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Rays influence? Pirates manager Derek Shelton will experiment with four-man outfield

The Rays former hitting coach says “we’re going to do it when there’s a purpose to it."
Pittsburgh Pirates manager Derek Shelton, right, watches his team play during the third inning of a spring training baseball game against the Boston Red Sox Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020, in Bradenton, Fla.
Pittsburgh Pirates manager Derek Shelton, right, watches his team play during the third inning of a spring training baseball game against the Boston Red Sox Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020, in Bradenton, Fla. [ FRANK FRANKLIN II | AP ]
Published Feb. 29, 2020

SARASOTA, Fla. — Get ready: The four-outfielder alignment, a radical shifting trend that has been growing across Major League Baseball, is coming to Pittsburgh.

While the former regime was not in favor of doing this, new Pirates manager Derek Shelton is very much in favor of it — and said as much Thursday after his team's 13-0 loss to the Orioles at Ed Smith Stadium.

"You're just covering more ground," Shelton said. "We're not going to do it just to do it. It's not going to be something that we're doing as a sideshow. We're going to do it when there's a purpose to it and we feel it's our best matchup.

"It's going to depend on the pitcher. It's going to depend on how the guy's swinging the bat. It's going to depend on where we're at in the game. There are a lot of factors that play into it."

According to Baseball Info Solutions, 101 balls in play in 2019 were hit into a four-outfielder alignment, up from 37 the year before. In 2017, that number was one. In 2016, zero.

The idea has become more popular, as baseball has become a game of three true outcomes: home runs, strikeouts and walks.

As Shelton said, the idea is to do it against power guys who swing hard, the type of hitters who aren't interested in settling for a ground ball the other way.

For the Pirates, this will likely mean flexing Adam Frazier to the outfield. Frazier has played 137 games in the outfield during his major league career, including 86 starts, although he played entirely at second base in 2019.

"We'll use it at some point, depending on the matchup," Shelton said. "We have the functionality to do it with who our infielders are because Frazier can go out there and do it."

In a way, this shouldn't come as a surprise. Shelton worked under Joe Maddon, who used it against sluggers such as Jim Thome, Travis Hafner and David Ortiz during his time with the Tampa Bay Rays. Shelton was a hitting coach under Maddon there. Shelton was a bench coach in Minnesota when the Twins occasionally employed a four-man outfield.

The four-man outfield in baseball isn't new. It actually dates back to the 1950s, '60s and '70s, against hitters such as Stan Musial, Willie McCovey, Frank Robinson, Harmon Killebrew and Jim Rice. Mark McGwire faced it occasionally in 1999.

Baseball has changed plenty since then, but in doing this, Shelton is showing a refreshing ability to adapt and also to try something a little different to try and gain any advantage he can.

"It definitely has some functionality," Shelton said. "With advanced shifts now, you even see the second baseman so far out at times it looks like there's a guy standing out there.

"The fact that we can prove where guys hit the ball, and we have information on that, if we don't use it in certain situations, it would probably be a detriment to us."

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