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November 26, 2013

Pebble Hunting

Extrapolating the Breakdown of Traditional Defense

by Sam Miller

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One of the most interesting things about extreme infield shifts is how unextreme they are. They are like some lame grownup’s idea of extreme, a little bit of flash and inconvenience but ultimately very safe. The shift was invented by sane people. Real extreme comes from insanity, and it makes us deeply uncomfortable.

Everybody’s talking about the football coach who never punts​—4th and 15 at his own five-yard line, he’s going for it. That’s fearless. It’s hard to think of a baseball equivalent, one that would work or even one that might work. Russell Carleton this week explored the listener-suggested idea of having the left and right fielders swap, depending on batter handedness, to make sure the better defender gets more attempts to field the ball. The gory math supports the use of the relatively conservative proposal, but Carleton concludes what we can't help but conclude:

In United States culture, it’s not nice to look like you’re trying too hard, especially for such a small reward and when you look weird doing it. As the infield shift has become more and more popular, I find it interesting to hear some of the reactions from teams that don’t shift. Usually, they have moralistic underpinnings. We’re gentlemen here. We don’t shift. We could, but that’s for the riff-raff to do. Brian McCann would totally shoot this down. Still, they’re leaving runs on the table. I have to wonder at what price come pride and tradition.

Meanwhile, Grantland/Crashburn Alley writer Michael Baumann recently came out against defensive shifts. Baumann’s rationale is a bit complex: He thinks it’s actually too easy to beat, and considers hitters’ refusal to beat it a self-destructive act of stubbornness that requires paternalistic intervention. More simply, though, we might say he considers the whole business annoying.

So Baumann is against shifts. Let’s say I’m for them. This is not an inconsequential divide. We’re each likely to live about 50 years more, and in those 50 years the shifts quite possibly will get more extreme. When they do, there will be people who want them outlawed, particularly if they work. It’s time to choose a side, people.

I’m on the side of disruption. The key to disruption: small steps.

Step 1. Corner outfielders swap positions in sacrifice fly situations. There might not be a lot of teams with substantial mismatches between their left and right fielders’ overall defense, but it’s not hard to find three-grade differences in throwing arms—Yasiel Puig and Carl Crawford in Los Angeles might be a five-grade difference. Batters go the other way two-thirds of the time on fly balls, Russell found, and one might hypothesize that batters trying to hit a fly ball in a sacrifice situation would go the other way even more often, since pulling the ball is a good way to roll over it. The unambiguousness of throwing ability, and the ease of implementing this tweak—one switch per game isn’t nearly the time burden of eight—makes this a very low-stakes strategy. It’s also unlikely that a manager would have to worry about being second-guessed.

Big Change because: It breaks down the idea that players are affixed to their positions. As it is, even the radical infield shifts are matters of shading, not redefining (with one exception being Brett Lawrie; as a former second baseman, his shift from third base to shallow right field is the exception that proves the rule). If players were moving hundreds of feet from play to play depending on situation, the idea of a “position” would be watered down, if not endangered.

Step 2. Shortstop plays third base in bunt situations. There are really only two plays in baseball in which a team can say it knows what its opponent is going to do. When the catcher stands up and holds out his glove, we know with 99.9 percent certainty that the next pitch will be a ball—but, as the entire point is to keep a play from happening, no countermeasure is really possible. But when the batter is a pitcher and he squares for a bunt, we can say with better than 90 percent certainty that he's going to try to bunt. Defenses are arranged based on uncertainty, on the probability that the ball is going to be hit to some locations more often than others but that there’s way too much variance to leave any square footage uncovered. The team’s best defender plays where the shortstop plays because it’s slightly more likely that a batted ball (particularly one requiring his particular skills to field) will go there than anywhere else. When the opponent declares that to no longer be true, the defense should adjust by putting its best defender where the ball is going. No matter who the Braves have playing third base over the next five years, Andrelton Simmons will be better at charging bunts, better at fielding bunts, better at throwing to first and better at getting the lead runner out. It’s a very small gain, but also a very low-effort one to pursue.

Big Change because: It changes the shortstop’s role from that of a defensive back (responsible for covering one thing well) to free safety, covering any part of the field most likely to require his standout skills. If a fly ball pitcher is facing a fly ball hitter in a fly ball situation, that might mean the outfield. It might mean second base. In a bunt situation, it’s certainly third base.

