Why the four-man outfield could be MLB’s next big innovation

In the final days of spring training, before the abrupt closure of camps due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Tampa Bay Rays twice deployed a four-man outfield against Ozzie Albies in a game against the Atlanta Braves. That in itself isn’t remarkably unique, as the Rays used four outfielders on occasion last season. What was unusual was the player the Rays deployed it against — and especially the situation the second time they tried it.cheap nfl nike jersey

In the first inning with one out and nobody on, Albies, a switch-hitter batting from the left side, came up, and second baseman Mike Brosseau moved into right field, with the four outfielders fanned out across the grass. Albies lined out to left-center, an easy play for Randy Arozarena, whereas in a traditional three-outfielder alignment, the ball might have dropped in for a hit. In the third inning, Albies batted with two outs — but this time with a runner on first base. Albies showed bunt on the first pitch, then fouled off several pitches down the left-field line, trying to hit the ball the opposite way, before eventually striking out.

Rays outfielder Kevin Kiermaier explained the philosophy behind the four-man alignment.

“It’s more with the guys with the ability to hit the ball in the air, just trying to take away the extra-base hits,” he said. “We’re willing to give up a single on a certain side of the field. We do it with some athletic guys, but usually it’s more the big power-type guys — where it’s like if they hit a single, we’ll gladly be OK with that because now it’s going to take two more hits to score that guy.”3

The game against the Braves was a split-squad affair, and Kiermaier wasn’t in North Port that day. When told the Rays used the alignment with a runner on first, he was a little surprised. “Usually we only do it with no one on base,” Kiermaier said, “but in spring training, I guess you can sit here and do different things, so that might be the first time that we’ve done it with a runner on base. We are not afraid to be unorthodox.”china nike nfl jerseys cheap

Indeed, from the same innovative organization that gave us the shift and the opener, the four-man outfield might be the next defensive revolution in baseball. According to Sports Info Solutions, in 2018, there were 37 four-outfielder alignments on balls in play across the majors. In 2019, there were 101, with the Rays’ 48 accounting for nearly half of those. (The Reds had 35, so two teams accounted for 82% of the four-outfielder setups.)

Tampa Bay manager Kevin Cash suggested this isn’t just a spring training experiment and that there could be times when the Rays use four outfielders with a runner on base during regular-season games.

“I think we’re going to find some situations where we can use that,” he said in March, and not just when left-handed batters are at the plate. “Even if there’s a runner on third base and less than two outs, it might be beneficial. This is a good time to explore these things, and when a ball is put in play, we learn a little bit from it.”

I would argue there have been three major developments in devising defensive game plans during the live ball era (aside from changes in pitching strategy). In chronological order:

1. The first of these occurred after offense soared in the 1920s. In the dead ball era, a period lush with sacrifice bunts and other small-ball tactics, playing third base required quickness and agility and was more of a premium defensive position than second base. We know this not just from the literature of the era, but because second basemen — with the likes of Nap Lajoie, Eddie Collins and Larry Doyle — collectively outhit third basemen in most seasons. With the advent of the livelier ball, however, third basemen and second basemen had flipped in defensive importance by 1930, and third base became more of a hitter’s position. (Likewise, first basemen of the dead ball era such as Hal Chase and Frank Chance were lauded for their defensive abilities, but first base soon became a slugger’s position.)