Baseball is in the midst of a “revolution.”
Hitters are prioritizing fly balls over ground balls, swinging the bat with a slight uppercut to generate a higher launch angle. Some are doing this with great extremes. In accordance with a potentially juiced baseball, balls are flying all over the yard.
As a result, the league’s fly ball rate is high, with the home run per fly ball rate on pace to break records.
With so many more home runs being hit, there are likely a lot more outs made by outfielders on the defensive side of the baseball, too, right? Actually, this isn’t quite the case. According to FanGraphs, 2017 has seen the fewest baseballs that have landed within the “outfielder’s range” since sophisticated batted ball tracking began in 2003. So, basically, the ball is either going over the wall or not even getting to the outfield.
Still, though, 18,930 hits (not outs—hits) have reached the outfield in some capacity this season, accounting for just over 50 percent of all base hits this season. This isn’t a spike. In fact, it’s fairly in line with the percentage of hits that got to the outfield last season, too. But, since hits to the outfield are much more likely to do damage to the score than those to the infield, it may be time to consider using a four-man outfield in certain situations.
ESPN’s Buster Olney wrote about the potential use of this tactic in April. Olney surmised in his article that a four-man outfield would increase the possibility of an infield hit, but one evaluator he spoke to mitigated those concerns. They noted that a team would likely only do this against certain hitters and during certain situations, like with nobody on and two outs.
“If you get a slugger to try to slap a single through the infield, he’s probably doing you a favor,” the evaluator said. “Would you want David Ortiz trying to hit a single in the ninth inning against you rather than trying to hit a homer? Of course.”
The Cubs tried this strategy against Joey Votto in early August, as Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs chronicled. In this specific instance, Votto doubled down the line, where there wouldn’t have been a fielder anyway. Still, though, this appears to be the only example of the quad-outfield in action this season.
Doing a quick search query on Baseball Savant, I was able to find which players a four-man outfield might be most successful against. I looked at which players had the most non-home run, non-ground ball base hits throughout this season. Let’s break down how a four-man outfield would work against some of them.
According to the data, 100 of Blackmon’s 195 hits fell into the query that I ran, making him the No. 1 candidate for the four-man outfield. Let’s take a look at his spray chart and see where we could position our fielders to create the most outs.
First, let’s analyze what this shows us. Obviously, there are distinct white areas where the true outfielders would normally stand in left, center and right. Very rarely will you see balls hit to those spots result in hits. The majority of Blackmon’s non-ground ball, non-homer hits are coming to center and right-center field. And it’s a lot of hits.
It’s not hard to envision a scenario where we are able to minimize the number of these hits that fall. A team simply has to move their left fielder more towards left-center, keep their center fielder still and throw an infielder into the right-center gap. It sounds easier said than likely done, but I’d imagine that most middle infielders could figure out to catch medium fly balls where the red area shows.
How is this different than a general pull shift? In this scenario, I’m imaging the outfield looking something like this:
Sure, there could be problems with this. I’m not an MLB manager, and this is really me just playing around on paint seeing what looks good. However, a speedy center fielder may be more likely to play a few steps in from his normal spot because he has another potentially capable defender in the upper edges of his range.
With nobody on and two outs, I’ll try something that looks like this against Charlie Blackmon any day of the week.
After Blackmon is Inciarte, who has had 95 of his hits fall in these parameters. His spray chart, however, looks completely different.
That’s truly something. When Inciarte puts balls in the outfield, they all appear to congregate in that one specific spot. Here’s how I would play him:
Both Inciarte’s and Blackmon’s four-man outfield depictions look something like the current infield shifts that are used. For Inciarte, I’d consider using the shortstop as opposed to the second baseman in left. Perhaps I’d even use my third baseman if he was nimble enough, à la Kris Bryant.
Outfield configurations like these have the potential to take away many hits. I still don’t get why most Major League teams spread their outfielders evenly apart and all generally the same distance from the infield. Yes, it is easier to come in on a baseball than out on one, but I still feel as if teams are missing opportunities like the ones described above to maximize value on the defensive side of the ball. If we are truly entering a fly ball-only phase of the game, teams will need a way to defend against it.
No, Gallo isn’t third on this list. In fact, he’s No. 269. I am using him as an example to show that even the hitters that you’d least expect still find many of their batted balls to land in similar spots on the field. Check out Gallo’s spray chart:
And my idea for a four-man outfield here:
The issue with implementing something like this against Gallo is that you won’t be taking away as many hits. Sure, Gallo has tendencies that look like Inciarte’s (just to right instead of left), but only 34 of his hits (which is still 42 percent, by the way) are represented on this spray chart. It still might be worth doing this, though, as any time Gallo misses reaching the fences but still does damage on the bases, the ball is likely to land somewhere in this range.
For a hitter like Joey Gallo, it probably isn’t as necessary to implement a plan like this. Gallo could always decide to use the extra infield space to bolster his batting average as he sees possible. It might not be as much of a concern to stop Gallo with four men out in the thick grass.
Does a four-man outfield work? I really couldn’t tell you.
But in today’s age of baseball, more teams are willing to experiment — especially on defense — if they believe they can find an edge. I truly believe that there are certain situations against specific hitters that a four-man outfield would work. We’ve reached a point where singles don’t really mean as much as they used to. Players are swinging for line drives and fly balls, and it seems more intuitive to put the majority of your players in areas where the most damage could be done.
Outfield defense — and defense in general, really — is still at the tip of the iceberg in terms of data and value. There are so many metrics out there that try to value defensive contributions, all providing us with different numbers that mean different things. A four-man outfield could help to stop events that had the opportunity to provide a crushing blow. And, really, the fact that it could work gives it all the reason why teams should give it a shot.
All stats current through games played on Friday, September 8.
Devan Fink is a Featured Writer for Beyond The Box Score. You can follow Devan on Twitter @DevanFink.