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November 25, 2013

Baseball Therapy

The Corner-Outfield Inefficiency

by Russell A. Carleton


On Friday’s episode of Effectively Wild, listener Matt Trueblood emailed the show to ask Ben and Sam a fascinating question. Why is it that teams do not have their left and right fielders switch places more often, particularly if one of them is a better fielder than the other? We know that some players like to pull the ball, while others like to hit to the opposite field. Why not put the better fielder in the place where it’s more likely that the ball will be hit? It’s a fascinating question because there is no rule that prohibits it from happening. In the era of the infield shift, why hasn’t anyone tried this?

Teams will often shift an outfielder from left to right (or the reverse) within a game if they make a defensive substitution, and no one minds. Sometimes players bounce back and forth and back again. Other than the fact that box score makers would hate it, why not within an inning as the batter changes?

Hey look, it’s the #GoryMath signal!

Warning! Gory Mathematical Details Ahead!
For the moment, we are going to make a couple of assumptions (which we will re-visit).

  1. The team has two players in left and right field. One is an excellent fielder. The other is out there because he can hit and because for some reason, there are some teams that refuse to use a DH. As Ben pointed out on the podcast, it’s rare for a team to have such a mismatch in defensive talent in the corners, but let’s just pretend that they do and see what it would be worth.
  2. Players perform just as well in left field as they do in right field when attempting to catch balls, and while I’m guessing that at first, pinging back and forth might be confusing, being able to switch is a skill that could be taught.
  3. We’re not going to worry about throwing arms for the moment.
  4. Brian McCann has been informed of this tactic and has pledged that he will not do anything to stop it.

My data set is all events from 2003-2012. I started with all fly balls, pop ups, and line drives that were fielded by either the left or right fielder and coded whether that was a product of a ball being hit to the batter’s pull field or the opposite field. Home runs were not included, since you can’t defend a home run (unless, perhaps, you’re Carlos Gomez).

Hitters were more likely to hit the ball to the opposite field (55-45) than to the pull field, and this held true for right-handed hitters (54.5 percent opposite field) and left-handed hitters (55.4 percent opposite field). Strangely, this turns out to be the most important finding in the study. Hold on to it.

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Related Content:  Defense,  Sabermetrics,  Outfield,  Shifting,  Fielding,  Ineffiencies

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