For my entire 48-year career in baseball, I have been fascinated by the art of defensive positioning. We always used the off-season to experiment with this strategy as we utilized different alignments and sets against certain hitters. We kept and studied various charts that tracked where a hitter’s batted balls went based on type of pitch and count. This afforded us an opportunity to align our outfielders in areas where we could reasonably expect to make a play that could save potential extra bases.
The concept also applied to our infielders. At our program we had a deep appreciation for the double play! So we always took into consideration where the second baseman or shortstop were set up. During the off-season or Fall scrimmages, we allowed our players to position themselves according to our game plan. We spent a considerable amount of time in the classroom and on the field as we prepared our defenders for the appropriate alignments.
During the season however, I always had a coach in charge of our defensive “formations.” We rehearsed these physical alignments along with the terminology we used on a consistent basis. I can honestly say that the time spent in this area proved to be valuable asset for our teams over the course of a season.
My Opinion on Shifts in Baseball
There certainly is a great deal of discussion and controversy regarding shifts in Major League Baseball and to some kind of a lesser extent, collegiate and prep baseball. I am aware that there is a strong possibility that extreme shifts may be eliminated or altered as early as 2023, and I understand the rationale behind some of the people who want to eliminate the radical shifting.
There is no doubt that the left-handed hitter has been impacted the most as we consider the shift. Balls that were pulled into right field for a base hit are now relegated to a “ground ball” out. Balls hit up the middle often find a defender lined up directly behind second base. I’m sure that some hitters have given up the thought of switch-hitting because of this!
Personally, I don’t mind these extreme shift alignments. I believe a team should be able to put their players anywhere they want. If they get exposed by players bunting or adjusting their swings, so be it. I know I could live with that as a head coach. During my career, I never utilized the type of extreme shifting that you currently see, but we did overload some areas of the field with multiple defenders. To be honest, I enjoy watching the cat and mouse game when a hitter is forced to handle the bat differently or drop down a bunt to beat a shift.
Five Factors to Consider When Setting Up Defense
1. Chromosome of the Hitter
We always felt certain hitters were comfortable with their hand path and swing type. They could be “predictable” on where their contact would be if we pitched him properly. There were hitters who wanted to pull at all costs, for example. This this allowed us to overload an area. We could also apply this concept to hitters who featured an “inside-out” swing and would use the opposite field for a majority of their contact. Once again, executing our pitch was critical in this tactic.
2. Chromosome of the Pitcher
The makeup of the pitcher also played a significant role in our alignment. A high velocity or power arm allowed us to pound the outer portion of the strike zone and overload the opposite field. Once again, we relied on good command of the baseball to make this strategy work for us. A poorly executed pitch could leave us vulnerable in a certain part of the field.
Our teams had a very well thought out “zone system” for defending the field based on location of the pitch, which we spent a considerable amount of time working on. This zone system covered not only the strike zone, but areas slightly outside the strike zone. This was practiced throughout the off-season and during the season as well. Our catchers had a sophisticated shifting technique that relied on precise timing and alignment, and we were pretty efficient in this area.
4. Pitch Type
We always wanted our middle infielders to know every pitch and location that was being called. It was their responsibility to relay that information to the corner infielders. This had to be a 100 percent investment by everyone. Obviously, we wanted our people to “cheat” on off speed/soft pitches. These movements had to be subtle and well timed to prevent a hitter from anticipating a pitch or location.
This was our last factor to consider. We certainly understood the difference between a 3-1 count and an 0-2 count. We identified the outstanding two-strike hitters on the opposing team, the ones with a real approach who were willing to change their swings just to put a ball in play. These were those pesky, competitive guys that were looking to hit the ball the other way or up the middle. We shaded these hitters appropriately.
Like I mentioned, you have to commit considerable time to defensive alignments and shifting if you want to see significant changes in these areas. Obviously, we were ultimately trying to put our players in areas where we anticipated the ball to be hit, but this took time, as we had to understand the tendencies of our fielders, pitchers and opposing hitters as well. We relied on command and execution of pitches and making routine plays. We also needed outstanding movement tendencies from our catchers. It’s a lot of work, but it served us well for many seasons.
I hope this article assisted some coaches and perhaps added some ideas to their systems as they embark on another Fall. Good luck in your quest to make your players better in this great game! IP
Before retiring in 2012, Sam Piraro was the head coach at San Jose State University for 25 years. He won more than 800 games as the skipper of the Spartans, who finished with a record below .500 only five times in his tenure. SJSU won three WAC championships and made a pair of NCAA Tournament berths, advancing to their first-ever College World Series in 2000. In addition to being a regular contributor for Inside Pitch, Piraro is currently an assistant coach for his son Jason at Archbishop Mitty High School in San Jose. He has also coached with his brother, Stuart, at Lincoln High School in San Jose, and served as Director of Coach and Player Development at Sirious Baseball, Inc. Piraro was a part of the inaugural class of the Mission College Athletics Hall of Fame (2021) and has recently been selected to the City of San Jose Sports Authority Hall of Fame.