PORT CHARLOTTE — Spring training is the time to experiment, and the Rays are never afraid to try something different.
Several times this spring, they have employed a four-outfielder defensive alignment against left-handed hitters, leaving most or all of the left side of the infield unoccupied.
While shifting for left-handed hitters with high pull percentages has become commonplace, aligning four defenders in the outfield is rare. But in today’s age of exit velocity and launch angle, batted balls are being hit further and more often in the air.
Most notably, the Rays have played with four outfielders this spring against Toronto’s Justin Smoak and Billy McKinney, Baltimore’s Chris Davis and Philadelphia’s Bryce Harper. Smoak is a switch hitter; the other three are lefties.
The four hitters have two things in common. Last season, they each hit the ball in the air at least 60 percent of the time and owned pull percentages of 40 percent or above.
Earlier this week, the Rays also used four outfielders against left-handed hitting Phillies rookie Dylan Cozens, who shared those fly-ball and pull percentage numbers at the Triple-A level last year.
“It’s pretty simple — how much he hits the ball in the air,” Rays manager Kevin Cash explained Tuesday. “If he hits the ball in the air, whether he pops it up, drives it, whatever it is. There’s enough stats out there right now that can recognize and highlight those things, so if we find a couple of guys fit that, we’ll do it.” (See chart below)
It many ways, the move is just a left-handed hitter pull shift with a wrinkle. In most of four-outfielder alignments the Rays have employed, they’ve placed two defenders on the left side of the field, both of them in the outfield, while packing the right side playing the hitter to pull. The alignment is also more ideally employed with a pitcher who produces more fly balls.
"That's just one of many examples where we're hoping to give something a shot and try to be as adaptable as we can based on the feedback we get," Rays general manager Erik Neander said.
Manager Joe Maddon employed a four-man outfield when he was in Tampa Bay against lefty sluggers David Ortiz and Jim Thome. Maddon used it two years ago with the Cubs against Reds first baseman Joey Votto. The Astros tinkered with four outfielders during spring training last year and then used it in the opening week of the regular season against Texas’ Joey Gallo. The Rockies followed suit later against Gallo.
Maddon’s reasoning for using four outfielders was two-fold. Not only were you positioning defenders where a data showed the ball would most likely be hit, but offering an opposing batter — most of the time a power hitter — the entire left side of the infield open could alter their approach and tempt him to try to hit the ball the other way.
Because of their defensive flexibility, the Rays might be best equipped to use four outfielders. Infielders Joey Wendle, Brandon Lowe and Daniel Robertson all have experience in outfield.
“It’s not completely foreign territory for me, but it’s definitely a little different than second base,” said Wendle, who moved from second into right field as the nearest defender to the foul line for McKinney’s at bats Tuesday. “But I think it’s just for one batter, you become an outfielder. You don’t even think about your responsibility at second. You’re an outfielder for that one play and then you turn it back on.”
In McKinney’s second at bat, he hit a ball toward the gap in left center that made for a much easier catch for Kevin Kiermaier because he shifted left to accommodate a fourth outfielder.
"You always prepare for whatever they throw at you and I like it," Robertson said of the alignment. "Obviously if the numbers match up and you can get an extra guy out there, it should work out in our favor, so just keep working on all the different angles all the different spots. It's a lot but it's definitely all coming around."
Against the Phillies on Monday, third baseman Kean Wong moved into left field nearest to the foul line against Harper, with shortstop Willy Adames playing closer to the middle.
That would be an interesting alignment in one aspect, because it would technically keep two infielders on each side of second base. Major League Baseball has partnered with the independent Atlantic League to test potential rule changes in its season, and one of those is that two infielders must be on each side of second base, though MLB is still working on the precise language of the experiment.
The Rays could use the four-outfielder alignment against 15 to 20 batters, including some right-handed hitters. After the Rays played four outfielders against Harper on Monday, Cash said a couple of right-handed hitters with the Yankees could see it, clearly alluding to sluggers Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton, who both share comparable high fly ball and pull percentage numbers.
The Rays already used the alignment against Orioles right-handed hitting outfielder Joey Rickard, another 60-percent fly ball, 40-percent pull hitter not hitter with comparable power to that of the Yankees sluggers.
“Teams are going to be creative in different situations and I think we are in an era where teams are aren’t afraid to try stuff,” said Orioles manager Brandon Hyde, who was Maddon’s bench coach with the Cubs. “I don’t think managers are afraid to do something different.”
* * *
The Rays have used four-man outfields against four hitters this spring. Here's a look at what they all have in common and how they compare with some other AL hitters who could see four outfielder alignments.
|Name||2018 Flyball Pct.||Career Flyball Pct.||2018 Pull Pct.||Career Pull Pct.|
|Chris Davis, Bal.||60.4||64.2||40.8||45.1|
|Bryce Harper, Phi.||60.2||58.1||42.3||39.9|
|Billy McKinney, To.,||69.5||69.5||43.7||43.7|
|Justin Smoak, Tor.@,||60.5||61.8||49.1||47.2|
|Joey Gallo, Tex.||70.4||70.8||45.1||48.7|
|Greg Bird, N.Y.||66.0||68.9||47.0||45.9|
|Kyle Seager, Sea.||66.0||65.4||44.1||42.2|
|Josh Reddick, Hou.||62.7||64.9||44.8||38.8|
|Max Kepler, Minn.||62.1||57.8||43.1||43.8|
|Aaron Judge, N.Y.*||58.3||62.3||40.2||41.3|
|Giancarlo Stanton, N.Y.*||55.0||65.1||38.9||42.8|
@Switch hitter *Right-handed hitter Source: FanGraphs
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at email@example.com. Follow @EddieintheYard