Here’s an idea that might not sound so foreign in Pittsburgh: A 3-4 defense.
It’s an idea that has been around for decades in football, and the Steelers have been one of the main teams that used the formation.
You have seven guys in the box. Most football teams stack four people on the line, sending a fifth person in from the linebackers in the back field.
In the 3-4 defense, three people stack the line, with two of the four linebackers on the blitz. The formation makes it difficult for offenses to prepare against, as you don’t know which players from the backfield will be attacking the line.
You can’t just transition from a 4-3 to a 3-4 defense. You need the right personnel up front. Particularly, you need defensive linemen who can cover multiple offensive linemen. The defenders in a 4-3 defense are typically smaller, while a defender on the line in a 3-4 is much bigger, ready to take on two linemen.
It’s not much different of a concept in baseball.
The 3-4 defense in baseball has become more popular in recent years, especially among more analytically-minded teams like the Rays. A normal baseball defensive formation has four infielders and three outfielders.
The four infielders cover ground balls. The three outfielders cover a massively bigger range of space, aimed at stopping line drives and catching fly balls.
Teams have been shifting one of their infielders to the outfield in some circumstances, especially when you’ve got a fly ball hitter at the plate.
The early formation of this is the extreme type of shift where the third baseman plays shortstop, the shortstop plays second, and the second baseman plays in shallow right field against a left-handed power hitter.
A more extreme formation has that fourth outfielder further removed from the infield rotation, but still helping to take away the gaps.
The biggest area of difference a team can make is on line drives. In 2020, the average batting average on balls in play by hit type:
A line drive is going to fall in for a hit about two-thirds of the time. A fly ball rarely falls in for a hit, and a ground ball finds a hole about a quarter of the time. The line drives are not only hits, but go for extra bases often.
By removing an infielder and moving them to the outfield, you could take away the gaps by having two center fielders. You’d have a danger of increasing the amount of ground balls that go through for hits. But a ground ball that finds a hole is almost always a single. A liner to the gap is usually extra bases.
If you could cut down line drives to singles through positioning, the additional ground balls that find their way through a three-man infield would be mitigated, and a team might wind up ahead in total bases allowed.
You would need the right three guys up front though, just like in football.
The Pirates have a good setup for this.
Ke’Bryan Hayes is a third baseman who could probably play shortstop in the majors. Under an extreme defensive alignment, he could play both positions, giving up the third base line to take away most on the left side.
They have Erik Gonzalez who has emerged as a potentially average starting shortstop. Gonzalez is led by defense, and could cover the middle of the infield.
The final piece would be a first baseman who is more athletic and covers more ground, being able to handle the right side of the infield while making the run to the bag for outs. Josh Bell would not do well in this type of situation, but a middle infielder moving over to first on defense might round out a nice three-man infield.
That would allow for a fourth outfielder, preferably a center field type. This way you can cover both gaps and center field much easier, leaving fewer gaps for opposing hitters to aim for. The Pirates have guys like Cole Tucker, Adam Frazier, and Kevin Newman who have played some outfield, and might be good in a fourth outfielder role. Having an additional infielder might also make it easier to switch back and forth between a 4-3 and 3-4 alignment, depending on the batter.
The remaining gaps would largely be down the foul lines, which are difficult places to hit and keep the ball fair.
The tradeoff here is that you’d be reducing the offense at first base, using a middle infielder to cover that ground. Assuming the DH remains in the National League, you could still have the first base bat in the lineup. You just couldn’t have an additional big bat. The trade is a sacrifice at one spot in the lineup to hopefully reduce the production of every spot in the opposite lineup.
Between Hayes, Gonzalez, and Frazier, the Pirates have a strong enough defensive infield to see three people cover the ground that four would previously cover. That could allow them to get creative in the outfield, and try to cut down on the massive impact of line drives from opponents.
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