Step 3. Four outfielders in a no-doubles situation, a fly-ball situation, or an infield shift situation. In any shift that leaves a big part of the field uncovered, there’s a tension between the OBP and the SLG components of offense. Late in games, when defenders hug the lines to avoid extra-base hits, teams are more likely to give up single because they’re out of position, but they weigh the value of each, and they make that choice. If they really wanted to prevent doubles, they could do it—everybody plays outfield!—but each double prevented means more singles, fewer outs, etc. Clearly, six outfielders is too far, but there’s no reason to think that teams’ current modest concessions are exactly far enough. How about this dumb thing:

As for infield shifts: Ryan Howard hit, if Brooks Baseball is to be believed, 15 groundballs to the left side of the infield in the past two years. Five were hits—one was a double—and the other 10 were outs. (Some of these were probably hit in non-shift situations.) Meanwhile, he hit 95 fly balls that stayed in the park, and 17 of those were hits—13 of them doubles. Assume for a moment that he has no ability to hit more groundballs against the shift than he has shown. Turn those 10 groundball outs into singles but eliminate eight of the 13 doubles, and the defense would clear a small profit.

(We assumed for a moment that Howard has no ability to hit more groundballs against the shift than he has shown. This is an assumption that Baumann won’t make—he assumes hitters are just refusing to adjust, and shirking their game theory obligations. I’m not sure that I agree. One of the unknowns is whether Howard and his ilk are actually capable of hitting the ball toward an abandoned position. Some hitters can, but it’s not clear that Howard can.)

Big Change because: Four outfielders! Once there are four outfielders, it doesn’t look like baseball anymore, and anything’s possible.

Step 4. Switch third and first basemen depending on batter handedness. This one gets tricky. Unlike swapping the left and right fielders—both of whom can play either position without shaming himself—this sets up a situation where one player would be a tremendous liability. Prince Fielder playing third base. Maybe even a left-handed player playing third base? And, because a third baseman doesn’t have the time to let a ball bounce off his chest and still recover, a higher percentage of plays at third are in the margin where a good defender makes the play and a bad one doesn’t. Probably doesn’t work! But the pull/oppo tendencies that Russell found in fly balls are way higher for groundballs.

He ran the numbers for me, and this is how big the gap is: There are roughly four times more gounders hit toward the corner infielder on the pull side than hit toward the corner infielder playing the other way. (This includes grounders fielded by the corner infielder or the corner outfielder, but not the second baseman, shortstop, or center fielder.) So, when a left-handed batter is up, he’s four times more likely to hit it toward Chris Davis than toward Manny Machado. This seems like an absurd waste of resources.

Russell adds:

This is the same basic construction as the [fly ball] article, except more profound. If you could make the jump that two fielders could be proficient at both first and third, and that one would be comparatively better than the other at both positions, it would make sense to flip them around.

Wow, that's powerful in terms of its effect size because the ball is pulled so much more on grounders than on fly balls... it's probably harder to pull off than the corner OF, but logically, the only thing that you'd have to sell me on is that, all things considered (range, arm, etc.) Smith is both a better first baseman than Jones and a better third baseman than Jones. (I'd also have to buy that the constant switching, both mentally and physically—jogging across the diamond—wouldn't be a net loss.) The difference might not be worth much, but it would be net positive value to have them switch back and forth. I could probably run similar numbers for the SS and 2B.

In theory, you could make the case that there could be a team where the proper thing to do as the batter's handedness switched is to flip six positions around, leaving only the battery and center fielder (and DH) in their proper places.

Big Change because: Unlike corner outfielders, who are essentially mirror images of the same position, infielders’ position identities are strong and specific. This would go much further to breaking down the idea that the position after a player’s name on the lineup card means anything. It’s also an easier shift—it can be done without delaying the game—and so it could make position switching a relatively painless custom.

Step 5. Five-man infield when the pitcher is hitting. Maybe even when the pitcher isn’t hitting, but especially when the pitcher is hitting, and especially when he’s hitting against a hard-throwing pitcher.

