Rays' 4-man outfield works out perfectly

October 8th, 2020

The Rays did just about everything right on Wednesday night at Petco Park, beating the Yankees, 8-4, to take a 2-1 lead in the best-of-five American League Division Series. That included an interesting bit of defensive strategy that worked to perfection.

It happened when Yankees catcher Kyle Higashioka led off the bottom of the seventh inning against reliever John Curtiss, with Tampa Bay holding an 8-2 advantage. Instead of a typical alignment, Rays manager Kevin Cash sent second baseman Brandon Lowe out to right field, where he stood 301 feet from home plate. The team’s other three outfielders all shifted over -- right fielder Brett Phillips to the right-center gap, center fielder Kevin Kiermaier to left-center and left fielder Randy Arozarena toward the line.

That gamble left the Rays with only three infielders, with first baseman Ji-Man Choi the only man remaining on the right side. The decision paid off, though. On a 2-2 pitch, Higashioka blistered a 94.5 mph line drive to left-center field. In a traditional defensive setup, it almost certainly would have landed in the gap for an extra-base hit.

Instead, the ball was hit almost directly at Kiermaier. While it wasn’t quite a routine play for the three-time Gold Glove Award winner, he got a good jump on the ball, charged it, and made a sliding grab for the out.

Of course, the Rays are no strangers to unorthodox strategies, including a four-outfielder setup.

During the regular season, they used it for 60 opponent plate appearances -- more than half the MLB-wide total. Tampa Bay also went to four outfielders for four plate appearances in the first two games of the ALDS, including for the same matchup -- Higashioka against Curtiss -- in the ninth inning of Game 1. That time, however, Higashioka hit a blooper to shallow center that dropped for a single.

Why was Higashioka a target? In his career, about 54 percent of his batted balls have been fly balls or line drives, which is a bit above the MLB average of around 49 percent. He also pulls the ball a lot (46 percent). Due to those two factors, just three of Higashioka’s 144 career batted balls entering the day had been grounders to the right side, reducing the risk of moving the second baseman to the outfield.

Meanwhile, Curtiss has allowed a fly ball or liner on about 59 percent of his career batted balls, giving him one of the 25 highest rates among pitcher since 2017 (minimum 100 batted balls).

“They have a number of guys, depending on the matchup, whether it’s their guy hitting the ball in the air a lot or a pitcher getting a lot of outs in the air, and when it lines up, we’re going to do that," Cash said.

You can’t predict baseball. But this time, Higashioka and Curtiss followed the numbers, and the Rays’ boldness was rewarded.