Shorthanded and Longhanded

November 29, 2020

We’ve all played shorthanded games in our time, choose-up games where you’ve got only six players on both teams, or eight, or eleven, and somehow we managed to make two teams out of them and play a pretty satisfying afternoon of baseball. In the beginning, bearashith (not the kind involving the woods or the Pope and a funny hat) in the infancy of the game, you know the early teams improvised the number of players, and the number of bases, outs, strikes and every kind of thing you can imagine, including all sorts of made-up-on-the-spot ground rules about what do we do if the ball hits that big old hay-thresher parked out behind second base.

But let’s limit ourselves to an incorrect number of fielders for the nonce, and speculate on what sorts of changes in the game might be wrought by having more, or fewer, fielders than the nine we’ve grown accustomed to. It’s not hard to imagine seven fielders on each team, for example, configured more or less as custom has placed them with the exception of having one fewer infielder and one fewer outfielder. (Not much can be done to change the number of players in the battery—one pitcher and one catcher seems essential to getting a play started.)  Placing the outfielders seems simpler than placing the infielders—not much strategy there, you’d just position the left fielder and the right fielder closer together, shading them depending on the batter, and give up more hits closer to the foul lines. That decision would be made that way because the foul lines would themselves turn a few hard-hit balls per game into mere do-overs. Foul flies caught by the outfielders would become a rarity.

Positioning the three infielders, however, would become a constant strategic game-within-a-game. There really isn’t much you could do about repositioning the first baseman, who would pretty well have to play where he does today, maybe a step further to his right but always within reach of the first-base bag. But which of the three other current infield positions would we eliminate? In keeping with the model of the outfielders I outlined above, it seems to me that we would almost necessarily eliminate the third baseman, on the basis that some of the balls hit down the third base line would wind up harmlessly foul (and we’re already necessarily protecting the first-base line because of the need to play one fielder fairly close to first base). So I see the second baseman being positioned a bit closer to the 2B bag and the shortstop a few steps closer to 3b, but that still leaves a gigantic opening where the third baseman now plays. It would be a righthanded pull-hitter’s paradise, and a bunter’s too.

There is not much you could do to keep the righty pull-hitter in check, aside from pitching him as much as possible to reduce pulled balls, but how about the skilled bunter? Seems to me that, no matter how much you’d shade the shortstop to his right, there would still be a lot of open territory to bunt in down the third base line.

Mind you, I’m not suggesting that the defensive configuration would simply leave the shortstop playing at his traditional positioning, or his traditional depth. By moving him a few steps to his right, and maybe a step or two deeper than he typically plays today, a strong-armed shortstop could cover much of the third baseman’s territory, all except for  balls hit close to the line and balls bunted close to the line, some of which would wind up as foul balls. Often, when the hitter is trying to pull the ball down the line, he’s a little slow on the fastball and hits a ball within the shortstop’s range.

This would be a very exciting, high-offense sort of game, a football-game sort of score, I’m thinking. An inning where the defensive team held its opponent to only three or four hits would be a stellar defensive inning. A more typical defensive inning might be seven or eight hits, and at least five runs.

A 4-6-3 double-play would be a remarkably rare but brilliant defensive coup, what with the shortstop playing as far as he would from his present positioning, but the 6-4-3 play would still be fairly common, I’d imagine, and would assume even greater importance as an inning-killer than it does today.

What would seven-man teams do for pitching? With batters routinely batting around the order in every inning, pitch-counts would of course rise dramatically. I’d expect a mid-inning pitching change in most innings—after throwing his 30th or 40th pitch of an inning, a pitcher’s arm would no longer be of much use, so I’d suppose that pitching staffs would have to increase even further than today’s, perhaps to fifteen or even twenty pitchers on a team. Keeping the ball out of play would increase in importance, so strikeout pitchers would be at a premium while pitching-to-contact would disappear as a tactic.

What I think I’d like about this sort of game would be the changes brought about in terms of the type of player required. The only positions at which you could have a slow-running slugger would be the two positions manned by fielders who have to play close to their bases, catcher and first-base.  Both outfielders would necessarily be as fast and cover as much ground as current centerfielders—you’d never see another Greg Luzinski in the outfield again, a blessed outcome, and most flyballs would be exciting pursuits.

With more speedy outfielders, and middle-infielders with even greater range than they have today, and a fairly immobile first-baseman, the bunt would be a way of getting on base that would be used frequently. Teams would concede a bunt hit as among the less harmful of outcomes, so the ability to place a bunt down the unguarded third-base line would become far more valuable a skill than it is today, and the fast runners required in the outfield would be best suited to exploiting the bunt as batters. The bunt hit might even become the standard, default outcome, which would probably increase the value of pitchers who can field their positions well.

