Advertisement
  1. Sports
  2. /
  3. Rays

The Rays’ latest challenge to baseball convention: Four outfielders

Tampa Bay could potentially use the alignment against 15-20 hitters this season.
Rays manager Kevin Cash says Tampa Bay could employ a four-outfield alignment during the regular season against a handful of pull hitters who produce a lot of fly balls. TAILYR IRVINE | Times
Published Mar. 15
Updated Mar. 15

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.

RELATED: The Rays have an answer to MLB's pitching rule change

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.

RELATED: How about Emilo Pagan for an opening act?

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."

The Rays play a four-outfielder defensive alignment against Blue Jays first baseman Billy McKinney in Tuesday's Grapefruit League game on Tuesday in Dunedin. [EDUARDO A. ENCINA | Times]

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.”

* * *


Crowded outfield

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 eencina@tampabay.com. Follow @EddieintheYard

ALSO IN THIS SECTION

  1. Tampa Bay Rays' Austin Meadows, left, is congratulated by Avisail Garcia after hitting a solo home run during the 11th inning of the team's baseball game against the Los Angeles Dodgers on Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2019, in Los Angeles. The Rays won 8-7. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill) MARK J. TERRILL  |  AP
    On Emilio Pagan’s prognosticating prowess, Pete Fairbanks’ colorful celebration, Tommy Pham’s good fortune (and good hitting).
  2. Tampa Bay Rays' Willy Adames, left, scores on a throwing error by Los Angeles Dodgers center fielder Cody Bellinger after a single by Jesus Aguilar, as catcher Will Smith goes after the ball during the sixth inning of a baseball game Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2019, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill) MARK J. TERRILL  |  AP
    Rays 8, Dodgers 7 (11): A one-out rally in the 9th allows Rays to tie, then a Meadows homer in 11th puts them ahead to stay.
  3. Rays rookie starter Brendan McKay delivers a pitch during the first inning against the Dodgers on Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2019. MARK J. TERRILL  |  AP
    “Super cool” is how he describes the opportunity Wednesday against the Dodgers.
  4. Tampa Bay Rays first baseman Nate Lowe (35) is seen in the dugout during the third inning against Toronto Blue Jays on Saturday, Sept. 07, 2019 at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg.   ALLIE GOULDING  |  Times
    Lowe make his fourth pro start at third in a critical game for Rays; Brendan McKay is on the mound.
  5. Tampa Bay Rays relief pitcher Colin Poche, shown pitching last month in Houston, has had a tough stretch at times,. (AP Photo/Michael Wyke) MICHAEL WYKE  |  AP
    Rookie relievers, pitching in September for the first time, are high on that list, and it’s quite noticeable when they falter.
  6. Tampa Bay Rays relief pitcher Colin Poche leaves the field after giving up two runs to the Los Angeles Dodgers during the fifth inning of a baseball game in Los Angeles, Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2019. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson) CHRIS CARLSON  |  AP
    Dodgers 7, Rays 5: Snell’s solid return aside, it was a lost night for Rays as rookie relievers Poche and Fairbanks struggled.
  7. Tampa Bay Rays' Tommy Pham, right, connects for a double in front of Houston Astros catcher Robinson Chirinos, left, during a baseball game Tuesday, Aug. 27, 2019, in Houston. (AP Photo/Michael Wyke) MICHAEL WYKE  |  AP
    Rays Journal: Pham is dealing with right hand and elbow injuries that have limited his production: “It’s frustrating.”
  8. Picturesque Dodger Stadium, where Rays take on Dodgers tonight. MARC TOPKIN  |  Tampa Bay Times
    Rays visiting NL best in a YouTube only game, third visit to Dodger Stadium in seven years after none in first 15.
  9. Tampa Bay Rays starting pitcher Blake Snell throws to a Los Angeles Dodgers batter during the first inning of a baseball game in Los Angeles, Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2019. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson) CHRIS CARLSON  |  AP
    With the team in the playoff hunt, Snell comes back with two perfect innings, striking out four, hitting 96 mph.
  10. Rays sensation Austin Meadows, right, and teammate Willy Adames will have plenty to celebrate if the Rays can make ground in the wild-card race this week. ALLIE GOULDING  |  Times
    The multi-step process starts with registering online for a “postseason ticket opportunity."
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement