Two-man outfield? How Rays could do it

February 12th, 2020

Here's a list of baseball's top 10 defensive outfielders over the last three seasons. Notice that only one team can boast two players on it.

Best outfielders by Outs Above Average, last 3 seasons

  1. Lorenzo Cain (MIL): +54
  2. Ender Inciarte (ATL): +45
  3. Adam Engel (CWS): +43
  4. Byron Buxton (MIN): +40

5-T) Kevin Kiermaier (TB): +37 (+17 in 2019, 2nd in MLB)
5-T) Mookie Betts (LAD): +37
7) Billy Hamilton (SF): +36
8) Harrison Bader (STL): +34
9) Manuel Margot (TB): +33 (+11 in 2019, 7th in MLB)
10) Jackie Bradley Jr. (BOS): +32

It's the Rays, with and -- now that they've traded for Margot and the Red Sox have traded away Mookie Betts, splitting up him and Jackie Bradley Jr.

Outs Above Average is Statcast's metric for outfield defense, and it's based on range, crediting outfielders based on the difficulty of every ball they track down and debiting them for the ones they don't get to. It aims at the fundamental question any elite defender must answer: Can you, and do you, make all the catches?

Kiermaier and Margot are elite. They cover tons of ground -- more than any other pair of outfielders on any other MLB team. Their combined +70 OAA since the start of 2017 is the most of any current outfield teammates, ahead of Byron Buxton and Max Kepler's +65 in Minnesota.

So … what if they could cover ALL the ground?

What if the Rays tried to take advantage of Kiermaier and Margot's elite range by deploying a two-man outfield?

Imagine it. Kiermaier and Margot manning the entire outfield, giving the Rays an extra infielder to station wherever the hitter's tendencies dictated. We've seen four-outfielder alignments trickle into teams' playbooks ... what about swinging the other way?

Let's have some fun with the idea.

The stars won't align any better than this. The Rays are the perfect team to run this thought experiment. They have ideal personnel with two amazing defensive center fielders on one roster. And these are the early adopters of infield shifts, the pioneers of The Opener, that we're talking about. Tampa Bay is ever the innovator, never the team to shy away from a radical new strategy.

So what would a Kiermaier-Margot, two-man outfield actually look like in action? Here are two ways the Rays could set it up.

Alignment 1: Play the gaps
Kiermaier and Margot in left-center field and right-center field
When to use it: In a park with short corners and deep alleys

This would be the most straightforward way to let Kiermaier and Margot take over. Put one in each gap, and give them free reign to cover as much territory as they can.

The best time to do it would be in a stadium with extreme dimensions. Specifically, one that's short down the line but gets deep quickly as you move into the alleys. Think Fenway Park, with the Green Monster in left and Pesky's Pole in right; or Minute Maid Park, with the Crawford Boxes; or maybe even Yankee Stadium, with its short right-field porch and spacious center field. (The Rays just so happen to see those teams plenty -- two in their division, all three postseason contenders.)

There's not nearly as much ground to cover in the corners of those venues -- if a hitter drives the ball out that way, it's either a home run or caroming off the high wall where an outfielder like Kiermaier or Margot would be able to corral it before the batter got too far. But there's tons of ground to cover in the gaps. You don't want a ball getting over your head and into the deep reaches of center field in Houston or Boston. Kiermaier and Margot playing in the gaps wouldn't let it happen.

If two players are going to track down balls across the entire outfield, they'd better get great jumps. Every split-second's gonna count. Guess what? Kiermaier gets the best jumps. Margot is also top-five. (That's out of all qualifying outfielders last season.)

Best Jump among MLB OF in 2019
1) Kevin Kiermaier (TB): +3.8 feet vs. avg.
2) Ryan Cordell (NYM): +2.4 feet vs. avg.
3) Harrison Bader (STL): +1.7 feet vs. avg.
4-T) Manuel Margot (TB): +1.6 feet vs. avg.
4-T) Leury García (CWS): +1.6 feet vs. avg.
Jump: Distance covered vs. an avg. OF due to reaction, burst and route

Statcast's outfield jump stat is used specifically for non-routine plays, where the fielder's actions during those first few seconds matter most. Kiermaier and Margot excelled on those. Between them, they made 18 catches last season -- nine apiece -- on plays with a catch probability of 50% or lower.

You're also gonna need speed. Kiermaier and Margot have speed. Kiermaier's average sprint speed last season was 29.4 feet per second; Margot's was 29.0 ft/sec. That puts them in the upper echelon of MLB's fastest players -- way above the league average sprint speed, 27 ft/sec.

