Is the outfield shift a wise strategy?

As you probably know, the Pirates have been employing a shifted outfield defensive alignment quite a bit this season. Against many batters, Nate McLouth has moved dramatically toward right field. At the same time, Nyjer Morgan has literally positioned himself in left-center field, as if he were playing a game of slow-pitch softball. I was confused the first time I saw this configuration, assuming it was designed specifically for that particular hitter. However, the team has utilized it quite often, making me think there is a general purpose behind the move. One reason could be to cut down on balls hit into the Northside Notch, the 410-foot left-center field gap at PNC Park.

I was able to make it down to a game a couple weeks ago and, at least from my subjective memory, the strategy seemed to work flawlessly. Early in the game, Morgan made a nice play to run down a fly ball that was hit to the warning track right in front of the 410-foot sign. Later, he caught another deep fly about 20 feet to the left of straightaway center field. In a traditional outfield alignment, it would have been McLouth’s ball all the way. However, I’m not sure he would have made the play, especially considering the struggles he has had making plays behind him. As a contrast, Pat found the tactic counterproductive during a different game last week.

Because of the differing opinions based on observations, I have been interested in finding some data that would either support or challenge this method. I wish I had access to comprehensive hit charts, as opposed to just the individual hit charts provided by MLB.com. Since I was unaware of any source for that information, I began looking for other types of data that could help. I have always liked the fielding graphs created by Dan Turkenkopf, using David Pinto’s PMR charts. I contacted Dan and he was extremely helpful, taking the time to explain his method. Many thanks, Dan. My result is not nearly as pretty as Dan’s work, but it should do the job. This is cumulative for all Pirate outfielders in 2008.

In essence, the specified fielder was above average in the green zones and below average in the red zones. I tried to shade the colors to show how far above and below average the fielder was, but it didn’t show up very well.

My first thought was that the Pirates covered the Northside Notch pretty well. However, that single zone of green is surrounded by red, indicating that the Pirates struggled in the left-center field gap. There also seemed to be some issues in right-center, which may be remedied by shifting McLouth in that direction. Clearly, this graph includes many unwanted variables for our purpose, as the Pirates’ defensive skill plays a huge part. But if we look past the fact that this method is far from perfect, I think we can say that there is a marginal gain by playing this shift. At the very least, it eliminates the possibility of opposing teams obtaining easy triples in the Northside Notch. There will be frustrating occasions in which Nyjer is unable to make a play near the line that would have been a simple play with normal positioning. But I think we will see just as many balls that are surprisingly run down in the gaps because of the unique alignment.

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Posted in 2009 Pittsburgh Pirates. Comments Off on Is the outfield shift a wise strategy?
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