Baseball has a lot of structure to it, so when a relatively mundane in-game move happens, like a third baseman backing up deep onto left field grass for an at-bat, it has a deeper psychological impact that it should. Today, Astros manager A.J. Hinch caught everyone’s attention and did a cool, smart thing by sending Alex Bregman into the outfield and leaving the entire left side of the infield uncovered against Rangers first baseman Joey Gallo, with success.
Soon, this won’t be as much of a novelty. As Jake Kaplan of The Athletic notes, when a bunch of conditions are met, the Astros are going to use a four-man outfield this year. Those conditions include: no runners on, a road game (the left field in Houston’s park isn’t big enough), a non-ground ball pitcher (so no Dallas Keuchel), and most importantly, a left-handed power hitter at the plate. In spring training, the Astros tried it against Jay Bruce, Justin Bour, Logan Morrison and Matt Adams.
Cubs manager Joe Maddon has pulled out this move a couple of times in his career, but generally, anything other than a four-man infield and a three-man outfield remains unexplored territory for most teams, even as extreme infield shifts become more common. The possibility of getting burned on these more innovative shifts is there, of course, but covering the areas where hitters hit the ball the most should be the best strategy.
Still, even if this Houston experiment proves its worth, the inevitable ground-ball hits that get through will prompt a rise in opposing color commentators confidently noting, “And see, that’s the risk you take with the shift.” So don’t give A.J. Hinch too much praise.