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Baseball Strategy:Five Infielders

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Playing five infielders means shifting a player from one of the outfield positions to the infield, either directly or indirectly. It is a play of extreme desperation, as it drastically reduces the odds that a fly ball will be caught.

Generally, when a fifth infielder is used, the extra position is straight up the middle, behind second base (much like a second-baseman or shortstop position on an extreme shift). The second baseman and shortstop play closer to first and third bases, respectively, so that the five infielders are roughly equal distances apart.

Note that the "new" infielder need not necessarily be the man up the middle. The best three fielders should occupy the three central positions (normally this will be the second baseman, the shortstop, and one other player). It is arguable that the worst of the best three should be up the middle, as he is in some sense backing-up the pitcher, but the odds of a ball going up the middle is higher than the odds of a ball going wide-left or wide-right.

Above all, however, players should play at least close to a position of comfort. If your extra infielder is a third baseman usually, he should occupy the third base or the intermediate 3b-ss position, rather than the intermediate 1b-2b one. Either a 2b or ss can usually adapt best to straight up the middle, as both players regularly are expected to make plays from that area. Consider (as it is the easiest position, generally) having the normally-outfielder play first base, and the other fielders rotate towards third.

The five-man infield gambit is rarely successful. It is a strategy of desperation only, much like pulling the goalie in hockey or soccer.

Rules and Exceptions

Rule 1: Use five infielders only when there are less than two outs, and the winning run is on third base. Since only the home team can have the winning run on base (the visitors can only have a go-ahead runner), only the visiting team will employ the five-infielder gambit. The ploy risks a big inning if done by the home team.

Exceptions: If the hitter at the plate is exceptionally weak, such that he is known to be unable to hit the ball out of the infield, then a five-man infield in such a situation may make tactical sense.


Rule 2: Do not resort to five infielders with the double-play in order with one out, if the hitter is susceptible to hitting into a double play. Note that the presence of a fifth infielder can make turning a double play far more complicated, as players may not be familiar with who is responsible for covering second (or even first) base if the opportunity arises.

Exceptions: If the hitter is exceptionally weak (as above), or if the distance between bases is such that double plays are exceptionally rare, a five-man infield may still make sense.

Rule 3: The remaining two outfielders should be the outfielders with the best throwing arms, since in the five-infielder play situation, a successful sacrifice fly is necessarily a game-winning out.

Exceptions: An outfielder with exceptionally poor range may make more sense playing an infield corner position instead, even if he has the best arm, as getting the out at the plate will be irrelevant if the ball cannot first be caught. The biggest downside to the five-infielder play (and the reason it is not used in non-desperation situations) is that the remaining outfielders must split the entire outfield between them, increasing the risk of a fly ball turning into a hit drastically, even if both remaining outfielders are of exceptional speed.


Scoring

If the fifth infielder remains in the game, he retains his position number irrespective of where he happened to be playing on the specific play. Therefore, an odd-looking score such as a 9-2 fielders choice, or a 6-7-3 double-play is possible.

If the fifth infielder is brought in via substitution, he should assume the position number of the removed outfielder. This applies even in leagues where pitchers and outfielders may be far more interchangeable than in professional ball.

For example: The left fielder comes in to pitch, and the pitcher remains as fifth infielder. The former left-fielder becomes position player #1, and the former pitcher (possibly temporarily) becomes the out-of-position left-fielder (7). If, upon the second out being recorded, the former pitcher now becomes second-baseman, and the second-baseman moves to the outfield, then the former pitcher takes position #4, as would be the normal rule regarding mid-inning position changes.

Minority viewpoint: The "extra infielder" is always the center-fielder (8), playing exceptionally shallow. The other two outfielders are playing left and right field. This may result in odd position shifts such as ss->cf, cf->rf, rf->1b, 1b->3b, 3b->ss. This system may make more sense, if more than one continuing infielder is playing out-of-assigned position, as might be the case if the former outfielder assumes first, and the former first-baseman plays somewhere other than between first and second as a result. This system probably makes more sense with regard to what's actually happening on the field, but may make assigning fielding stats after the play more complicated, unless meticulous notes are taken.

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