Finding an Edge

FUNdamental Skills
By Darren Fenster

For all the wrong reasons, the Astros were the talk of the off-season. Following an extensive investigation by the Commissioner’s Office, it was found that Houston had implemented a system that illegally enabled their hitters to know what pitch was coming, giving them a distinct advantage over their opponents en-route to a World Series title in 2017. Well before technology, analytics, and data were even on baseball’s radar, players and coaches have been looking for an edge as long as the game has been around. The Astros just took it to a whole ‘nother level, going leaps and bounds beyond the appropriate line of gamesmanship within the game.

Players and teams who are constantly looking for even the slightest of edges are able to separate themselves from the pack when they find it. The edge is about the smallest of details; and for those with the eyes and the mind to find it, an edge can be found all over the game.

From 2006-2011, as a member of the coaching staff at Rutgers University, I was responsible for creating scouting reports for all of our opponents. In addition to developing a plan of attack based on the overall stat lines for the opposing players, we also compiled additional information and tendencies that were potentially valuable while easily able to be implemented in game by our players and coaches. Knowing a few of these different things and finding a way to use that information could help us on every side of the ball.

Looking at a spray chart to know where to position our infielders might just enable us to make a play defensively that otherwise may have gotten through for a hit. It may allow a pitcher to get ahead in a big at bat in a key moment to know that the hitter was not a first-pitch swinger. It might open a window for us to get a stolen base on a pitcher’s slow delivery or stretch an extra 90-feet against a weak-armed outfielder. All of those types of edges add up, and over the course of a game and a season, they add up to wins.

The eyes can also create an edge by simply paying close attention. For decades, baserunners, when on second base, have worked to subtly relay pitches to the hitter by intently watching a catcher’s sign sequence. This is essentially what the Astros got in trouble for, only they didn’t use their eyes from second base; they used a camera from centerfield. Similarly, the keenest of eyes can pick up when a pitcher may be tipping his pitches by seeing the most minute difference from pitch to pitch.

For as detailed and challenging as getting pitches may be for a lineup, when out in the field, that edge can be gained much easier. Foul balls tell a story for the defense. When a hitter is clearly late against a hard-throwing pitcher, infielders and outfielders should clearly see that and position themselves a few steps to the opposite field. Pitchers can get a leg up against a hitter by reading swings; was the batter completely fooled by a change-up? Then it might be a good idea to throw it again. Baserunners may get a great jump on a dirt ball when realizing that the pitcher always throws one when he gets to two strikes. All of these tiny, little edges add up, especially when everyone on the team is looking for them.

Finding an edge is all about preparation off the field and in the dugout, allowing players and coaches to anticipate when the game comes around. Information enables those in the game to take the guess work out of it. With all of the variables that can occur over the course of an inning, a game, and a season, every pitch can be a crapshoot. The more variables we can eliminate, the easier we can make a really, really hard sport.

Darren Fenster is currently the Minor League Outfield and Baserunning Coordinator for the Boston Red Sox. Previously, Fenster was the Manager of the Portland Sea Dogs, the Double-A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox. A former player in the Kansas City Royals minor league system, Fenster joined the Red Sox organization in 2012 after filling various roles on the Rutgers University Baseball staff, where he was a two-time All-American for the Scarlet Knights. Fenster is also Founder and CEO of Coaching Your Kids, LLC, and can be found on Twitter @CoachYourKids.