After three straight 90-plus loss seasons, the Philadelphia Phillies are starting to look like an up-and-coming young team. Last season top prospects Rhys Hoskins, Nick Williams, and J.P. Crawford reached the big leagues, and over the winter the club signed the perpetually productive Carlos Santana to a sensible three-year contract. The Phillies are widely expected to make a run at Manny Machado or Bryce Harper (or both!) next offseason when they hit free agency as well.
Things are starting to look up for the Phillies, and this offseason, the club tabbed rookie manager Gabe Kapler to run the ship. Kapler is a hardcore analytics type and outside-the-box thinker, and this season, the Phillies are planning to use unique outfield shifts based on the hitter's batted ball tendencies. Simply put, Kapler will put the best outfield defender where the batter is most likely to hit the ball. Matt Gelb of The Athletic has details:
The Phillies have used the Grapefruit League games to implement their aggressive outfield shifting for every batter, based on spray charts. But they will go beyond that, flipping players across the field when the numbers tell them it is wisest.
That is why Rhys Hoskins, who will move from first base to left field this season, has begun some light work in right field. The Phillies hope Hoskins can be a passable defender in left field. But they know he lacks range and instincts because it is a new position for him. He will be their worst outfield defender. So Hoskins expects some mid-inning position changes when the data is clear.
"I think if it goes the way they're hoping, I don't see why not," Hoskins said. "Yeah. If we have a chance to get more outs in a big situation, I don't see why not."
Outfield shifts are not new. Teams have been shading their outfielders toward one side of the field based on the hitter's tendencies for decades now. Here is an extreme outfield shift the San Diego Padres used last season against Colorado Rockies second baseman DJ LeMahieu, a right-handed hitter who is one of the most extreme opposite field hitters in the game:
Shading outfielders toward one side of the field is one thing. Having outfielders change positions to put the superior defender in a specific spot is another. That's what the Phillies are planning to do this season.
At the moment the Phillies have four outfielders for three spots: Hoskins, Williams, Odubel Herrera, and Aaron Altherr. Hoskins and Herrera are going to play everyday because they are arguably the two best players on the team. That leaves the left-handed hitting Williams and right-handed hitting Altherr to platoon in the other outfield spot. Both are better defenders than Hoskins, who is a first baseman by trade.
Assuming Herrera remains in center field full-time, Kapler is essentially planning to have Hoskins and Williams/Altherr shuttle between left and right fields based on the hitter at the plate. Williams/Altherr will play wherever the hitter is most likely to hit he ball. Makes sense, right? Makes you wonder why no one has tried this before.
I'm curious to see how well this works on the field, in the real world. Shuttling between outfield corners is a lot of extra miles on the legs during the course of a 162-game season, even if it's only a light jog every few batters. Also, does all the moving around stunt Hoskins' development as an outfielder? Would the better long-term play be leaving him in left field and letting him focus on one position?
Spring training is the time to experiment and that's what the Phillies are doing right now. There's no harm is having the outfielders shuttle around during Grapefruit League games. See how it works, get some feedback from the players, then figure out the best plan. Props to the Phillies and Kapler for thinking outside the box.