Other results of a seven-man team would be increased base-stealing, particularly of third base. With third base pretty much unguarded, a runner on second base would be tempted to attempt a steal of third base frequently, perhaps routinely, and going first-to-third on a single to the outfield would also increase dramatically: covering third base would be a new responsibility for the shortstop, and often it would be impossible, given his other responsibilities. Steals of second base, on the other hand, might be reduced: the reward of the base would be worth less than the risk of being thrown out. (Nothing much would change about the steal of second base—with the second baseman positioned even closer to the bag than he is, it would be easier to cover.) There may be other changes that I haven’t anticipated but these would be the major ones.

What about the opposite, a team with eleven fielders? Where would your fourth outfielder go, or your fifth infielder, and what would be the effect of these two extra fielders on your team?

Positioning isn’t terribly difficult to figure out, and the changes to the game would be pretty well be the opposite of the seven-man game: bunting, for example, would completely disappear as a tactic, since the third baseman would play a few steps closer to home plate. Why? Because the shortstop could now afford to play a little deeper and a little further to his right (almost exactly where I’m positing he would play, in fact, with a seven-man defense), covering much of the present-day third baseman’s territory.

The shortstop would be able to play further to his right, of course, because our fifth infielder would be playing right behind the second-base bag, depending on how the batter would be shaded, while the second baseman would be positioned closer to first base, eliminating the hole on the right side of the infield. With five infielders, virtually no groundballs would be getting though the infield for base hits.

With the fifth infielder playing where I’m supposing he would play, the fourth outfielder would be redundant as a short-center fielder, as we often used in softball games. I’m imagining him playing instead on an ad hoc basis closing up the gap in right-center or left-center, depending on the batter at the plate. (He wouldn’t move necessarily himself, of course, depending on the batter, but rather the center fielder would play further to his own left or right.) What would be the overall effect of such a change?

Clearly the opposite of the seven-man defense: scores would go from football-like to soccer-like, from 42-35 to 2-1. A hit would be a small miracle, and a run would be a large one. Pitching to contact would now be the way to go, but pitchers who can minimize home runs would also become more desirable. Striking out a batter might be seen as a wasteful effort, when you could otherwise induce him to swing at a pitch that he would probably hit into a waiting fielder’s glove more easily.

Contrarily, I’m thinking that offensive strategies would be centered around the home run, and beefy sluggers would be routinely employed at the corner outfield positions, and the corner infield positions and at catcher, anywhere where speed would be needed less than it is today. This might be an interesting cat-and-mouse game with pitchers and batters, the pitcher trying to get the batter to hit the ball softly, to a fielder, and the batter trying to hit the ball hard, way over every fielder’s head.

The running game would go straight to hell, I figure. Having a runner on first base would be so valuable, you’d scarcely be willing to risk losing one, and the first baseman would be better able to field his position while holding the runner on. That would pretty much be his normal position, anyway, right on top of the first-base line. So offense would be station-to-station, with more runs scoring as a result of the home run than anything else. The outcome of a game would depend on which pitcher was better able to avoid giving up more home runs than his counterpart.

Is this a desirable outcome? It would be a quicker game, for sure. Pitch-counts would be lower, far lower, than they are today. Pitchers would throw more strikes, knowing that more batted balls would find fielders’ gloves, while batters might be pickier about taking swings at pitches unless they’re confident that they can give the pitch a ride. With low pitch-counts, you’d see starters going longer into games: perhaps the complete game would be revived as a routine outcome.

Which game would you prefer? I think I know your answer: you’d prefer to watch the current nine-man game. Which is fine, but remember that it didn’t have to evolve the way it did. There is nothing necessary to the game of baseball about having nine fielders on a side, and if the seven-man game had caught on, or the eight-, ten-, or twelve-man game, then that’s what you’d watching today, and probably what you’d be defending as the normal, regular, All-American pastime.

 
 

COMMENTS (13 Comments, most recent shown first)

Steven Goldleaf
The reason it would make almost as little difference in an MLB game as a pickup game is this: the fielders choose where to position themselves. Lengthening the distance between bases probably favors the fielder, since batted and thrown balls can cover ground faster than a runner can, but within limits since a fielder must position himself no further from first base than he can throw the ball accurately. The only appreciate difference between the results of 100-foot and 80-foot basepaths would be the occasional hard hit ball that would go past a fielder drawn in on an 80-foot field and the occasional slow grounder that a fast runner would be able to beat out on a 100-foot field. On all other plays, the fielder would be able to position himself properly to turn the play as he does on a 90-foot field. You'd never know the difference. With either an 80- or 100-foot basepath Red Smith would still be raving about the absolutely perfect design of the baseball diamond.
8:17 AM Dec 1st
 
MarisFan61
No, it didn't matter for us, but that really has nothing to do with MLB, or at least almost nothing. The games I've ever been in have so much, uh, variability :-) that there's never any expectation for standardness, nor of any particular balance. Games might have scores of 3-2 or 22-19 or 26-0. and one game might have pretty clean fielding (even with DP's being turned) and the next might have a few errors in every inning..... and it doesn't matter, and nobody cares.
And oh -- records aren't kept, nobody is paying to watch (and the ones who are watching might be playing with their dogs most of the time).....

