Royals attempt new defensive alignment
Outfielders playing in to limit opponents' baserunners
DETROIT -- Don't be surprised if you see Royals outfielders edging unusually close to the infield this season.
At times during Spring Training, manager Trey Hillman had his outfielders positioned three or four steps inward in an effort to prevent bloop hits and snag broken-bat bleeders. You know, those things that used to be called "Texas Leaguers."
What began as an experiment in Arizona has, to some extent, been carried over into the regular season.
"We're still trying to do it, but we're trying to monitor that against the lineups and the game situations as well," Hillman said. "And compare that to comfort level. I told Rusty [Kuntz, outfield coach], 'Let's continue with this as long as the outfielders can be comfortable. If they can't get comfortable at three to four [steps], let's push them to get comfortable at one or two.' "
Of course, creeping closer is not without risk.
Center fielder David DeJesus was burned in a Cactus League game against the Milwaukee Brewers.
"After the one the Brewers' shortstop (Alcides Escobar) hit over my head, it was like, 'Let's go back to where you feel comfortable and we'll start from there and move maybe one step in.' So we're going to try that out," DeJesus said.
It's a work in progress, but DeJesus has seen some benefits.
"It's a good idea. You want to take those cheap hits away. But there are certain guys, like the 3-4-5 hitters, you can't play right behind shortstop because obviously they hit the ball harder," he said.
For example, against the Detroit Tigers, the Royals might be able to pull in against leadoff batter Edgar Renteria, but probably not against the rest of their power-laden lineup.
Not only the batter but the game situation can make a difference on whether to play closer in or farther out, Kuntz pointed out.
"Two outs, man on first, let them have the hit in front of you. Take away the long double that scores a guy from first and make them get another hit to score that guy," Kuntz said, before elaborating on another situation:
"As opposed to a man on second with two outs: There I want to take away that bloop or that line drive because if he squares it up and hits it over my head, he's going to score anyway."
An outfielder has to assess the batter's power potential, the situation in the game, who is pitching and how he's doing, as well as his own ability to turn and go back after a ball. A lot of things go into it.
A big factor:
"How well our pitchers locate," Hillman said. "If [the opponent is] squaring balls up and hitting balls over our outfielders' head one or two times an inning we're going to be more prone to back them up unless we've gone to the bullpen by then."
Additionally, there is also a mental effect on a pitcher of having the outfielders playing in.
"It gives the pitcher an understanding that if they do make a good pitch, somebody will be there to have a chance to make that play," Kuntz said. "If we're constantly playing back on the warning track and give up too many gopher balls, we're not accomplishing anything."
Joey Gathright, the fleetest Royals outfielder, likes the idea.
"It's good, it's something we're working on. You've just got to get used to going back on the ball. Some guys are used to it and some guys are not ... I think in the long run it'll work out for us."
Mark Teahen, shifting this year to left field from right, talked about the effect in a spring game.
"There were a couple of balls that could've been caught if we'd have been a little deeper, but it's kind of flip-a-coin. I'm sure when we were playing back, there were a couple balls that dropped in front of us," he said. "For the most part, it's going fine. It's a see-what-happens-to-it situation.
There is a different feeling, DeJesus noted, when he's pulled in and is staring at shortstop Tony Pena's back. Uniform No. 1 can look awfully close and the center field fence rather distant.
"One day I was feeling like I was right behind Tony," he said. "Geez, there's a lot of room back there, that's a lot of sprinting. There's a lot of grass back there."
Dick Kaegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.