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Should Aaron Judge worry about four-man outfields?

We’ve seen a unique shift in spring training, but does the Yankees’ best player have anything to worry about?

Philadelphia Phillies v New York Yankees Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

Ever wonder what a four-man outfield looks like? I took this at Target Field last summer, in the eighth inning of a one-run game between the Twins and the Kansas City Royals. It was the first time I had seen a shift like this with my own eyes.

It occurred a couple of months after the Houston Astros made waves with a similar idea:

As baseball fans we’re all accustomed to the traditional, Ted Williams-style of shift: one of the middle infielders swings around into the shallow outfield of a hitter’s pull side, and the other shades almost directly behind second base. What we’re not used to seeing is similar shakeups in the outfield, but it may be time to pay attention to them.

Aaron Judge saw a four man outfield in a spring training contest against the Blue Jays last week, and did the kind of thing he does a lot:

His first time seeing a shift like this, Judge decided not to take any chances and just hit the ball over all four outfielders. The Jays have pulled this a couple of times this spring, though, including once against Bryce Harper. As batted ball data gets more and more sophisticated, two questions arise. First, should we expect more unconventional shifts? Second, do the players shifted against have anything to worry about?

The answer to the first is, I think, yes. Even though traditional infield shifts seem to have plateaued, data is only getting richer and teams will exploit it in more creative ways. So we turn to a much more interesting and weighty question: is it going to be a problem?

To start to answer that, I thought it would be useful to begin by looking at the players on the Yankees who get shifted against the most as is, and seeing if there were any useful trends therein. So, to that end:

Please note that this only takes into account the traditional style of shift. Here’s how badly these same hitters were affected by the shift, or perhaps more accurately, how they performed while shifted against:

Giancarlo Stanton salivates against the shift, apparently.

So to combine a high level of shifted plate appearances with a very real lesser performance against the shift, let’s look at Didi Gregorius and Greg Bird. Both are pretty classic shift “victims”, lefty dead-pull hitters who combine to hit the ball to the right side about 45% of the time.

The pitching approach to a batter seeing a shift is deliberate. You need to incite the kind of contact the shift works to defend, but you need to make sure that you’re avoiding the areas that, say, a lefty pull hitter with power wants the ball.

Here’s where Greg Bird sees most of his pitches:

And here’s where he does the most damage to the ball:

There’s a slight bit of overlap, but not much. Bird generally sees pitches lower and over the outer third, the kind of pitches that get rolled over to the second baseman. He does the most damage on pitches a little higher and more inside.

Didi Gregorius is actually more pronounced:

It’s a more extreme split, but you see the point, right? Pitchers target one area of the strike zone to induce groundballs to the pull side, and look to avoid the area of the strike zone that the hitter does the most damage on.

If pitchers work down and away on batters like Bird and Didi to induce pulled groundballs, where might they pitch to a guy like Aaron Judge in order to induce fly balls, the kind of event the defense is shifted to guard against?

It’s pretty intuitive, but hitters tend to put balls in the air when they’re thrown up in the zone. The problem for purveyors of the four-man outfield is, unlike shifted infields, there’s almost no delta between where the pitcher wants the ball and where the hitter wants the ball:

A four-man outfield might cut down on some of Judge’s doubles, but they obviously won’t have an effect on stopping home runs. The creep up in the zone to induce the batted ball event you want is playing into Judge’s hands. More than anything else, a devoted, combined effort to turn more of Judge’s fly balls into outs would probably just lead to more home runs.

Greg Bird has also seen the Jays roll out a four-man outfield against him this spring, and he’s possibly someone that it might actually work better against. You can see on his ISO/P heatmap that he doesn’t handle high pitches as well as Judge does, and so a pitcher could possibly work up in the zone, induce more fly balls and achieve a few more positive outcomes. For a guy like Judge, though, I just can’t see if being worth the risk.