Will 4-man outfield become norm vs. Harper?
He faced infield shift 52 percent of PA in 2018 -- but never 4 outfielders
SARASOTA, Fla. -- Is this going to become a thing for Bryce Harper?
He hopes not. He really, really hopes not. But the moment Harper stepped into the batter’s box for his first plate appearance in the first inning of his Phillies debut Saturday afternoon at Spectrum Field, Blue Jays third baseman Eric Sogard moved to left field, giving Toronto four outfielders and three infielders positioned to the right of second base.
It had never happened to him before.
“It’s definitely different for sure,” Harper said.
Four outfielders are uncommon, but the strategy is not entirely new. Fourteen players had at least one plate appearance with a four-man outfield in 2018. It happened at total of 65 times.
Lucas Duda led the way with 15. Justin Smoak (12), Joey Gallo (11) and Matt Olson (10) were the only other players with 10 or more plate appearances against a four-man outfield. It is a small sample size, but those batters hit .186 with a .339 slugging percentage against it, according to Statcast. They posted a .292 xwOBA vs. a .266 wOBA -- basically, a 26-point “unlucky” difference.
Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo said it made sense to have four outfielders for Harper, although he offered no reasons why.
Here are two possibilities:
• Harper crushes the ball to every field. Last season, 135 left-handed batters put at least 100 balls in play from the left-field foul pole to straightaway center. Harper ranked sixth among those players with a .742 slugging percentage.
Harper slugged .567 on those balls in 2017 (27th out of 142), .506 in 2016 (47th of 138) and .796 (third of 144) in 2015. In other words, Harper does damage hitting the ball to the opposite field.
Harper rarely hits ground balls to the left side of the infield, which is why teams deployed an infield shift against him in 51.6 percent of his 678 plate appearances last season -- and it worked. He posted a .404 wOBA without the infield shift. He had a .350 wOBA against it.
It seems the Blue Jays said to themselves, 'We know Harper does not hit the ball on the ground to the left side and we know he crushes the ball in the air to left. So why not forget the fourth infielder and use four outfielders instead?'
People reading this story are probably screaming into their phones or computer screens, “Well, just drop a bunch of bunts down the third-base line then! That’ll teach them!”
Except that is probably what the Blue Jays want Harper to do.
They want him to change his swing.
They want to take the power out of his hands.
"As soon as you try to do something different, they win,” Phillies first baseman Rhys Hoskins said. “If I’m trying to hit a ground ball to the right side, then they’ve done their job and I’m not doing mine. You don’t want me to bunt, I promise you."
Phillies manager Gabe Kapler agrees.
“Hit a lot of homers,” he said, when asked about the best way to beat the strategy. “You know, drive the ball like you’re capable of. Do exactly what you always do. Be Bryce Harper.”
But certainly an old-school guy like Larry Bowa thinks Harper should start dropping bunts down the third-base line like he’s Juan Pierre, right?
“I wouldn’t want him leading off an inning with the score 1-1, trying to slap the ball the other way,” Bowa said. “I think he’s going to hit 40 home runs in our park. I really do.
“I want him to whack one into the seats and I’m sure that’s his approach. ‘I want to hit one out or I want to hit a double.’ The opposition is doing their job if they change his swing. You’re saying, ‘OK, I’ll give you a ground ball to left field. We won that one.’ That’s the whole mindset -- to mess with your head.”
Jim Thome said the same thing when he played for the Phillies. He always got asked why he did not try to slap the ball the other way to beat the shift. He said he didn't do it because it was not his game.
Thome got inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame last July.
Bowa said the only exception might be if the Phillies are trailing by a few runs and Harper is leading off an inning.
“If I’m a hitter and I’m sure he can do it and you’re down, 7-2, I would do it,” Bowa said.
But those are unique circumstances.
“They probably want him to do that,” Bowa said “The whole idea of it is to get them out of their element and you want to keep the ball in the park. If you change a guy’s swing, you’ll give up a single instead of a home run.”