The Astros attempted something that is not considered conventional in baseball: a four-man outfield. On Opening Day.
We all know that the Astros are usually one of the teams on the forefront of the analytic movement today. So, when the news of a four-man outfield was first reported (subscription required) by Jake Kaplan of The Athletic, it felt like a matter of short time before we would see it in game action.
Of course, the Astros started their 2018 season in Arlington to take on the Rangers. Texas has a particular power hitter that such a strategy may benefit Houston.
The Rangers have the left-handed hitter Joey Gallo, one of the notable players regarding pull rate. Last season, Gallo finished fifth out of all qualified hitters with a pull rate of 49.6%. He finished 26th lowest in placing hits into the opposite field at 21%. Teams are likely to utilize various defensive alignments to counter Gallo’s impressive power. Ironically enough, Gallo’s teammate, Rougned Odor, also has an extreme pull and opposite field rate differences. But that is a story for another day.
That said, a four-man outfield isn’t an entirely new concept. As Kaplan notes in his article, Joe Maddon in his time with the Rays and Cubs has utilized such formations.
"Joe Maddon and the Cubs tried a four-man outfield once last August against the Reds’ Joey Votto. In their configuration, third baseman Kris Bryant played left-center field and left fielder Kyle Schwarber played closer to the line in left. Votto lined a double down the right-field line. Maddon also tried a four-man outfield shift early in his tenure with Tampa Bay against David Ortiz and others."
Back to the point as the Astros are going to deploy a four-man outfield at various times this season. Opening Day provided an opportunity for Houston to test the not-so-new idea in a meaningful game environment. And manager A.J. Hinch took advantage. Here is the defensive alignment when the Astros faced Gallo.
To Gallo’s credit, two of those outs were hard outs regarding the ball’s exit velocity. The out in the eighth inning was to right fielder George Springer, so there wasn’t anything particularly noteworthy about that event.
93.9 MPH in the 1st inning
102.9 MPH in the 4th inning
105.2 MPH in the 8th inning
If you want a view of how it looks like on an actual field, well, here you go. The left side of the infield became virtually abandoned minus the umpire and third base coach. Jose Altuve was in the shallow right field area, and Carlos Correa shifts over to second base. Marwin Gonzalez is still hovering around first base, but playing a bit back. Springer moved towards the far right field area with Jake Marisnick now covering ground in the right-center field gap. Bregman transitioned to where the usual left fielder would be in most situations.
The results worked towards the Astros favor. Gallo generated outs in his three at-bats. However, not all results are going to break the Astros way. I have a feeling that this defensive alignment will be defeated a few times in 2018 if it is indeed a recurring theme. Gallo could’ve hit the ball out of the park if the pitch wasn’t a quality one. That said, there is also a mental aspect of this alignment that may affect the opposing hitter. Hinch stated as much to Kaplan in spring training when the Astros were first utilizing the alignment in the Grapefruit League.
"“There’s a psychological part of this on the hitter that I’m looking at, too,” Hinch said. “How much does it mess with the psyche of the hitter? And I’ve watched, this spring, guys try to change their swing and try to hit the ball the other way and hit the ball to a gap. That’s largely advantage to us when big hitters like that do that.”"
One has to speculate if this defensive alignment has a fairly high success rate, other teams may be more open to trying it out more than ever. Of course, baseball has a history of debunking wanna-be trends in its history. Hitters may very well adjust their approach and make it work. Or not. This author is quite curious to see how this plan plays out.
**Information and graphics courtesy of Baseball Savant**