Last year, teams employed a defensive shift one-third of the time, stacking one side of the infield with most or all of their infielders. It has become a trending strategy in recent years, causing batting averages to plummet. To counteract this and give offenses a boost, Major League Baseball banned radical defensive shifts this year, requiring infielders to stay within the infield dirt, with two positioned on each side of second base. That would be the end of the end of the defensive shift.
Or so we thought. If you have watched Royals games over the first two weeks, you may have noticed that the reports of the shift’s demise were premature. Against certain left-handed hitters on the San Francisco Giants over the weekend, the Royals would pull in their right fielder in shallow as a virtual fifth infielder, with the other two outfielders positioned in the gaps. While the defensive shift ban applies to infielders, outfielders are still free to be positioned wherever teams want to employ them (including the infield!)
The infield shift is dead, but the Royals are playing a two-man outfield on some Giants left-handed hitters like Conforto and Sabol. That's their right fielder playing as a shifted second baseman: pic.twitter.com/Tm2ZdcsQqd— Alex Pavlovic (@PavlovicNBCS) April 7, 2023
The strategy got the attention of Giants manager Gabe Kapler.
“Everybody noticed it,” manager Gabe Kapler said. “I don’t think it’s been deployed all that often across the league so far this year. I think part of it probably has to do with the short right field in our ballpark, feeling they can cover a lot of ground that way. Obviously, they’re taking risks leaving the middle of the field exposed, but I don’t blame them for taking liberties like that. I think it makes some sense.”
Kapler is right in that it hasn’t been deployed that often around the league. In fact, according to MLB Network, the Royals are the only team that has positioned an outfielder within 240 feet of home plate.
The Royals are the only team to experiment with the 2 outfielder, 5 infielder alignment. Thoughts? #MLBNow | @Joelsherman1 pic.twitter.com/fGWC11SyXL— MLB Now (@MLBNow) April 10, 2023
It wasn’t just against the Giants either, they employed a similar shift against Twins slugger Joey Gallo, a notorious pull-hitter. Last year, Gallo had the fourth-highest pull percentage of any hitter, and tops among all lefties. So the Royals had right fielder MJ Melendez play essentially as a fifth infielder in shallow right field. And they would have robbed Gallo of a hit on Opening Day, had Melendez not fumbled the ball.
But overall, the results have not been successful thus far. Tom Tango points out that in the 19 plate appearances with such a shift, the Royals are giving up a BABIP of .364. Of course, the sample size is extremely small. But you can also see how giving up all of deep right field on the pull side might expose your defense.
Royals seem to be all in with the 2 outfield setup, and it goes beyond Gallo. They have now used it 19 times. They are the ONLY team to place their outfielder within 240 feet of home plate.— Tangotiger (@tangotiger) April 9, 2023
1 air out
5 strikeouts https://t.co/qwSJRaGoWe
Perhaps the plan will require some tweaking, with the two other outfielders playing even further to the pull side. Or perhaps it requires different personnel - MJ Melendez is still new the outfield and has no infield experience. But as Joel Sherman points out in the MLB Network piece, why not try it out in a year the Royals are not expected to compete? As Matt Duffy explained to John Shea in the San Francisco Chronicle:
“We’re trying stuff,” said Royals third baseman Matt Duffy, who won a World Series ring with the 2014 Giants. “Not all of it is going to work. Maybe stuff works on paper but in practice you find you’re not able to live with the consequences of it. You figure it out.”
The Royals brought in Matt Quatraro and the new coaching staff to integrate data-driven approaches that can hopefully yield cutting-edge ideas. It is not enough for the Royals to catch up to what the Rays have been doing the last few years, they must be doing what the Rays will be doing five years from now. Perhaps one innovation is this outfield shift - if it works. There is a good chance this simply becomes a failed experiment the Royals give up on. But in a year like this it’s worth trying, and it is encouraging to see the Royals try to seek out a tactical advantage like this.