The rise is defensive shifts has been one of the most noticeable changes in the MLB in the past few years. Teams now have advanced batted ball data available that allow them to employ unusual defensive alignments to adjust for where the hitter is most likely to hit the ball. While these shifts may not be aesthetically appealing and are a nightmare to baseball purists, it is hard to deny their effectiveness. As teams realize that the more they shift, the more runs they prevent, there has understandably been a rise in defensive shifts. Below is a table illustrating this trend:
The more teams utilize batted ball data, the more radical shifts have become. For left-handed pull hitters, there are often times use three or even four infielders on the right side of the infield. When a hitter has a 2-0 or 3-1 count, teams will put more infielders to the pull side of the hitter because hitters are more likely to pull the ball in hitters counts. Regardless of how unconventional shifts have become, the defensive shift revolution has primarily involved rotating infielders. However, with more hitters hitting fly balls than ever before, defensive shifts are bound to involve radical outfield realignment in the near future as well.
With that said, do not be surprised when later this season teams use four men in the outfield in order to defend against opposing hitters extreme fly ball tendencies. Throughout the past few years, there has been a flyball revolution in the MLB as hitters have grown cognizant of the value of extra-base hits. But while infield shifts can help translate would-be singles into outs, shifting outfielders can have far greater benefits. For one, placing four players in the outfield will all but eliminate triples. Similarly, with four outfielders evenly spaced in the outfield, hitters will have trouble getting doubles as well. Limiting batting average helps create outs, but limiting extra-base hits limits runs.
This proposed strategy is only effective if there is a team with the audacity to implement it. Luckily, there is a team with the perfection combination of boldness and personnel to make such a strategy workable in practice. That team is the Chicago Cubs. Not only does Cubs manager Joe Maddon continually prove he will do whatever it takes to gain a competitive edge, but he is also blessed with a roster filled with infielders versatile enough to also play the outfield with regular infield starters Kris Bryant, Ben Zobrist, and Javier Baez all playing substantial innings in the outfield during the 2016 season. If the Cubs choose to employ such a strategy on fly ball prone hitters in the coming months, it won’t take long for teams to follow in the World Champions’ footsteps.
The radical four man outfield probably won’t be seen much initially because it would likely require both a pitcher who struggles to induce ground balls and a hitter who puts emphasis on hitting the ball in the air to make such a shift make sense. But even though this type of defensive realignment may only be used sparingly, this strategy will gain traction and become more commonplace as long as the flyball revolution continues.