In Clayton Kershaw’s career, opposing pitchers have put roughly 115 balls in play. Of those, seven—slightly more than one per year—were either line drives pulled or fly balls pulled. Once per year, a pitcher pulls the ball in the air against Kershaw. The pitcher batting against Clayton Kershaw is 10 times more likely to hit a groundball than to hit a fly or liner to the opposite field. (He’s four times more likely to hit a fly or line drive to center or the opposite field than to pull it.)

Meanwhile, Kershaw has allowed 10 groundball singles through the infield. And of the six non-deep line drive singles he has allowed, at least some (one of two I spot-checked) would have likely been caught in a five-man infield.

Strangely, of the seven balls that pitchers have pulled in the air, six have been hits, two of them going for doubles. If we believe that rate then we’d say there’s practically nothing to lose here; a few singles turn into doubles, but singles turn into outs. Would have to assume that the high rate of hits on pulled flies is a fluke, though. At most, seven outs turn into seven doubles. At the very most. Meanwhile, the five-man infield has between 10 and 16 chances to turn hits into outs. There’s hope here.

What seems more certain is that a fifth infielder should be brought in when the pitcher is bunting. We’d have to hypothesize that there’s practically no chance that a pitcher could pull a fly ball or a line drive against Kershaw in a butcher-boy attempt, so once that bat is squared the left (or right) fielder is totally out of the play. Even if the pitcher doesn’t square early, though, we already know how hard it is for pitchers to pull the ball in the air against Kershaw; it would be especially so if Kershaw were specifically pitching away from this possibility. With five infielders, the corners could crash to just an absolutely ludicrous degree. If the offense adjusts and decides to swing away with such low chances of bunting success, then the hitting team’s manager has had his preferred tactical weapon taken from him.

Big change because: No four-man infield and three-man outfield construct anymore. Just a nine-man defense, as it should be.

My guess is that Steps 1 and 2 work but to an extremely small degree; that step 4 would work to a fairly sizeable degree, at least on a lot of teams; that step 5 would work, but maybe wouldn’t; and that step 3 is stupid. The point isn’t necessarily that any would work. It’s that there’s got to be something out there that would, something that would make me and Michael Baumann a little uncomfortable, and I’m in favor.

Sam Miller is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Sam's other articles. You can contact Sam by clicking here

Related Content:  Defense,  Shifts,  Fielding

37 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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Step 4 makes sense for the Jays with EE playing 1B and Lawrie at 3B, switching them would work since EE has played 3B in the past, most other firstbase men would be lost at third.

Nov 26, 2013 05:24 AM
rating: 2
BP staff member Russell A. Carleton
BP staff

After I sent Sam that e-mail, I had something of the same thought. Perhaps limited range at first base becomes even more limited at third, and this might let more things leak through. We'd have to account for that. It probably would work best if you have a first baseman who's a convert or a part time 3B anyway. But, you could still make a case that it might work.

The thing that worries me is whether we're assigning players based on their abilities to make particular iconic plays positionally (the guy with the big arm HAS to play RF because he might have to make a throw to third once a week) vs. placing them based on whether their abilities match what will be most often asked of them. We're scared to take an action that might make one position (or the chances of making one type of play) worse, even if the corresponding improvement is a net gain.

Nov 26, 2013 07:15 AM

With 1B/3B, are assuming they swap mitts every other hitter, or are you assuming they keep their respective gloves and live with the limitations?

Nov 26, 2013 08:54 AM
rating: 1

I don't believe it's legal for anyone besides the first baseman to wear a mitt, so they would have to swap.

Nov 26, 2013 18:06 PM
rating: 0
Matthew Trueblood

Ha! I was just typing an email to Russell about the infielder swap. I can erase that now. Awesome. Fun stuff, Sam.

Ted Williams always said he could beat the shift if he wanted to, but felt his approach and role demanded he rage against it. That statement has colored all subsequent discussion, with people who don't like the shift pointing to it as evidence that the failure to beat the shift is voluntary.

I reject that completely. Even if Williams could have beaten the shift, which we don't know for certain, that was the greatest hitter of all time, speaking at a time when pitchers didn't throw nearly as hard. I firmly believe that the swing hitters must maintain in order to succeed in the Majors today precludes major pitch-to-pitch adjustments. You can't have a shift swing and a regular swing. You'd just get beat over and over, trying to poke the ball the other way. I'm sure there are guys who can do it, but very few of them, and most of the ones who can are poor hitters.

