First Pitch: If You Could Only Have One Fielder, Where Would You Position Him?

The shed stands on a concrete slab, up the hill facing the alley that runs behind the house.

It’s painted a weird color that’s not quite gray and not quite brown, almost appearing a pale yellow when the golden sun hits.

Ivy runs up the wall. The paint is chipping with age. One of the window panels is broken, showing the age of the building and the hits it took. The history of the structure all sits towering over what we call left field.

A sidewalk runs the length of the right side of the square stadium. That’s first base and the foul line.

The swing set is second base. The small pine trees are third base.

Home plate is wherever you can get the furthest from that monstrous shed covered in ivy, in order to launch bombs over the roof with a giant orange bat.

The perfect amalgamation of Fenway Park, Wrigley Field, and my back yard as a kid.

Baseball is a difficult game to play as a neighborhood game. To get an official game, you need nine players on either side. You need a big neighborhood and a summer day to get 18 players. You also need a big enough back yard to hold all of those kids, because if you get enough players fenced in to a small enough space, the BABIP rate just plummets. At that point, when there is no open grass to target on the field, the only way you can score runs is to hit homers — our childhoods predicting our futures watching the 2020 MLB playoffs.

We had a big enough neighborhood to get some big games together, but most of the time when we were playing baseball as kids we had three or four people on the field.

One pitcher.

One batter.

One base runner.

One fielder.

No stealing.

Up to two ghost runners.

Ten runs per inning, max.

When we lined up in the field, we lined up in the middle of the field, behind second base, like a shifted shortstop with a left-handed power hitter at the plate. That’s not hard to do when you have a square back yard with zero notches or corners to deal with. It was necessary, as you are the entire defense, and you want to be equidistant to all parts of the field. It would be just as necessary on a real baseball field.

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Picture a baseball field.

Here, I’ll help:

That’s PNC Park, shot by our photographer David Hague, with the Pirates playing slightly shifted to the right against a left-handed hitter.

Now I want you to imagine that this is PNC Park from an alternate universe.

Everything is exactly the same.

Except in this universe, you can only have one fielder.

There’s no catcher, as there’s no need to catch the ball. There’s no base stealing allowed, no need for caught third strikes, and there’s a device in this universe that automatically catches every baseball and returns it to the pitcher.

There is a pitcher. Pitchers are geared toward being athletic in this universe. Strikeouts are important, so teams put their best athletes with best arms on the mound. In your universe, some of these players might have played shortstop or center field, so as to not waste their hitting abilities, and to maximize something called “their zone.” In this universe, there is only one fielder playing behind the pitcher. Having a pitcher who strikes guys out and covers a lot of ground quickly in the infield is crucial to success.

With all of that said…

Where would you position that one player on the field?

My answer would be in shallow center field, behind second base, shifting to either side depending on what hand the batter is at the plate.

You’ve got one player, so ground balls are out of the question, unless they’re hit up the middle. Your defense is reliant on strikeouts, hard grounders up the middle, fly balls to the middle of the field, or towering pop outs. Fortunately, the other team has the same defensive restrictions. Vegas sets the O/U for each game at 120.5. MLB plays a 60-game regular season under this format, but the games are so long that it takes six months to get through that schedule.

Here would be my approximate positioning for that one player:

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Great news! The league has now allowed for two players. Games were taking too long, and pitchers were starting to get injured after record-level pitch counts.

You still don’t need a catcher. The device that so efficiently catches everything behind the plate and delivers it back is now called a MOLINA, which doesn’t really stand for anything. It was created by the MLBPA outside of the game as a separate venture, sold on shelves to every kid for Christmas one year for $249.99, is in every high school and college in America, and the movie and toy rights were eventually sold to Disney for $10 billion dollars. The MLB owners saw none of that money in a surprising twist for this universe.

Your only task here is to determine where you would put two players on the field. Here is my approximate placement:

I’m giving up deep center field and the corners here, covering the outfield gaps. This will convert more fly balls to outs, while increasing the hard ground ball zone in the infield a bit wider. Most grounders still go for a hit, but line drives to the gaps are now outs, or singles at best.

Note that from here on out the numbers will represent the best overall athlete, which is the highest range (which tells us how much ground a player can cover in all directions) and the most arm strength (how deep can the players play while still being able to throw to all bases, since the strategy of cutoff men is reduced). The throw to first base is a priority.

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The league saw a massive decrease in runs after the last change. However, Billy Hamilton has revived his career and set the home run record two years in a row, just on inside-the-park home runs. Speedy outfielder Jasiah Dixon is now the top hitting prospect in the Pirates’ system.

MLB has decided to add a third player to the field to cut down on the offense. Where would you position them?

My third player gives me an outfield wall playing shallow and giving up the corners.

I want my best athlete in the middle, since that area provides the most ground to cover and the deepest throw to home. PNC has a spacious left field in any universe, so I want my second best athlete there for the range and the deep throws necessary. Right field is shallow, so there’s less ground to cover, and a shallow positioning with strong arm strength helps to convert hard hit ground balls to outs.

I could see an argument for two outfielders in the gap and one guy covering the middle of the infield, almost like a triangle defense.

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Fly balls have now returned to their normal “one-in-ten falls for a hit” levels following the addition of a third player. Ground balls are still going for hits, but Hamilton is now held to doubles most of the time. Jasiah Dixon drops to tenth best in the system, needing more power in his game to make up for the lost inside-the-park homers that have dropped his OPS to 2.500 under the new system.