If distance between bases were changed -- let's say, lengthened -- so what; the above score might have been 2-1 or 16-14 or 23-0 instead of the above things. Wouldn't matter. And it probably wouldn't alter how we all approached the game; or if it did, only little, and it wouldn't matter.

If you did it in major league baseball, there is no telling what the degree of effect would be on statistics or on scoring or on how the game would be played.
For all I know, maybe it would be better, but I'm inclined to think the opposite is likely.

BTW, I would say differently about distance of outfield walls.
I would say that increasing the distances would be all to the good, and, up to some point, the more the better.​
10:04 PM Nov 30th
 
Steven Goldleaf
Maris--did you ever play on a non-regulation field that was more or less than precisely 90 feet between the bases? Sure you did. Did you notice any great disruption in the Force because of this disparity? I'm sure you didn't.

Do you suppose that Red Smith's gnomic remark is anything other than a guess? I'll answer this rhetorical question as well: it is a wild guess, an off-the-charts crazy wild statement that is not remotely susceptible to falsification, a nutty opinion that in my view is also completely fanciful.
6:20 PM Nov 30th
 
MarisFan61
Steven: All of that is just a guess.

BTW, Bill said a sort-of-in-a-way similar thing, around a couple of years ago, about how it would be if pitchers were able to throw 120 MPH. He said, batters would adjust -- which I think was more of just-a-guess than what you said.
In fact, I would guess that Bill's guess was just wrong. Yours, I don't know.
12:33 PM Nov 30th
 
Steven Goldleaf
Red Smith could be a dimwitted ass at times. The statement (that I've heard many times, from many other sources) makes no sense. If the bases were 95 feet apart, or 85, the game would be precisely the same as it is today: fielders would play a step deeper or shallower, the stolen base rate would go up or down a tad, and you'd never know the difference. But you would be praising Red Smith's brilliant observation that "Eighty-five feet between home plate and first base may be the closest man has ever come to perfection." I suspect that this statement first got uttered in the days before they even bothered to measure the distance between bases so precisely.
9:51 AM Nov 30th
 
steve161
The great Red Smith once wrote, "Ninety feet between home plate and first base may be the closest man has ever come to perfection."

To a first approximation, I'm inclined to think this applies to the rest of the rules of the game as well.

On a sandlot, of course, sometimes improvisation is unavoidable.
6:23 AM Nov 30th
 
villageelliott
In the mid-eighties friend of mine played on a slow-pitch softball team in a city-sponsored league so popular they played with eleven players in the field.

I used to meet him in the East Bay about once a month. After he got off work we'd usually head to the Yosemite or other places to hike.

One time we were off to San Diego to see the Cardinals play the Padres after one of his games. Since his team was running short of players, I was asked to play.

We had to wait for a high-school girls fast pitch game to end--it went fourteen innings, during which we lost one fool during warmups. He didn't know me, so when he positioned himself to my left during a game of pepper, he would stick his bare hand in front of my hand. I asked him to stop, he laughed. Did it again, warned him of injuring
his hand. Third time he dislocated a finger and slunk off.

When the game finally began we only had nine.

We led off and scored several runs. I drove in two with a line drive to right center.

We took the field inthe bottom of the inning. It was my first time on the field. It was part of a high school had a skinned infield, no fences, was baked hard, rocky and pocked. I wasn't fast but I was deceptively quick with soft hands. I had honed my skills playing shortstop on lava fields in Honolulu. The fields I played in West Marin were rocky but pliant. This field was much faster than I was used to.

Their leadoff hitter blindly rounded first trying trying to stretch a double, plowed into our first baseman, blindly getting in they way. Both were big boys. Both were injured. Their guy left the game. We wouldn't let ours leave, we did not want to forfeit. In stead he pitched.

I had my first chance in the bottom of the second. It was a one-hop rocket of the heel of my glove. Whoa...So much for being toughted a defensive whiz. (I regained and cemented it later on what my friend called "a major league pop-up" I caught in left center. With our three out fielders deep I looked like Phil Rizzuto tracking and catching that ball---I was getting dizzy, surprised I didn't fall over when I caught it.
I can see why Casey would judge his shortstop on his ability to make that play.

The other team was the class of the league, so by my second at bat, they had taken a big lead. Needing baserunners, I hit another line drive to the same spot.

