Last Friday, in the second inning against the Rangers, Robinson Cano went where no man, at least no infielder, had gone before.
Cano, the Mariners’ nominal second baseman in this instance, was situated in an alignment in which he began 221 feet from home plate against Joey Gallo.
According to information provided by Daren Willman, no infielder in the Statcast era had ever been situated that far from home plate to begin a play, if you toss out the handful of four-outfielder alignments that have involved infielders — like Astros third baseman Alex Bregman playing left field, also against Gallo, earlier this season.
But in that instance, Bregman was clearly playing at a traditional outfield depth. The Cano case is interesting because it forces us to ask: what do we call him in this scenario? Is he an infielder? Is he an outfielder?
Tom Tango asked this question on the eve of the season: When is an infielder an outfielder?
In examining 2017 Statcast data, Tango found no players labeled as infielders had begun a play farther than 220 feet from home plate. Tango found that there were 17 instances of players aligning in what he called a “gray zone” between 214-220 feet. Eight were infielders and nine were outfielders. This season, according to Willman, there have been 67 pitches when an infielder has stood at least 200 feet away from home plate but again, none as deep as Cano.
Cano and the Mariners have pushed the limits of when a defender can be described as a infielder. Tango set a line of demarcation at 220 feet and Cano crossed it.
Here’s how Tango concluded:
“We can even say that you are an ‘infielder’ if you have a reasonable chance of getting the batter out on a force play at 1B. If you can’t, then you are really an outfielder, there to catch balls on the fly. To that end, maybe an infielder has to be shallower, like at 190-210, and what we see as deep ‘shifts’ is in fact not a shift, but a 4th outfielder.”
While shifts have become part of everyday baseball over the last six-plus seasons, I asked Mariners manager Scott Servais if alignments as extreme as Friday’s with Cano require a compelling sales pitch by the staff. Servais says there is no questioning even of extreme alignments in today’s game.
“We looked at what fit our personnel best and what we thought would work,” Servais said. “Some teams tried four outfielders [vs. Gallo]. I don’t know how much impact it had on him. [Gallo] did try and bunt several times.”
Maybe Gallo has had enough of intra-division teams like the Astros, Mariners and A’s continuing to aggressively align against his unique batted-ball profile.
Gallo’s revenge on Tuesday:
Tango’s question is an interesting one, and alignments like Cano’s and Bregman’s are interesting in a larger sense, because the game continues to demand that its defenders become more versatile. Another extreme example was the Phillies swapping corner outfielders this spring. Position labels continue to be tested. Are we headed toward a future where infielders regularly become outfielders depending upon the pitcher and batter tendencies? Where players regularly shift sides of the field depending upon the batter’s spray chart? Are we headed to position-less baseball? To more defenders occupying gray areas?
Perhaps teams can get away with less defense on the field since the strikeout era has removed about 20 percent of batted balls from play compared to a decade earlier.
Cubs manager Joe Maddon is credited with pushing limits. Not only did he introduce regular infield shifts in the American League, he played four-man outfields against Jim Thome, David Ortiz, Travis Hafner and Jason Giambi with the Rays.
“At that time, it was really outside the box … but I really thought it was fascinating,” Maddon said.
Still, Maddon who has instituted so many unconventional alignments, who has played Kris Bryant and Ian Happ in center field, who has had Anthony Rizzo switch gloves and play second base, feels there are limits to the idea that we are headed toward a position-less future.
“I just think there are skill-sets that are necessary in certain parts of the field,” Maddon said. “A second baseman still needs to be able to turn a double play, shortstops, too. Outfielders aren’t as good at picking up a ground ball, they often have longer arms. There are different skill-sets with each position.”
On the lineup cards posted in the Cubs clubhouse, Bryant and Javier Baez are still tagged with traditional position labels even though they might find themselves all over the field in the course of a game. Maybe we are headed toward a future where instead of nine individual positions on a lineup card, you have middle-of-the-field and corner players, who are inter-changeable within their position group based upon the tendencies of the batter and pitcher.
I asked Ben Zobrist, the player who made the “utility” label cool — who has played just about everywhere on the field — about the challenges of labeling players today. For instance, how he would score an air-ball out to Bryant playing shallow right field?
“It would be a F-5 instead of P-5. I guess that’s the way I would mark it,” Zobrist said. “It presents more a challenge for scorekeepers than anyone else.”
What do the Cubs call the position Cano was playing?
What do they call Bryant in shallow right?
“We don’t really call it ‘rover’ or some sort of other name,” Zobrist said. “We still label them traditionally. [Bryant] is the third baseman but he is playing short right field.… We would call that position we’re in ‘heavy pull mode,’ where he plays an extended position out there.”
Zobrist accepted something like position-less baseball well before other players. About a decade ago, when the Rays asked him if he was comfortable bringing four different gloves to camp, Zobrist embraced it, wanting a chance to be in the lineup. Zobrist thinks versatility will only grow in importance and alignments will only become more creative and extreme.
“I could also see some excellent defender, the best defender, being put in various positions for various hitters based upon data and where he hits the ball,” Zobrist said. “Like Jason Heyward, he’s one of the best defenders in the league and he’s in right field. But if you have a guy who doesn’t really hit it to right field, why wouldn’t you put him in the left side?
“There’s certain alignments we had last year as a defense where we wanted [Baez] playing their base, or we wanted him playing shortstop or second because of his ability for range in those positions.”
Zobrist believes there should be dedicated utility player position on All-Star Game rosters. In that sense, Zobrist is suggesting the game ought to move beyond labels or at least think more deeply about what contributions players are making defensively.
Maybe the game is not headed toward something as extreme as position-less baseball, but our ideas of what positions are — what we should label them — is certainly being tested.