For the third year in a row, MLB in this universe is expanding how many players can play on the field. You can now play four players, with teams saying that the added fielder will help to reduce on the .800 BABIP on ground balls under the old system.

How many of those four fielders do you put in the infield and how many in the outfield?

Here’s my formation:

I’m maintaining the three shallow outfield alignment from the last season, with my best athlete on the left side of the infield. This cuts down more on grounders to the more frequent side, while still covering most of the outfield. You’re also able to play a bit deeper in left and center field, since you don’t have to worry about ground balls as often with the triangle that is formed between the top three players. You’d need to go with very detailed shifting in order to minimize the damage to always having an open side to the infield.

There are multiple choices. Here was another one I had:

In this example, I focused more on converting as many ground ball outs as I could, while cutting down on liners to the gaps and fly balls everywhere but the corners. More balls go to the outfield, and those are the ones that allow for the most bases, which is why my priority went to the formation that covered the outfield.

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The ground ball BABIP rate plummeted with the addition of a fourth fielder. It has started to turn the fielding portion of the game from “try to limit the total number of bases” to “try to creatively position players to cover all of the probable hitting areas.”

MLB follows up with the addition of a fifth fielder, hoping to make ground ball base hits a thing that happen less than 50% of the time.

You’ve got five fielders and you can play them anywhere. You still don’t need a catcher. The MOLINA is about to see an upgrade next year, and rumor has it they’ve added a feature where it controls the running game. I can’t even comprehend what that means from a robot that is sold on the shelves at Dick’s Sporting Goods, but it sounds kind of dystopian.

Here’s my alignment for five players.

I’ve got a W formation going. There are two actual infielders, playing deep where second and short traditionally play. The outfielders are spread out, giving up line drives to the gaps to cut down on doubles and triples to the corners. It’s the opposite of the 2009 Pirates’ outfield strategy, except ground balls can now go for triples with no first or third basemen.

I could see an argument for two outfielders deeper in the gaps and three infielders positioned closer to each bag if you care about totally cutting down ground balls.

Traditionalists in this universe, who care more about the damage done on a line drive to the outfield, tend to go with a formation that features four outfielders and an infielder playing up the middle. It typically looks something like this, with the center fielders playing deep, and the corners playing in to help with grounders to the sides.

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Pitchers are getting tired of running to first base for every ground out and have lobbied for the addition of an extra player. The strength of the MLBPA in this universe, thanks to outside ventures like MOLINA, allow them to get basically whatever they want in negotiations from the owners.

Some teams have found that positioning a player near first allows them to focus on developing pitchers who are good only at pitching, rather than developing athletic pitchers who can cover ground on the field. This puts more of a focus on control, which wasn’t a big issue in the past. If the alternative is a home run or an extra base hit, a walk isn’t scary. Now that inside the park home runs are nearly eliminated, walks are a thing we can focus on.

MLB teams want to add a sixth player to increase the usage of a player covering first base, so that pitchers can get back to focusing on pitching and working on their control.

Here’s how I would align the six:

I’m going with two walls, similar to the alignment with three players. Here you’ve got the outfielders deep and the infielders deep. The outfield is a typical formation. The infield leaves you with a choice to either give up grounders down the line, or to give up grounders through the massive holes on either side when the players are playing closer to the bags. You could shift from side to side in order to selectively give up one corner of the infield while reducing the size of the holes between fielders. This is not unlike a normal defense today under a shift, with one infielder in the outfield.

The traditionalists in this universe still love their filled outfields…

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By this point we’ve gone from “where would you put one player on the field to limit damage” to “where would you strategically position these guys to cover the most ground and convert outs?”

The addition of a seventh player to the field, with no need for a catcher, gives us what we have in our own universe.

If you’re starting with a blank field, and no traditional positions, where would you position seven players to cover the most ground and cut down on the most hits?

The whole point of this is to get to the debate of whether you should have three or four outfielders.

The traditionalists in the other universe idolize Billy Hamilton like he’s Barry Bonds. They say he will be the lone member of the 2,000 home run club. They remember the damage that could be done on a ball hit hard to the outfield, and they fear that more than a single that makes it through a slightly less crowded infield. How many of those singles would still be singles with an additional infielder? They believe the reduced bases from the extra outfielder outweights the added singles from the light infield.

In our universe, we go with the traditional 4-3 formation, with four infielders and three outfielders, because it’s what teams have done for as long as we can remember. At some point, someone had the task of trying to figure out where to position seven fielders behind the pitcher to best maximize outs and minimize total bases. They eventually came up with the 4-3 formation, which worked well enough that it became the standard.

In today’s game, where power is such a big factor, and where positioning is so precise, I’d rather have an extra outfielder than an extra infielder. That gives you two center fielders, while needing a more athletic first baseman capable of covering most of the right side of the infield. This would give up more singles down the lines, but would also convert more gap shots to outs or singles.

Of course, the best alignment is customized to each individual player. Some players might be better candidates for four infielders. Some might need five infielders. Some might need five outfielders. But if I’m going with an alignment for the average player, this is the one I’d go for in 2021.

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What is your alignment with seven players in the field, positioned anywhere you feel they’ll cover the most ground and reduce hits the most? Respond in the comments.

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