There is no rule that says you must play four infielders and three outfielders. Playing a fourth outfielder when Matt Carpenter comes to the plate might be a smart idea.
Teams are shifting more than ever now, and it’s clear that teams are getting smarter about where to position their fielders. For every batter, you see the fielders adjusting their position, if even by the smallest bit. Most teams have computer programs that calculate the best spot for each player to be. However, there are still some uncharted waters when it comes to the shift. Specifically, I am talking about four-man outfields, and five-man infields.
Before you think that’s ridiculous, ask yourself this: did you ever think the idea of putting three infielders on the left side of the infield was stupid? Did you stare at that gap between first and second base and think it was just dumb? Did you ever come to the conclusion that a team should never shift its outfielders in such a way that expects the hitter to go to the opposite field? If you answered “yes” to any of those questions, then you can’t shoot me down just yet. Because all of those things did happen, and, to varying extents, they worked.
There actually has been a professional baseball team to use a five-man infield and a four-man outfield. When Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller joined the Sonoma Stompers of the Pacific Association last summer, they wanted to try experiments like those. There weren’t enough at-bats with it to really know how effective it was, but they did try it. You can read all about that summer season with the Stompers in their book, The Only Rule is That is has to Work.
The point that I am trying to make, is that two great baseball analysts found a situation in professional baseball where they believed trying something like this might work. I think it’s a little closed-minded to assume that it can never be effective in Major League Baseball. Besides, there is a player on the Cardinals right now who makes a good candidate for such an experiment.
Matt Carpenter’s batted ball tendencies indicate a fourth outfielder might work
The truth is, this might not work. It is entirely possible that adding a fourth outfielder would hurt a little against Carpenter. On the other hand, there are some reasons to believe that it will work. Two years ago, Carpenter changed his approach at the plate. I am not quite sure what he did, exactly, but his ground ball rate plummeted in 2015, while his fly ball and line drive rates spiked. Those trends continued in 2016, albeit with a slight regression in the line drive category.
A low ground ball rate is essential for a fourth outfielder to come into play. The goal of the extra outfielder is not to prevent more extra-base hits; it’s to prevent more hits. Slugging percentage assumes that a double is worth two singles. In truth, a double is worth between 1.4 and 1.5 singles. Two singles is also worth more than one triple. While taking away some extra bases is a bonus, I am a bit more concerned with the total hits number. Therefore, a team needs to be sure it won’t be giving up too many more ground ball singles by inserting a fourth outfielder.
Carpenter’s 30.6 percent ground ball rate was 5th lowest among 146 qualified hitters. What’s more is that he pulls almost all of his ground balls. Check out these spray charts of Carpenter’s grounders in 2015 (left) and ’16 (right) from baseball savant:
Two things stand out here. The first is that it’s almost all to the right side, and the second is that third basemen get bored when Carpenter bats. It is not unreasonable to think that you can cover most of that with just three infielders. You would obviously need your first baseman and second baseman to stay relatively put, but the shortstop’s position is up for some debate. It’s hard to tell just looking at the chart where he should play. The possibility of a bunt for a hit adds another wrinkle, but you can adjust depending on the count (and, in turn, the likelihood of a bunt). In order to pull this off, you might need to have middle infielders with great range. Luckily for my adventurous side, the Chicago Cubs have that and should be willing to try this for 18 games a year. The other noticeable thing is that you might be able to turn those 3-4 doubles into singles with an extra outfielder, depending on where you play him.
Carpenter pulls roughly 70 percent of his ground balls, and goes the other way less than 7 percent of the time. In other words, we are talking about a player who rarely hits ground balls, but when he does, we know where it’s going to go. At least most of the time we know that. Given that there is little variance or volume on the ground, opponents won’t need much to cover the infield.
Of course, ground balls aren’t the only thing worth worrying about. Infielders can catch low liners, too. Ultimately, using an extra outfielder will cause a few extra singles that way, but it’s not much. We are talking about balls with a launch angle in the range of 10-15 degrees. Given how small that range is, you’re probably only giving up an extra 3-4 low line drive singles by using four outfielders.
Now for the outfield part. Again, the goal is to turn hits of any kind into outs, not just doubles or triples. Obviously there is a slight bonus for those, but the total number of hits will be more indicative of the run saving powers this strategy possesses. Again from baseball savant, here are all of Carpenter’s hits at a launch angle of at least 15 degrees in 2016:
You can see where I am going here. What if you effectively had two right fielders against Carpenter? What if one player played close to the line, and the other played slightly left of straightaway right. At the very least, those balls in the corner are cut off. More likely is that many of them turn into outs. You can overload the outfield to the right side, and take away a lot of Carpenter’s hits.
In the end, I don’t know what the total effect will be. I can’t tell you how many extra ground ball singles occur as a result of fewer infielders. Those shorter singles may still fall in, as I wouldn’t recommend playing too shallow in the outfield. Actually, it is probably more beneficial to stay deep. Outfielders tend to save a lot more runs that way, and you don’t want more hits near the wall. What could happen, though, is that you catch more balls in the gap. You can catch more balls towards the line. Some balls that would otherwise land in between two fielders end up in gloves.
Given all of the spray charts, I really think it can work better than a traditional alignment. In addition to pulling most ground balls, Carpenter also pulls line drives at an extremely high rate. He pulls over 60 percent of his liners, with only 8 percent going the other way. Outside of fly balls, the left side of the defense has little to worry about against Carpenter. Carpenter won’t shoot many grounders and liners through the vacated left side of the infield. By adding an extra outfield, he will miss out on more opportunities for big hits.
Going back to the Cubs example, you would accomplish this by putting Kris Bryant in the outfield. You don’t start four outfielders; you just move an infielder there for Carpenter. Bryant can cover the least amount of ground in left, while the natural left fielder moves to the right field line. In the infield, Addison Russell will still get to an insane amount of grounders, so you won’t give up too much.
One caveat is that you definitely can’t do this all the time. With a runner on, an extra infielder is more valuable because of the double play possibility. If the value of turning a double into a single diminishes even more, then it probably doesn’t make sense. Game situations will matter. It would be up to the manager to determine if he has the right fielders and right situation to do it.
In conclusion, I have no doubt that there are some situations where four-man outfields or five-man infields are smarter than the traditional setup. Matt Carpenter may be one of the five best candidates in the majors to try a four-man outfield against. I really want to see teams try this so we can learn from the results. I doubt any manager is gutsy enough to try it, but those spray charts indicate that it might just work.
Photo credit: Dennis Wierzbicki – USA TODAY Sports