4-man outfield? This team loves it

May 10th, 2022

Santiago Espinal, the Blue Jays' second baseman, is standing 301 feet from home plate on May 1 when Kyle Tucker rips a 109 mph line drive to deep right-center-field at Rogers Centre.

To Espinal's right, George Springer turns around and gives chase. He's stationed in right-center field already, which puts him in position to cover the necessary 58 feet toward the 400-foot sign in center. He makes the catch on the run.

The Blue Jays are using a four-man outfield. In this game against the Astros, the positions on the lineup card are Vinny Capra (left field), Bradley Zimmer (center field) and George Springer (right field). But in this at-bat, against the power-hitting, fly ball-heavy lefty Tucker, Zimmer is playing left-center and Springer is playing right-center. Espinal has shifted from second base to the right-field corner. Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette and Matt Chapman are the only Blue Jays in the infield.

"I’ve personally just come to the conclusion of, whether it’s us or somebody [else], it’s going to happen," Springer said of the four-outfielder defense. "There’s no sense in trying to figure out why you’re going to do it. Just go stand where they want you stand, and if it works, it works. And if it doesn’t, it doesn’t."

This time, it works. Toronto's positioning gets the out.


The four-man outfield is one of the rarer types of shift -- three outfielders is a fundamental tenet of the game of baseball. But the Blue Jays in 2022 are deploying the four-outfielder defense like no other team in MLB.

Through 30 games, they've used a four-man outfield for 270 pitches across 76 plate appearances against nine different hitters on six different teams. That's over twice as many pitches and over three times as many plate appearances with a fourth outfielder as any other team this season.

Most total pitches with a 4-man outfield, 2022
Blue Jays -- 270
Rays -- 114
Yankees -- 73
Orioles -- 21
Tigers -- 20
Rangers -- 3

Most PA using a 4-man outfield, 2022
Blue Jays -- 76
Rays -- 23
Yankees -- 16
Orioles / Tigers -- 5
Rangers -- 1

Most teams don't use a four-man outfield at all. Until a few years ago, no one did. The Rays, Padres, Twins and Reds were among the first to experiment with four-outfielder-style defensive alignments. The Blue Jays first tested out the four-outfielder shift with a few at-bats against Joey Gallo and Yordan Alvarez in 2019 and Rhys Hoskins in 2020. Now their use of it is rapidly expanding.

In 2021, Toronto used a fourth outfielder against a wider array of air-ball hitters. This season, they've integrated it as a regular alignment, making up about 7% of their defensive plate appearances -- which would be the highest frequency of four-outfielder shifts of any team since Statcast started tracking in 2015. The 2022 Blue Jays are using a four-man outfield nearly three times as often as any team ever has (the 2020 Rays and 2021 Padres are next-closest).

Blue Jays' # of PA in a 4-man outfield by year
2015-18 -- 0
2019 -- 7
2020 -- 3
2021 -- 72
2022 -- 76 [through 30 games]

"So, before we do it, [the front office has to] come here and explain to me why we're doing it," manager Charlie Montoyo said. "We don't do it just to do it. If they have a good explanation why we're doing it, then I'm good with it. And the times we've done it, it's been a good explanation. … There's numbers that say why we're doing it, and so far, we're doing it because I agree with it."


Here's a breakdown of the Blue Jays' four-man outfield.

Who's the fourth outfielder?

Santiago Espinal or Cavan Biggio. Espinal has been the primary fourth outfielder this year, swinging back and forth between second base and the outfield (generally right field).

"If I’m not in the right position -- or if I am -- I even look at the players and communicate with them: 'Hey, am I good here, do you guys think I’m good?' Because they know more about the outfield than me," Espinal said. "I make sure that I communicate with my teammates as soon as I get there ... And they’ll say, 'Yeah, you’re good' or 'Come a couple of steps closer.'"

Biggio, just as versatile as Espinal, has filled the role, too, shifting out from third base or second.

"I don't want to send Bo, I don't want to send Chapman to the outfield," Montoyo said. "When you have second basemen like that, then it's easy to do the four-man outfield."

Which hitters do they use it against?

So far in 2022:
• Joey Gallo and Anthony Rizzo (Yankees)
• Yordan Alvarez and Kyle Tucker (Astros)
• Rafael Devers and Travis Shaw (Red Sox)
• José Ramírez (Guardians)
• Corey Seager (Rangers)
• Seth Brown (A's)

Though Toronto has used four outfielders against right-handed hitters like Hoskins in the past, this group is made up of left-handed batters who drive a lot of balls in the air, across the outfield, and pull most of their contact on the ground.

"Most of the guys that hit in the air, that pull the ball, that don’t go the other way -- all these power hitters that this is what they do," Espinal said. "They pop up, they hit a home run, they get a double down the line. So we have enough guys out there for guys like Gallo, Devers; we did it with Rizzo too, [and] Tucker. Just to keep them at first. If they get a hit, don’t let that turn into a double."

Who oversees the positioning?

