Between hitters, you might catch Twins outfielders pulling something out of their back pockets. It’s a card, and on this card are commands that read like orders you would give in a game of Battleship.
They might say: “L5, D4” or “R3, S2” or “G4, D1.”
Those letters and numbers are the code for how the outfielders should position themselves against the hitter.
“If you see us moving around like robots out there, that’s what we’re doing, looking at the cards,” outfielder Ryan LaMarre said. “It’s nice to know that they already have a spot for you and this is where you’re supposed to be.”
The players may look like robots as they stagger around the outfield, but the idea behind the cards isn’t to strip away their human instincts and turn them into data-driven machines. The cards are new tools for saving runs, and some of the clearest signs yet that analytics have infiltrated actual game play.
The cards’ instructions are based on analyses of where hitters are likely to place the ball depending on who is pitching. With players hitting more fly balls, in attempts to hit more home runs, outfield positioning is quickly gaining in importance.
“What’s on there is what I consider the ‘all things being equal’ positioning for each hitter versus right- and lefthanded pitchers …” outfielder coach Jeff Pickler said. “There is obviously room for game situations and how they feel to adjust off those things, but that’s what’s on the card.”
The why behind the where
That last part is important to note. Pickler and the Twins coaching staff do not want players to feel as if they are beholden to the cards, and they do their best to tell players why they are moving to a certain spot instead of just telling them to move without any explanation.
Some, like LaMarre and Robbie Grossman, are strict adherents to the card.
“I’d say 99 percent of the time I play the card,” Grossman said.
Center fielder Byron Buxton tries to mix what the card says with what his instincts are telling him, while also considering how the hitter has performed that day or that series.
“I’m way too aggressive to want to listen to a sheet of paper,” Buxton said. “If I miss a ball listening to the sheet of paper when in my head I’m like, ‘Man, I know I should play him here, but this paper says here,’ and he hits it exactly to where I could’ve caught the ball — that would definitely frustrate me as an outfielder.”
Buxton will sometimes deviate from the board game-like instructions, and his league-leading speed certainly helps him compensate if he’s caught out of position.
The letters and numbers are fairly easy to grasp. S and D mean “shallow” and “deep.” So S2 would mean take two steps in from a designated center point. D3 means take three steps back. If you’re a corner outfielder, G means “gap.” So G3 would mean take three steps toward center while L means “line,” so move so many steps toward the line. If you’re playing center, L and R indicate left and right movements.
The game situation can also dictate where Pickler positions outfielders. If there’s one out and a runner on first, the Twins want to keep that runner from making it to third on a single and position accordingly.
Buxton said the outfielders and coaching staff will discuss their concerns and reach a consensus on how to attack certain hitters. Those interactions also allow the coaching staff to better show the players the data that goes into the cards.
“I would say that if there’s too much player feel, then we risk being flighty. And if there’s not enough player feel, we risk being too rigid and data-driven,” Pickler said. “We try to balance that on a case-by-case basis. … It’s a 360-degree view of positioning, not just, ‘Hey, just do what the card says, man.’ ”
Certain margin of error
This battlefront is where teams try to gain an analytics advantage — implementing the data and getting players to understand and act on it. It’s easy to collect data. It’s a whole other ballgame to use it without overwhelming the players.
“Sometimes you can take in a lot more information than what you want to,” Buxton said, “when they could’ve just told you a couple of things like, ‘He hits the ball here, he does this.’ But then you could come up in your head with another two questions to ask them off what they told you.
“Or you could say, ‘Well, this card told me to play him here, so why should I listen to this?’ You trick yourself into not wanting to do what it says. We just got to be able to take in advice.”
The cards aren’t prophetic, and that’s why Buxton also likes to factor instinct into his positioning.
“A guy could’ve struggled last series and this series something could have clicked for him,” Buxton said. “Analytics could tell us to play left-center because he was struggling the last three games — and then he’s [hitting] the ball to the other side, getting extra-base hits.”
Pickler said the cards are the best way for the Twins to “play odds,” adding that the Twins don’t overreact if the cards give them bad advice for a few games.
“You have to be mindful that being off also has a lot of noise built into it,” Pickler said. “There’s some randomness. You can’t get overly carried away when you have a good week or overly carried away when you have a bad week.”
One day in spring training, LaMarre used his card to get in position and then Pickler moved him a few more steps. LaMarre didn’t have a good view of the ball coming off the bat and was unsure of the position, but then: “There were two line drives in a row I didn’t have to move for.
“As soon as I caught it and threw it in I just tipped my hat to Pickler and told him, ‘I trust you.’ ”
That’s what the cards inevitably boil down to: trust. From the players, in the front office, coaching staff and analytics team. From the coaches, in the players and their instincts and input. All in the collaborative spirit of creating an outfield that will save runs.
“Looking at how technology works these days, to tell you where a guy is going to hit the ball is kind of crazy,” Buxton said.
Well, not every time. But that’s the fun of baseball.