“You never hold still when the enemy knows exactly where you are.” –Ender’s Game
More than ever before, baseball teams are employing the shift on defense. I tried to look up stats to show how this is true, but it’s completely unnecessary. Just watch any game. Against righties, against lefties, with men on base, with no one on, teams are shifting like crazy. I don’t think this is just a fad. If anything, we may see even more extreme use of the shift in the near future. But in the evolution of defensive positioning, is the shift the end of all things?
There’s an old baseball aphorism that says “hit ’em where they ain’t.” But shifting, no matter how extremely you do it, still allows a hitter to assess the fielding landscape prior to each pitch (i.e. figure out “where they ain’t”) because the fielders, despite having shifted, become static prior to the time of the pitch. So what about putting the fielders in motion prior to each pitch? The Amazing Coco Crisp (yes, he is a superhero now) has said that he doesn’t like to attempt steals in certain situations because he doesn’t want to distract the hitter. Can you imagine how distracting it would be to a hitter if every fielder just started sprinting in a random direction as the pitch was thrown? Even if hitters eventually adjusted to this, wouldn’t this be highly entertaining to watch? Wouldn’t you pay to watch Yasiel Puig running random spirals in right field?
Moreover, couldn’t being in motion be a wise strategic choice for outfielders in certain situations? This is like putting a player in motion prior to the snap in football (I’m thinking Canadian football for a better example, where the receiver can actually start running forward pre-snap). Standing still, an outfielder needs to accelerate from zero; but if the outfielder were running at the time of the pitch (and in the generally correct direction), the amount of distance he could cover would be drastically increased. Obviously, this would also increase the amount of time it would take for him to stop and turn around if he’s running in the completely opposite direction of the ball. But if all three outfielders are in motion, could there possibly be an arrangement of their starting vectors that provides superior field coverage? I’m thinking something like the right and left fielders both start in the center fielder’s normal position and the center fielder starts at the center field wall. While the pitcher is in his windup, the left and right fielders sprint towards the left and right field lines respectively, while the centerfielder runs straight in towards the infield. This could create a lot of field coverage, while also creating the most chaos right in the hitter’s field of vision.
I’ve attempted to test my theory using this Web Gems game on ESPN by starting my fielder at the wall and then running towards the batter before the pitch is thrown. I think this was an extremely scientific way to test this, but yet my results were somewhat inconclusive (though I did rack up almost 4000 points, which is a pretty good score, I think).
This one time, I was playing centerfield during a softball game, and the other team had this guy who was just hitting lasers wherever he wanted. He was hitting them where we weren’t; if I shaded over to left-center he would hit it to right-center and vice-versa. Finally, I deliberately shaded far over to left, tantalizing him with a huge gaping hole in right-center field. But as the pitch was in the air, I started to run over to right-center. Sure enough, he laced a rocket to right-center, but I was perfectly positioned to easily catch it. From center field, I could see the look of confusion on his face. Wasn’t there a gap there? Wasn’t that guy just in left-center? Yeah. I just destroyed you with my mind. I am a softball ninja. You can’t hit ’em where they ain’t if you don’t know where they are. That’s the title of this article!
But seriously, I’m serious. This idea isn’t as nuts as it sounds. Baseball already has fielders in motion in certain situations, specifically bunts (where the 1st/3rd basemen charge) and stolen base attempts (where the 2B/SS is running towards second base). All I’m saying is that I think it’s highly likely that we can identify significantly more situations where putting fielders in motion is beneficial. Now is that so crazy?