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Pulling Away: On Outfield Alignment

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Philadelphia Phillies v Toronto Blue Jays Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

Back on May 1, the Phillies were 16-12 and locked in a low-scoring tilt with the Marlins. The game needed a 10th inning after Zach Eflin, Jarlin Garcia, and both teams’ bullpens had kept a lid on each others’ bats.

In the bottom of the 10th, with one out, Cameron Maybin tripled to center field on a 2-1 fastball from Yacksel Rios. You may remember it for its perfect placement, bisecting the Phillies’ outfield alignment on what may have been simply a single in another year.

It’s a pretty dramatic image. Rhys Hoskins is playing the gap in no man’s land between traditional left field and center field, while Odubel Herrera is also shaded some 30-40 feet to the right of center. The ball was smoked, it went all the way to the wall, Maybin reached third, and Yadiel Rivera eventually singled him home to win it for the Marlins, 2-1.

At the time, this was incredibly frustrating. The hell was that positioning? Why was there a gaping maw of green in the middle of the field, unmanned? It looked, on its face, like a total whiff. And it led directly to the play that eventually lost the Phillies the game. Naturally, that unfortunate bit of timing spiraled outward into a referendum on shifting as a concept (shocking for Philadelphia to get impatient and blow something out of proportion, I know), and the idea of these unorthodox placements has made folks uncomfortable all season long. Losing in unusual ways always stings.

That moment is worth recalling now because it’s part of an apparent plan, one that uses the Phillies’ right hand-heavy staff and its suppression of right-handed batters as a bellwether for its placement of outfielders.

BaseballSavant

The chart above, via Statcast, is a rough heatmap of the Phillies’ defensive positioning for right-handed batters with the bases empty and no overt shift is applied. The infield looks logical enough, with some shading up the middle at second base and a bit more real estate for an opposite-field single through the infield.

The outfield, though, is a bit more interesting and unusual. Take a look at the skew toward the gaps for left and center field alike; again, this is a map of typical defense against right-handed batters, whose pull side looks awfully wide down that left field line under these circumstances. It’s hard to say exactly how far each hotspot has shifted, but you can see clear movement toward the opposite field over 2017.

BaseballSavant

Why is that? Wouldn’t the defense want to give itself more of a head start to grab pull-side fly balls, seeing as they’d likely be hit harder and need the extra few feet for the fielder to run it down? Well, maybe, but the simple fact is that, league-wide, right-handed hitters simply don’t pull that many fly balls and line drives against right-handed pitchers, regardless of where they’re pitched. The Phillies’ rotation, right-leaning as it is, does a good job limiting pulled airballs against the league averages, too.

Starters

RHP vs RHB FB% LD% Pull% Soft% Med% Hard%
RHP vs RHB FB% LD% Pull% Soft% Med% Hard%
MLB 35.3 20.8 29.1 16.5 41.7 41.9
Nola 28.2 20.8 26.7 13.3 57.5 29.2
Arrieta 25.4 19.7 30.3 13.5 50.4 36.1
Velasquez 40.6 21.8 35.9 16.5 47.6 35.9
Pivetta 33.0 18.9 23.6 17.3 41.8 40.9
Eflin 37.3 19.2 28.0 21.0 40.0 39.0

The right-handed relievers certainly do their part, too.

Relievers

RHP vs RHB FB% LD% Pull% Soft% Med% Hard%
RHP vs RHB FB% LD% Pull% Soft% Med% Hard%
MLB 35.3 20.8 29.1 16.5 41.7 41.9
Seranthony Dominguez 35.2 14.8 22.2 18.5 51.8 29.6
Victor Arano 37.7 18.2 32.6 18.6 48.8 32.6
Edubray Ramos 54.5 19.7 24.5 30.6 44.9 24.5
Pat Neshek 36.6 24.4 24.0 16.0 40.0 44.0
Yacksel Rios 18.9 34.0 25.0 14.3 57.1 28.6
Luis Garcia 34.4 18.8 35.3 20.6 50.0 29.4
Tommy Hunter 22.0 16.5 17.1 0.0 57.1 42.9
Hector Neris 46.7 22.2 51.6 12.9 38.7 48.4

Note different denominators in the tables above: FB% and LD% consider all batted balls; Pull% only considers flyballs and line drives; Soft%, Med%, and Hard% also only consider flyballs and line drives. These three subsets are part of separate wholes.

What you’ll hear next shouldn’t shock you: No team in the NL has thrown more pitches (or a greater percentage of their total pitches) low and away from RHP to RHB than the Phillies. as defined by the zones highlighted in green below. In fact, only the Twins and Indians have a higher percentage of those pitches in all of baseball.

BaseballSavant

And it’s working. It helps to have Aaron Nola on your staff for something like this, but the entire right-handed corps has performed well with these pitches: They’ve permitted just a .200 opponents’ AVG, .285 opponents’ SLG, and .236 opponents’ wOBA, good for 6th-, 3rd-, and 2nd-lowest in MLB, respectively.

Things start to get a little chicken-or-egg at this point, but it’s hard to deny the impact of the Phils’ defense on the left side of the field when thinking about all of this. One way to look at it would be to imagine how good those numbers might be with more adroit fielders on that half of the diamond. But if your glass is half-full (like mine!), you might instead think of it as a way to protect a weaker defensive set from being over-exposed.

Is it going to work every time? No, and Cameron Maybin proved as much. But with the relative lack of pulled fly balls and liners when placing righty-on-righty, things at least start to look more sensible than they would at first blush.