Keep an eye on the Astros' defensive alignments this season. A four-man outfield could soon make another appearance in a regular-season game.
Jake Kaplan of The Athletic reported Tuesday that Astros manager AJ Hinch is prepared to field a four-man outfield against pull-happy left-handed hitters at certain points this season -- most likely on the road, because Minute Maid Park's tight dimensions wouldn't be as suitable for the strategy. Kaplan added that Houston has experimented with a four-man outfield during Spring Training against lefty sluggers like Jay Bruce and Logan Morrison, who are known for pulling the ball.
Such an alignment would likely look like this: Shortstop Carlos Correa would slide over to the right side of second base, while second baseman Jose Altuve would slide slightly to his left and into shallow right field. Third baseman Alex Bregman would move out to left field, leaving the left side of the infield completely open.
"It's not a gimmick play as much as it's a coverage," Hinch told The Athletic. "Some guys, when you look at fly-ball rates and you look at where they actually hit the ball, you don't want to defend an area where there's minimal chance of those guys hitting it, and a lot of times that's on the ground on the opposite side of the field."
The four-man outfield made one memorable appearance in 2017, when Joey Votto doubled through the alignment set up by Cubs manager Joe Maddon (who had previously tried it against David Ortiz when he skippered the Rays). Rival American League managers deployed extreme shifts against Hall of Famer Ted Williams back in the 1940s, though those shifts had the third baseman move over to the right side of second base alongside the shortstop and second baseman.
Hinch told The Athletic that, at the very least, such an extreme shift could knock a hitter out of his usual rhythm.
"There's a psychological part of this on the hitter that I'm looking at, too," Hinch said. "How much does it mess with the psyche of the hitter? And I've watched, this spring, guys try to change their swing and try to hit the ball the other way and hit the ball to a gap. That's largely advantage to us when big hitters like that do that."