If you’ve watched enough Twins games this season, you’re accustomed to seeing the Twins shift — or Twins opponents shift their defense when hitters such as Logan Morrison step to the plate.
It has become routine, sometimes at the chagrin of baseball purists. The Twins did something related in Monday’s loss to the Brewers that isn’t as common as the shift, but is a technique a few teams employ from time to time — playing four outfielders.
The Twins had four players spread across the outfield and only three in the infield for one plate appearance from Eric Thames on Monday.
What was the Twins’ thinking behind this?
One reason may be that in 145 plate appearances this season, Thames, a lefthanded batter, has hit only two ground balls to the third-base side of the infield, according to his spray chart on Fangraphs.com. But Thames has hit enough line drives and fly balls to left field to make the Twins respect his ability to reach the outfield from there.
In other words, the Twins placed the seven fielders against Thames in the most likely spots he will hit the ball — across the outfield and the right side of the infield. Thames walked in that appearance.
The Twins haven’t deployed the four-outfielder formation that often. The only other hitters who have faced four outfielders against the Twins were the Mariners’ Kyle Seager and the Blue Jays’ Justin Smoak, according to Statcast.
Per Statcast, only six teams have had four outfielders at various times this season. The Astros have done it just as often as the Twins have, primarily against Rangers pull-hitting slugger Joey Gallo. They even pulled out four outfielders for a few at-bats against Morrison back in April.
Defensive alignments aren’t cookie cutter based on who comes to the plate. Several factors play into it. When the Twins decide to shift against someone, the situation of the game comes into play, as does the pitcher and how the hitter may hit his various pitches. The Twins might employ an extreme shift against someone and a partial one the next at bat.
Having four outfielders is a newer wrinkle to baseball that has come about as hitters try to hit more fly balls in the hope of hitting more home runs. Gallo is the poster child of this higher launch angle movement.
MLB has to decide what it wants to do with shifting. Will it ban shifts in the hopes of having more batted balls in play or continue to let teams place fielders wherever they’d like? If the league does ban shifts, will a four-outfielder alignment be one workaround for teams?
It’s something the league should consider. For now, four outfielders is a fun quirk of the game, only reserved for the most extreme cases.
But then again, so was the shift once upon a time.