The Blue Jays' outfield coach, Mark Budzinski. Before every game, he goes over with Espinal or Biggio and Toronto's regular outfielders which opposing hitters they'll be using a four-man outfield against.

"We had done it a few times in Houston, I think with Gallo a couple of years back," Springer said. "But we didn’t do it all the time. I remember the first couple of times we did it, it was weird, it was a little out there. But again, I don’t really pay it much mind, I’m not going to argue if I get told I gotta do it. I just get told by [Budzinski] before the game who’s going to be the four-man, and if there are none, cool. If there are, great."

After Espinal learns who he's going to the outfield against, he'll take both pregame ground balls in the infield and fly balls at the outfield position he's manning.

What are the defensive responsibilities?

Espinal, or whichever infielder is the fourth outfielder, is mainly responsible for balls hit right at him. That does happen -- Espinal, as the "second baseman," made a catch on a 311-foot fly ball Rizzo hit right to him with the Blue Jays holding a one-run lead in the ninth inning on May 4.

The full-time outfielder takes the balls in the gap between them.

"I know for us, as a team, unless it’s right at the infielder who's playing outfield, it’s our ball," Springer said. "That’s the position I play. I'm the outfielder. They let us know, 'Hey, if it’s a ball that I can catch, I’ll make sure that I get to it.'

"You’re never accustomed to having a fourth guy out there. And normally it’s an infielder ... So it’s just a weird dynamic. But it is what it is."

With only three infielders remaining in the diamond, Bichette moves from shortstop to a deep second base, often starting in the outfield grass. Chapman patrols the entire left side of the infield by himself. Until there are two strikes, he still has to defend against a bunt down the third-base line. With two strikes, he can move up the middle, or even to the other side of the second-base bag.

"There's nothing on defense that I feel like I'm limited to," Chapman said. "Whatever I can do to help make the most outs, right? But the four-man outfield is definitely something that takes some getting used to."

This is where the Blue Jays' trade for the Platinum Glove defender really helps. Chapman, who led all third basemen with +17 Outs Above Average last season, has the range and arm to take half the infield when Toronto wants to use a fourth outfielder.

"Then Bo wouldn't have to worry about taking the bunts away," Chapman said. "That's something I'm used to doing. So I can do the bunts and then I can float back and play shortstop. Chances are the ball's not going that way, most likely."


The big question is, does the four-man outfield work?

It's a little hard to evaluate, since even though the Blue Jays do it much more often than the rest of the league, it's still a relatively small number of plate appearances. But here are some examples of times Toronto's four-outfielder defense has worked this season, and times it hasn't.

In terms of actually getting outs, here are five plays where the fourth outfielder has helped:

• April 22 vs. Tucker -- Zimmer (CF), starting in left-center field, was able to track down Tucker's fly ball to the deep cutout part of the wall in the gap at Minute Maid Park
• May 1 vs. Tucker -- With Zimmer (CF) and Springer (RF) stationed in each gap, Springer could run down Tucker's 109 mph, 380-foot drive to center
• May 2 vs. Rizzo -- Lourdes Gurriel Jr. (LF) is positioned in just the right spot and only needs to cover 28 feet to catch Rizzo's 101 mph sinking line drive
• May 3 vs. Rizzo -- Raimel Tapia (RF) is already standing in the right-center field gap when Rizzo hits a line drive straight at him, only needing to come in 19 feet
• May 5 vs. Ramírez -- The Guardians slugger rips the ball 103 mph to deep left-center, but Zimmer (CF) is already lined up with it and covers 43 feet straight back to make the catch

But there's also the secondary function of the fourth outfielder: to limit extra-base hits.

The Blue Jays have held a slugger to a single several times already because the extra outfielder has let them track down a ball in the corner much quicker. They did it against Gallo in the ninth inning on April 11, Tucker in the sixth inning on April 23 and Devers in the eighth inning on April 26.

That can pay immediate dividends. Right after Gallo's single, for example, Jordan Romano got Gleyber Torres to ground into a double play and proceeded to close out a 3-0 win at Yankee Stadium.

"What we all think is just to get as many guys out as we can, and if he gets a hit, we can keep the guy at first base so we can turn a double play," Espinal said. "It’s much better than them hitting a double and then scoring. So, for the four-man outfield, get everybody in a position where the hitter can’t get an extra-base hit."

The four-man outfield doesn't always get the out, though, and it doesn't always stop the extra-base hit. Rizzo and Alvarez have hit home runs over the top of it. Devers has doubled and Alvarez has singled through the teeth of it. Rizzo has bunted for a hit against it, and Tucker has swinging-bunted for a hit.

Chapman, who's now seen both sides of the four-man outfield -- Matt Olson, his teammate with the A's, used to face it on occasion as Chapman looked on -- isn't yet locked in on its effectiveness.

"We all just thought it was kind of weird [with the A's]," Chapman reflected. "It's not something you see all the time. But I think when it works, it's frustrating [for the opposing team]. But it's hard to say. I think there's such a small sample size, you don't really know."

Julia Kreuz contributed reporting for this story.