Alignment 2: Shade to pull/opposite field
Pull hitter: Margot in left field vs. RHB or right field vs. LHB; Kiermaier in center field
Oppo hitter: Margot in RF vs. RHB or LF vs. LHB; Kiermaier in CF
When to use it: Against a heavy ground ball hitter with a predictable spray chart

This is probably the closest thing to what you'd actually see if a team tried to play with two outfielders. Find an extreme ground-ball hitter who, even when he hits the ball in the air, hits it in the same direction. Shade him that way and dare him to hit to the empty corner. If he's slow, even better.

You'd probably want Kiermaier in center for these alignments. As good as Margot is, Kiermaier is even rangier, and this way he'd be in position to cover the most ground in case of emergency. Then you could use the extra infielder to match up with the hitter's ground ball tendency, and maybe use a rover in the shallow outfield on the side Margot wasn't covering.

Why would a two-man outfield work here?
• For a predictable ground-ball hitter, having an extra infielder on one side could get you a lot of extra outs.
• It's hard to beat your own spray chart. Hitters have defined tendencies. Kiermaier and Margot could overload the side where they know any air balls are likely going.

So let's come up with some guys who fit the profile.

A few pull hitters you could try: Ben Zobrist, Andrelton Simmons, Vladimir Guerrero Jr.

All three had ground ball rates over 50% in 2019 -- 57% for Zobrist, 55.1% for Simmons, 50.4% for Vlad Jr. So that extra infielder could make an impact against them.

And all three hit few of their line drives or fly balls to the opposite field -- 22.9% for Zobrist, 25.6% for Vlad Jr. and 26.7% for Simmons. That's three of every four balls headed to the areas Kiermaier and Margot would be patrolling. Not perfect, but if you're just willing to take a chance ... Plus, the Rays' excellent pitching staff could attack these hitters in such a way as to lead their batted balls in a certain direction. Say, feed the aggressive Vladito a steady diet of curveballs -- Blake Snell, Charlie Morton and Tyler Glasnow all have great ones -- that would challenge him to show the discipline it takes to sit back long enough to avoid pulling the ball.

Then there's shading the hitter to the opposite field -- aka the Joe Mauer shift. (Over Mauer's final two seasons, 2017-18, he pulled exactly one fly ball. One. Of 132. It was a grand slam, for what that's worth.)

There's not a unique opposite-field hitter like Mauer in the Majors today, but there are some who have the tendencies to provoke a two-man, opposite-field-shaded outfield alignment.

Wilson Ramos is Exhibit A. The Buffalo had the second-highest ground-ball rate in baseball last year, 63.4%. And when he hit the ball in the air, he only pulled it 18.2% of the time, one of the league's lowest rates of pulled air contact. Put Margot in right field and Kiermaier in center, and Ramos is hitting more than four of five balls to them. Plus, he's one of MLB's very slowest runners. Ramos' sprint speed last season was 22.9 feet per second -- fourth-slowest of 568 qualifiers.

He checks all the boxes for a two-man outfield: He hits tons of grounders, his air contact is predictable, and even if he hits one into left field, Kiermaier can cross the outfield a lot faster than Ramos can round the bases.

Other candidates? Maybe someone like Eric Hosmer (56.8% ground-ball rate, 19.1% pull rate in the air). If Miguel Cabrera hit a few more ground balls (44.9% in 2019), he'd be a good one, since he's slow-footed and only pulled 16.3% of his line drives and fly balls last year.

Does this all sound crazy? OK, fine, maybe it's a little crazy. You probably won't start seeing two-man outfields proliferate in real-life Major League games, because even if one gave you a better chance of getting an out against a certain hitter, the stakes are too high if a ball gets hit to the empty space. If a hitter beats a shift and puts a ball through a vacated infield spot, it's only a single. But if he puts one into a vacant outfield? It's a double … or triple … or inside-the-parker. And the Rays do have Hunter Renfroe and Austin Meadows to account for, who are big bats you want in the lineup (and Renfroe is a fine outfielder too, worth +6 Outs Above Average in 2019). But maybe, if the situation presented itself just right ... is it crazy enough to work, or just crazy?

Hey, all it takes is one team daring enough to voyage into uncharted grasses. Do it, Rays. Without risk there is no reward. Let's see Kiermaier and Margot flying around and making amazing plays in an outfield all to themselves.