I love the four-man outfield. I loved when Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller tried it with the Sonoma Stompers, and I loved it the first time I saw it in person, two years ago in Minnesota. In an age where the dominant mantra among hitters is “elevate and celebrate”, it makes all the sense in the world to optimize your fly-ball defense.
Fly balls, interestingly, might be the one chink in the armor of baseball’s best pitcher, Gerrit Cole. In 2019 Cole struck out a higher percentage of hitters than anyone in the history of the game. He lowered his walk rate to the second-lowest mark in his career. If you like WHIP, well, his WHIP was a career low too. He just stopped allowing baserunners.
Yet if there’s one scary part of Cole’s profile, it’s his propensity to give up fly balls. You want as high a GB/FB ratio as possible - more groundballs gives you a higher numerator. You can see that Cole’s ratio has dropped since moving to Houston, and his fly-ball rate has continued to rise.
In a lot of ways, this is by design:
The big changes Cole made after leaving Pittsburgh have been abandoning his sinker, and moving his devastating fastball up in the zone. Those changes probably netted him about $200 million more in free agency than he would have gotten had he stayed the same pitcher he was as a Pirate, but working up in the zone does make it easier for hitters to get the ball in the air.
So, what do you do when you have a pitcher who strikes out a ton of batters, doesn’t allow many baserunners, and tends to give up more fly balls than groundballs? Sounds like one of the team’s best candidates for a four-man outfield.
Now obviously you don’t play the entire game with a four-man outfield - it’s a tactic, not a strategy. There are certain players, with certain profiles, that it makes sense to deploy a four-man outfield against, and Cole is the most optimal pitcher to pair with that alignment.
There were 65 players in MLB last year who logged at least a 40% fly-ball rate and at least 400 plate appearances. Of those 65, the Yankees will see 17 in regular-season action in 2020. These are guys like Cavan Biggio in Toronto, Pete Alonso on the Mets and Austin Meadows on the Rays. Balancing Cole’s MLB-best ability to strike batters out with a better defense around him makes those hitters less dangerous, in a season where every run allowed means consequentially more due to how many games there are.
What the exact outfield alignment looks like is a different question. Luke Voit stays at first base, and DJ LeMahieu is the best defender the infield has, so he stays as well. Miguel Andujar is already taking reps in the outfield, so on days he plays third, shifting into the outfield for this particular alignment makes sense. That leaves an outfield of Andujar, Brett Gardner or Mike Tauchman, Aaron Hicks, and Aaron Judge left to right.
If Gio Urshela is at third base, the conversation changes. LeMahieu is your best infield defender, followed by Urshela, then Gleyber Torres. Do you move Torres into the outfield, risking the Yankees’ young star in a position he’s uncomfortable with? Or do you weaken the infield defense by shifting Urshela or DJ out, counting on the fact that your pitcher can work within the constraints of the positioning?
I don’t know which specific fielders give the optimal defense for the Yankees, but Gerrit Cole is the best pitcher suited for this kind of experiment. He’s either going to strike the batter out or induce a fly ball, and against the power threats in the AL and NL East, this is a tactic that should be used in his starts to make him even better.