Nov 26, 2013 05:43 AM
rating: 4

A lot of the time, you just need to bunt though.

Nov 26, 2013 08:42 AM
rating: 2

When dead-pull sluggers get in a rut, especially lefties, the best thing they could do for themselves is get in the cage and start hitting balls to the opposite field while concentrating on keeping the front shoulder in. Shift or no shift, practicing your 'poke' opposite field swing is the best way to tune up your 'mash' pull field swing. And the existence of defensive shifts makes it all the more important that you work on your 'poke' -- to use it as an ends (singles against the shift) rather than a means to an end (dingers).

So I guess I disagree that "you can't have a shift swing and a regular swing". The best players, during their hottest stretches, tend to "use the whole field".

I'm as astounded as Baumann is that these guys can't take the time to figure out how to beat the shift.

P.S. Is there any evidence that 'hot hitters use the whole field' or am I just mindlessly repeating things?

Nov 26, 2013 09:09 AM
rating: 1

I really enjoy articles like this. Thanks!

Nov 26, 2013 06:03 AM
rating: 1

Any of these shifts would be worth it if we got to see Hawk Harrelson's head explode. The obvious problem: None of these shifts account for The Will To Win.
Seriously, this is an intriguing article, particularly if you apply #4 to high school baseball or the nonprofessional levels.

Nov 26, 2013 07:04 AM
rating: 3

I've always wanted to see a batter swing at the first 2 pitches of an IBB, tryng to induce the pitcher to try for strike 3.

Nov 26, 2013 07:25 AM
rating: 0
BP staff member Russell A. Carleton
BP staff

One I'd love to see along these same lines. With a runner at second and a RH batter being intentionally walked, there would be a called play where on the fourth pitch (3-0), the batter would actually swing, if for no other reason than to surprise/confuse the catcher (that might buy you a tenth of a second), and the runner would break for third. You'd want to study some game film to look for signs that the pitcher and catcher fall into a lull while issuing an IBB and pick your spot, because you'd really only get to do it once. But if you do it right, you end up with a runner on third and a 3-1 count on a hitter whom they wanted to walk anyway. They either finish the walk or try to get cute... with a good hitter spotted a 3-1 count and a runner on third.

Nov 26, 2013 07:57 AM

Would the MLB reaction to something like this be "That's Bush League!"? Unwritten rules, playing the game the right way and all that?

Nov 26, 2013 09:14 AM
rating: 0
BP staff member Russell A. Carleton
BP staff

That's one reason that you'd pretty much only get to do it once. And probably in the third game of a series where you don't have to see that same team the next night!

Nov 26, 2013 09:52 AM
David Jackson

And when they hit that batter next time they see him, free baserunner in the next game. This strategy just keeps coming up Milhouse.

Nov 26, 2013 10:57 AM
rating: 8

Somewhat unrelated - I've wondered for awhile at what point a batter must swing for it to be called a strike. What I'd love to see is a batter with a 2 strike count intentionally swinging and missing at a pitch that is clearly going to get passed the catcher - and then sprinting to first base. The problem is that it is rare that a pitch is so bad that the batter will know that there is no chance that a catcher will make the play. I assume that a super late swing (after you've figured out that the ball will get by the catcher) would be considered null and void for strikeout purposes. Still I'd love to see someone try it.

Nov 26, 2013 15:36 PM
rating: 0

I'm not a fan of these kinds of discussions when they take on the flavor of dueling "Forces of Progress and Enlightenment vs Stupid and Boring Reactionaries" and "Guardians of Wise & Venerable Tradition vs Juvenile Idiots Infatuated With Novelty" narratives. Can't it simply be about efficiency without ego and self-image anxiety? Teams do things to try to win, not to be on or against "the side of disruption". The point of proposing or trying a shift is not to make you or Michael Baumann feel a little uncomfortable. The point IS necessarily to make them work.

As an aesthetic matter, I'm in favor of shifts precisely in order to make hitters beat them. I like the ethos of the "complete ballplayer" and strategies that punish players for incompleteness or un-adaptability. If defenses offer hitters a practically free single if they can push a decent bunt, I like hitters who take the freebie (and who have practiced the skills that allow them to pull it off). In my perfect world shifts would be rare because most hitters would beat them on average, making them self-defeating. Reality may look like forcing hitters to adapt to get there by shifting until they do.

