is trying is trying to protect against a double hit down the line?

What is so sacred in major league baseball about players being assigned exclusively to “positions” in the field, as though they carry a deed to the territory in their back pocket?

Now, I’ve mentioned “situations” a couple of times, and that needs more explanation. As a fact, and we won’t take the time to argue its validity now, situations in MLB today are determined by analytics. Who hits the ball where, who hits ground balls predominately, who goes the other way with two strikes on him, and so on.

Pitchers, more than fielders, seem to gravitate more into accepting analytics as part of their game plan. Pitch selection to certain hitters is pre-determined as part of the game plan, and it’s the catcher’s job to remember not to call for a first-pitch changeup to a particular hitter because he’s waiting for it. In sum, the players control the game once it begins.

This does not seem to be so when it comes to defense in MLB. Players tend to look into the dugout for direction from at-bat to at-bat. And if you are at the ballpark, focus on the bench coach responsible for positioning players in the field. He has more hand signals than a traffic cop working in Times Square.

Changes in MLB, not governed by rules, come slowly at first. But soon the Johnny-come-lately’s jump on board, as in the case of the shift, and it’s baseball as usual henceforth.

The extinction of stationary position players in MLB is in its infant stages. Player’s egos need to be massaged away from thinking of themselves as a shortstop or a center fielder. Some will adapt quickly, while others will see their careers shortened as baseball leaves them behind. The same will be true of managers and coaches who will be pushed in this new direction by their analytics-driven front offices.

MLB doesn’t need the panic-like motion we see in pro football before each play. But like the rest of baseball, the sport does require at least a little more “action” – and thinking! – by players on the field, batter to batter, and sometimes even count to count.

Every night, ESPN highlights the defensive plays of the game and millions tune in to watch it. But perhaps, ESPN and others should be paying more attention to what occurred defensively prior to the pitch being thrown, enabling the execution of the play by the defender.

We are well accustomed to seeing replays of interceptions thrown by quarterbacks in the NFL with an accent showing how the defense cut off or anticipated passing lanes. Why doesn’t the same thing make sense in baseball?

And besides, it’ll give the game’s Official Scorer something to do between snores and cups of coffee.

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