Third time up, I looked out and noticed two short-fielders stationed there. I looked around and for the first time and noticed they had eleven in the field! I dumped it it between the two.

Fourth time,too. Four legitimate line drive singles. I've had big days before with several extra base hits, but I would always make an out. ot sure I was ever four-for-four before.

Game ended with two out in the bottom of the inning. It was our team's center fielder's first game back since he tweaked his right
knee in the first game of the season. They said he was pretty good. On this play he looked like Willie Mays when he turned his back and chased a ball hit directly over his head. He outran it, but as he
caught it over his shoulder he collapsed after stepping in a hole.
tearing up his left knee.

That was it. Game called. Game ended an inning early. Their win was
not the result of two extra players.

It was then my friend told me about their leagues eleven fielder rule. We were walking to the parking ot when one of their short-fielders complimented me on my hitting.

Anyway, From an extremely flawed sample of one, I'd say there is a bigger difference between nine and ten fielders than between ten and eleven.

9:21 PM Nov 29th
 
bearbyz
When I was a kid we use to play with 4 guys in each side, sometime 3. With 4 you had a shortstop Pitcher, center and right fielder. You had the other team catch for you. No steals. If you hit the ball to right side of the infield and to right field and you were out. The pitchers mound acted as first base for outs. No problem.

With three no centerfielder. Anything not to the left side of second base was out.
6:29 PM Nov 29th
 
bewareofdow
Do you think 4-6-3 double plays would go 4-3-6 (to give the shortstop time to run to second, taking off the force and resulting in a rundown) instead?
2:21 PM Nov 29th
 
MarisFan61
Very interesting -- and I'm going to talk about a different kind of comparison:

My totally first thought when I started reading the "short-handed" thing was:
Would I prefer this over things like "ban the shift" as a way of benefiting 'balls in play'? (and as a way of incentivizing 'putting the ball in play')

It feels like a clear yes.

I tend to resist anything non-traditional when it comes to changing the rules of play, but while taking away a fielder or two certainly does that (and messes up the "9's" thing, which I wouldn't like messing up), I'd be a lot more 'offended' by a rule that says fielders can't play wherever it is felt most advantageous.

And it didn't take long for the next thought:
Not only would I prefer it to something like banning the shift; I think it's a good idea altogether.
(or at least I think that I think I do) :-)

Nobody has ever proposed it, as far as I know, but:
-- I am in favor of benefiting and incentivizing "balls in play," and
-- This is just about the least 'offending' step for it that I've come across.

I'd say it would be my second choice for how to do it:
First choice: deadening the ball some.

-------------------------

I was once in a "big game" (of sorts, and it was softball) where we were 1 man short -- in much younger days. What we did was what you said for the infield, including that there was just 1 guy between 2nd and 3rd base. I remember it especially because they let me be that guy.
It was pretty fun. :-)
It even worked, because, well first it was just softball, and mainly, a lot of luck.
11:51 AM Nov 29th
 
DJ_Man
Fun speculation!

Around here, I suggested that instead of the miracle-derived runner at second, baseball have each team drop one player on-field for extra innings -- like when hockey teams play 3-vs-3 in overtime rather than 5-vs-5.

I suspect that it would produce a decision more quickly ... unless both teams kept scoring and matching each other.

11:10 AM Nov 29th
 
Steven Goldleaf
That's a good point, malbuff, about the pitcher in the 7-man game switching spots with the first baseman, which would allow him a break after throwing deep into an inning and to come back the next inning. So your first baseman would need to have a strong throwing arm, which many 1B-men lack. I also think in the 7-man game, we'd see a lot of steals of home, or at least a lot more than we see today, because with no third baseman a runner on third could take a tremendous lead off the base.
8:44 AM Nov 29th
 
malbuff
I always enjoy what-if scenarios when they're presented well, and you've certainly done that here. I'm drawn especially to the idea of the shorthanded game, maybe because in my professional field, the data sciences, doing more with less-- or doing the same, anyway, with less-- is a recurring issue.

I'd think in the seven-man game, we'd see expanded, and elastic, use of substitution. Players would come and go from the bench to the field more frequently, and players could leave and re-enter the game at any time. In your mention of the slow-moving slugger types, you touched on another likely trend-- the decline of specialization. Over time I think you'd see more and more position players also used as pitchers-- especially at first base-- and frequent pitching changes. I'd think runs being cheap would disincentivize the cost of maintaining a stable of pitching specialists, and incentivize developing pitchers who can hit. The concept of the DH would likely never have been considered had the game developed this way.

And maybe that's the other reason I'm drawn to the shorthanded game-- because I know it'll never happen. Can you imagine? The MLBPA would pitch a regular fit were it proposed!

Thanks for a very enjoyable read.
8:13 AM Nov 29th
 
 
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