Nov 26, 2013 08:25 AM
rating: 0
BP staff member Sam Miller
BP staff

I don't think this is about progress vs reactionary. It's a very legit position to say that baseball that doesn't look like baseball isn't baseball. Rules have been made to outlaw things that don't look like baseball forever. Baumann's quite possibly right.

Nov 26, 2013 08:31 AM

Fair enough, but as far as the rules go the only limitation has been that no one besides the catcher can line up in foul territory. The potential to shift is not at all new, nor are attempts to try oddball shifts. I also seriously doubt there will be any movement to change the rules, especially in the context of baseball where the unchanging nature of the rules is a cornerstone of anything traditionalist. The arguments against shifts are generally about effectiveness. Managers are criticized for shifting in the way they are criticized for replacing 3.25 ERA RHPs with 4.75 ERA LHPs for a platoon advantage on one batter- is the situational advantage worth the tradeoffs? The reason shifts in the past didn't stick is that they weren't obviously big improvements. We may be able to determine today with more comprehensive data that they are small improvements that require big samples to detect, but I wouldn't expect anything that turns baseball into anything that doesn't "look like baseball". I expect shading fielders within recongizably standard alignment to get a lot more mileage than any kind of complete refiguring of the field. Especially in situations with runners on base, the need to deter SBs and to not allow extra bases for free will limit how far from each base you'll want fielders.

Nov 26, 2013 09:18 AM
rating: 0

Just to point out some of the obvious...
Isn't the batter solution to major shifts to learn to bunt? It is a completely different approach, not a different swing (though some hitters already shorten their swings with 2 strikes and many used to choke up so I am not sure that the different swing issue is a real problem). Yes I have seen Ryan Howard try to run, but if you bunt past the pitcher even he could walk to 1B against the shift. Pretty sure I saw Strawberry do this at least once.

Of course that doesn't work when the other team is shifting agains the bunt, and it would not work every time but if done often enough it might ruin the utility of the shift by changing the calculus.

Also if there are base runners the shiftiness is limited by the need to cover bases, of course.

Nov 26, 2013 08:35 AM
rating: 0

One intermediate step would be making the position shifts on an inning by inning basis rather than batter by batter. Less effective but less weird.

Nov 26, 2013 09:25 AM
rating: 0

Does it mean anything that I read "Michael Baumann" as "Michele Bachmann"?

Nov 26, 2013 09:27 AM
rating: 3

Fun stuff! A question (and not a critique veiled as a question): Do any of MLB's rules entail that certain of these moves would require an official lineup card adjustment? Obviously, no one talks to the umpire before putting on the shift, but could you move your left fielder to right field and vice versa without "officially" changing their position in the lineup?

Nov 26, 2013 09:48 AM
rating: 1
Bryan Cole

What you say in Step 2 makes it sound like defenses are designed to minimize batting average, but I would argue they're really designed to minimize slugging (i.e., minimize hits while also ensuring doubles don't roll around for awhile and become triples).

Here's a super-hypothetical derived from Step 5. Assume in the Kershaw situation that your two outfielders are in approximately left-center and right-center, with the CF playing the opposite field since that's where the batter is most likely to hit the ball in the air. If a ball is pulled down the line, how long does it take the OF to catch up to it and throw it back in? Why couldn't the hitter end up with a triple, or (for a fast guy) an inside-the-park home run?

Lastly, we're 1,000% sure no one in like the 1870s with a sweet mustache tried some of these things?

Nov 26, 2013 09:55 AM
rating: 0

I think the specialization of each position is not fully appreciated in these suggestions. I would actually prefer my 3B to field bunts, not my SS, even if the SS is the superior athlete. That's a specialized play that third basemen have practiced thousands of times. Shortstops occasionally have to make similar plays but the footwork and arm angle are different enough that I suspect a 3B would make the play more reliably as well as avoid the comparatively disastrous outcome of a two base throwing error. Corner outfielders are the most easily swappable but even there the guys face different ball flights that could lead to multi-base errors/misplays unless they are well versed at both positions. I suspect even where there is some small potential benefit from these moves the risk of a major mistake (or injury) would prevent them from being implemented.

