DENVER - Across Major League Baseball, clubs have shifted more and more in the last decade. Consumers of the game have grown pretty accustomed the shift, which has been famously employed against Lou Boudreau, Ted Williams, David Ortiz and many more fearsome hitters.
Variations of the shift have been around longer than the National League. On June 25, 1870, an account in The New York Clipper of a game between the Atlantics of Brooklyn and the Cincinnati Red Stockings read, “The Cincinnati fielders moved about in the field, according to the different batsmen that came to bat." That of course was just nine days after the Red Stockings' 80 game win streak was ended by the Atlantics in 11 innings.
But this week baseball saw two odd things—both of which have been done before—that point to a trend that might develop.
Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon employed a four man outfield against the 'ungodly' Joey Votto. Four man outfields have been around at least since Kansas City tried it against Jim Rice in 1978. Tony La Russa joked about using it at the expansive Coors Field but current Colorado Rockies manager Bud Black might be thinking about it too. And not as a joke.
Black was on staff with Maddon in Anaheim, on a World Series winning Angels club.
The idea was presented to Maddon by former Angels scout Gary Sutherland prior to the World Series in 2002. Sutherland predicted that this was the best way to defend San Francisco Giants star Barry Bonds, according to the Chicago Tribune.
"I don't think we did it, we talked about it," Black said. "I remember that. Joe is very creative, and we talked about that with Barry."
When he was in Tampa, Maddon would go on to use a four man outfield against Jim Thome and Ortiz in certain situations.
"It’s almost like Tony Gwynn when he was good, actually moving to be in the right spot as the ball was pitched to try to be in the right spot or to distract him. We did it in that situation for that reason," Maddon said earlier this week.
Meanwhile, New York Mets manager found himself in a tough spot due to injuries, forcing catcher Travis d’Arnaud into the infield. Using David Wright's glove d’Arnaud and Asdrubal Cabrera switched between second and third base 18 times over the course of the ballgame on Wednesday.
"In San Deigo, there was a game where we kept shifting the second baseman and the third baseman based on where we thought the hitter was going to hit the ball," Black remembered of a similar such situation from his past. "Somebody was out of position so we moved that player back and forth."
Black doesn't think these shifts—or at least shifts like these—are going to be unique to injury-hampered clubs and ones facing some of the best hitters.
"The day is coming, you're going to see more of that. You're going to see more of that within the next 10 years," Black said. "I think you're going to see outfielders, your best corner outfielder is going to from left to right, those guys are going to switch. That's coming."
"Let's say for instance with Matt Adams, who the Braves have been playing in left, I could see a guy like Adams going to right with a right-handed pull hitter and vice versa."
There was a 1,223 percent increase in the use of infield shifts from 2011 to 2016 which has defined the 2010s decade of baseball. The next 10 years could be defined by outfield shifts, at least that's what Black hints at.
"We're talking about them now," he said. "These type of things, you have to prepare these players in the minors by exposing them to every single position, which we do here in this organization."
Black noted Maddon's bunt defense as another innovation by his former cohort he was interested in. Maddon's bunt defense has brought remembrance to a long forgotten rule about first baseman and the gloves they must wear which has led to some comedy.
Maddon might have been at the forefront of shifts when he was with the Rays and even before that when he was one of the first to think to shift Ken Griffey Jr. but now in Chicago his Cubs have shifted less than almost any team in baseball. Yet, the Cubs have shifted more uniquely as aforementioned.
Combine creativity with increased versatilely in ballplayers and the game could be in for a change.
"That's why you see the (Raimel) Tapias, (Mike) Tauchmans and (David) Dahls. That happens in A-Ball and Double-A that's why you see guys like (Ryan) McMahon move around," Black said about some of Colorado's young players. "Would anybody have thought two years ago that (third base prospect) McMahon was going to plays second in the big leagues. But I think there is going to be more of that throughout the game and in all organizations."
It still is more of an anomaly than a trend but if these new adjustments continue in their creativity and their effectiveness these new shifts, the outfield shifts, could be the trend that defines the 2020s.
The next topic on this issue might be trying to speed the game up for outfielders running across the field to switch which corner they're in.