How far away is the in-game corner outfield switch?
Talking to a player like Sam Fuld — one with an analytical mind and questions about the game — can be all sorts of fun. Like this week, he suggested that teams might switch corner outfielders in the middle of a game for defensive reasons.
"If you have extremely varied skill levels in the outfield in the corners, between right and left field, like an elite right fielder defensively and a slugger in left," Fuld said, "I think we’re going to see those guys flip flop within an inning depending on who’s coming up."
This isn’t something that would make sense on most teams. Most left and right fielders are too close in talent to move around just because a right-handed pull hitter is at the plate. Even with a recent high-profile defensive whiff, it wouldn’t make sense to move Jayson Werth to left and Bryce Harper to right when lefty pull hitters are at the plate. The small defensive upgrade would be negated by the unfamiliarity with the other outfield corner.
"It would only occur when you have one really good and one really bad defensive corner outfielder," Fuld agreed, adding: "If you get a right-handed pull hitter, you might want that elite defender in left."
Let’s look at the defensive numbers of teammate corner outfielders over the past two years and see who might be a candidate for this switch. The following teammates had more than a 15-run discrepancy in defensive prowess (measured by Ultimate Zone Rating per 150 games):
Carlos Beltran is really more a designated hitter these days, so maybe that one doesn’t make a ton of sense. With Jay Bruce’s knee, maybe you don’t really want him running across the outfield a ton in order to make good on a 0.1% chance at the playoffs. This seems like something you might do in some September and October games when every play has a little more juice to it.
The Braves, Brewers, Giants, and Athletics could seemingly benefit from this idea.
Take the Giants as an example. They have the Diamondbacks in town this week. At some point, righty Aaron Hill could step to the plate. Only 12 qualified batters in baseball hit more fly balls per ground ball. And only three qualified batters pull the ball more than him. Check out his spray chart for the last three years.
Look at all those blue doubles in left field that Michael Morse probably couldn’t get to. But Hunter Pence? If it was late and tight and Pence had shagged a few fly balls in left field recently … why not?
You might say that left and right take different skills. Former Padres scout Noah Jackson pointed out that "You do scout differently for left and right depending on arm strength." But on a single-play level, that might not matter so much. You’re basically shifting to take advantage of the meat of the plays, and if the ball goes to the wrong field, it’s not great, arm or no.
Jackson admits that "very few left fielders ever get drafted as left fielders — they are moved there." That suggests that left is the weaker spot, which aligns reasonably well with what we have here. But there are right-handed pull hitters. Josh Willingham, Chris Carter, and Edwin Encarnacion are right-handers in the top-15 in pull percentage, and they’ll face some of these teams. It may make sense to move the better defender into left field when those guys step to the plate.
There could be some problems actually implementing this strategy, however. Jackson, who also coaches for his First Base Foundation travel teams, thinks that this might be "over-coaching" that could "truly hurt your team." Moving a guy not only introduces him to new defensive territory in the middle of a game, but it also impacts the center fielder and where he plays, and could change how you pitch the player at the plate.
And then there are the particularities of each park. "I’d hate to have Gomes in right field at Fenway or Morse in right field in AT&T park," Jackson points out. Triples Alley in San Francisco and the cut-out in right-center in Boston might be murder on an outfielder unfamiliar with their quirks.
Fuld knows that the idea might not have the support it needs to happen now. "It’ll slow down the game, and it will anger people, but if it really matters, you’ll probably see it," said the Oakland outfielder. And, considering the personnel on his own team, he may see it happen first-hand this September.