Nov 26, 2013 10:08 AM
rating: 4

Bingo - the potential benefit of this type of move is - according to Carleton the other day - pretty marginal. The risk is that the extreme shiftee makes an egregious error of the type that can be attributed to the unfamiliarity of the new position. Further, while the benefit plays out very slowly over the course of a season, the risk will be felt all at once. Like managers, this type of play can, at its best, win a few extra games, but at its worst, lose many games. For that reason alone, I would pass.

Nov 26, 2013 19:23 PM
rating: 0

I think the much bigger risk is not that it would cost a team many games, as they would presumably only do this if they thought their shortstop was actually better at fielding bunts (e.g. an Iglesias/Cabrera situation), but that the manager gets pilloried when it goes wrong, and gets no credit when it actually makes a positive difference. Managers don't like looking like idiots, because it impacts badly on their job security.

Nov 27, 2013 02:53 AM
rating: 2

Major league capable athletes should be able to bunt the ball to the other side of the shift or "place" a ball to the opposite field with a poke.

Nov 26, 2013 12:16 PM
rating: 0

with what degree of certainty should they be able to do that? That's the rub.

Nov 26, 2013 14:20 PM
rating: 0
John Carter

Step 5 has been done before: I recall Ron Fairly of the mid '60s Dodgers coming in from right-field to face bunters. One time in particular was sort of amusing as the team was having trouble trying to get his attention which was directed towards someone in the stands. Fairly was an 1B-OF.

Nov 26, 2013 14:54 PM
rating: 1
BP staff member Sam Miller
BP staff


Nov 26, 2013 15:23 PM

I think the idea that shifts should be baneed because they are "too easy to beat" is just silliness. If they are too easy to beat, they will get beat, and managers would stop using them!

I'm confused about #4. What is the advantage of switching the third and first basemen to put the better fielder on the pull side versus just using a shift? If most batted balls are hit to the pull side, isn't that just an argument for using a shift?

When the batter is lefthanded, what do you really gain by moving (say) Prince Fielder to 3B and A. Beltre to 1B versus just leaving Fielder where he is and moving another infielder (Beltre or Andrus) to the right side? I suppose it may be more of an option in a scenario with base runners, where a shift would normally not be an option? When the batter it right handed, of course, 1B cannot be left uncovered... but how many teams have a 1B who is a better fielder than their 3B... I would guess few, unless you are open to the possibility of a LH fielding 1B, but would the cost of that be greater than the advantage of having the better fielder on the pull side?

Options #1, #2, #3 and #5 are simply brilliant and it is almost surprising that they have not been attempted more often.

I do recall a game years ago where the Red Sox were forced to play OF Damon Buford in the infield in extra innings, and they shifted him back and forth between 2B and 3B depending on the hitter:


Joe Morgan (the Red Sox manager not the 2B) occasionally used OF Mike Greenwell as a 5th infielder in key late game situations:



And perhaps he got the idea from the Brewers, who did it with Robin Yount:


Nov 26, 2013 18:11 PM
rating: 1

This is starting to sound like cricket. In cricket, fielder positioning is the responsibility of the captain, and there's a lot of creativity involved. But you can't do that in baseball, because it's not cricket.

Nov 26, 2013 18:41 PM
rating: 6
BP staff member Sam Miller
BP staff

Was all worth it for this comment

Nov 26, 2013 21:06 PM
BP staff member Adam Sobsey
BP staff

Joe Maddon did a two-man outfield, five-man infield thing in 2012, although this was in an emergency, extra-innings situation, and Maddon actually replaced one fielder (Sam Fuld) with another )Reid Brignac). It worked, helping bail the Rays out of a bases-loaded, no-out jam.


Nov 27, 2013 08:23 AM
BP staff member Sam Miller
BP staff

Yeah, that's Mike Scioscia's favorite move. I always thought Mike Scioscia and the Five-Man Infield would be a great name for a British Invasion band. A very, very, very, very, very specific situation, though.

Nov 27, 2013 08:41 AM

Ron Roenicke uses a five man infield all the time when the Brewers need the out at home late in games. Helps that Braun can play infield well enough to not require a move.

Nov 27, 2013 12:08 PM
rating: 0
Brady Childs

The main thing I learned from this article is that Russians are extreme.

Nov 27, 2013 13:13 PM
rating: 0
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