Joey Votto Faced a Four-Man Outfield

Joey Votto is doing that thing again. You know, that thing where he doesn’t make outs. That thing where he makes himself the one guy on the Reds worth watching on a regular basis. Under even normal circumstances, Votto is arguably the game’s best hitter. Over the past three weeks or so, Votto’s caught fire. He’s led baseball in average, wRC+, and OBP, surpassing second place in the latter stat by damn near 100 points. In case you haven’t heard, Votto has reached base at least two times for 19 games in a row. Only Ted Williams, Pete Rose, and Barry Bonds have put together longer such streaks, and Williams’ leading streak is but two games away.

Votto goes on these runs where he’s almost impossible to put away. The Cubs had to try to contain him Monday night, and, to give away the end, they didn’t. Votto extended his streak, collecting three hits. Now, the Cubs won by 10 runs, so, whatever. The Reds can’t pitch. But it’s not interesting that the Cubs destroyed the Reds in a baseball game. Rather, it’s interesting how the Cubs tried to defend Votto in the top of the fifth. You’ll notice something different.

That’s Kris Bryant, listed as the third baseman. That’s third baseman Kris Bryant hanging out in left-center, between Kyle Schwarber and Jon Jay. And Bryant isn’t positioned as some kind of shallow rover — he’s positioned as a full-on outfielder, meaning the Cubs had four outfielders in their alignment. You could even argue that Anthony Rizzo and Tommy La Stella were so deep that the Cubs practically had six outfielders. But most people would interpret this as a four-man-outfield formation. Bryant seemed to be enjoying himself.

This was a Joe Maddon call. From Mark Sheldon, postgame:

There might be additional times that Votto sees four outfielders during this series. When he was leading the Rays, Maddon noted he employed the strategy against dominant lefty hitters like David Ortiz, Jim Thome and Travis Hafner.

“We’ll continue to throw it out there when we think it’s the right thing to do,” Maddon said.

Buster Olney wrote about four-man outfields in April. He suggested that a few more such alignments might be just around the corner. And as noted in the blockquote, it’s not like this is a *new* experiment, for Maddon — here’s an article about just the same thing from 2006, in Maddon’s first full managerial year. Maddon had long wanted to try something like this, so he’s messed around with it from time to time. To give away the ending, again, Monday’s four-man outfield didn’t work, because Votto simply doubled down the line.

Because of Maddon’s involvement, I’d say the decision was polarizing. There are a lot of people out there who love Maddon for his creativity, for his willingness to think outside the usual box. There’s a whole community of baseball observers who consider Maddon a sort of managerial genius. How many other managers would even think about doing what Maddon did? Reds manager Bryan Price referred to the defensive formation as a “novelty.” Votto had probably never seen the formation before in his professional career. How is that not something to celebrate?

Then there’s the crowd that’s grown tired of hearing about Maddon’s so-called ingenuity. There are at least as many people out there who find Maddon too clever by half, someone needlessly prone to out-thinking himself. When it comes to Joe Maddon, the majority of people are of one of two minds, and it’s rare to find someone in the middle. As such, after Votto defeated the defense by knocking a double, there were claims that Maddon screwed up yet again. In corners of the Internet, fans laughed at Maddon for still getting beat.

I get it. I get both sides, really. I get why Maddon is atypical, and I get why people grow weary of hearing about it. He’s far from the game’s only smart manager, and maybe there are other guys who don’t get enough credit. But here, look — Maddon called for this particular defense. As far as I know, it’s the first we’ve seen of it for a while. We should be happy it happened. Outcome be damned, baseball just saw a four-man outfield, and I think that flexibility is something we can all get behind.

There are different ways to think about this. Votto, on Monday, batted five times. Only once did he see this formation. He saw it against Jose Quintana in the fifth. Later on, with Mike Montgomery on the mound, the defense was normal.

Maddon tried it only once, and Votto doubled. I doubt it’s correct to say Maddon was deterred by that one single plate appearance. Montgomery is just more of a ground-ball pitcher, and besides, you might not want to use the same formation every time. Let’s go back to the top of the fifth. Via Mike Petriello, here’s how the defense looked according to Statcast:

Compare that image to the first screenshot. There’s one change — when the count ran to two strikes, Javier Baez shifted back, and closer to second.

Earlier, Baez might’ve had to respect the possible bunt attempt. Granted, Votto hasn’t bunted for a hit since 2015. Still, no one else has his bat control, so he could’ve bunted, or at least tried a slash. With two strikes, the bunt risk went away, so Baez moved back and over. In that way, this alignment had two sub-alignments. The distinctive outfield remained the same.

With anything like this, one naturally wonders, do the numbers back it up? And here, the numbers send some mixed messages. You’d think that, in order to justify a four-man outfield, you’d want a hitter-pitcher combination that’s particularly ground-ball averse. Since the start of 2015, Quintana has ranked in the 69th percentile in ground-ball rate against left-handed hitters. And, since the start of 2015, Votto has ranked in the 82nd percentile in ground-ball rate against left-handed pitchers. Both those ground-ball rates are around 50%, which is slightly high. And while Votto has pulled most of his grounders against lefties, his ground-ball distribution has been almost exactly average. You don’t think of Votto as a ground-ball hitter, but he’s not really an air-ball guy, at least not against southpaws. Indeed, he ultimately grounded down the line.

On the other hand, here is Votto’s spray chart against lefties since 2015, via Baseball Savant. I’ve marked the approximate locations of the Cubs’ defenders.

That doesn’t look so bad. Does the defense really need four infielders to cover Votto’s grounders? Might three suffice? Might the outfield alignment further reduce the risk of an extra-base hit? I don’t know. Baez can move around pretty well. It’s hard to strike an opposite-field grounder with much authority. An opposite-field ball in the air? Easier to drill, especially with Votto involved.

There are still more considerations. One, there was little for Maddon to lose. His team was ahead by five runs, and there was one out, with nobody on. The leverage index at the time was 0.29, where the average game situation is 1.00. That is, the absolute worst thing that could happen would be Votto shrinking the margin by 20% with one swing. Not so bad, especially given that the Cubs are a lot better than the Reds are. Then there’s the psychological component. Even if the numbers aren’t absolutely clear that the defense should do this thing or that, perhaps there’s some benefit just to the disruption. From the linked article from 2006:

“I thought it was a great idea by our coaching staff,” Wigginton said. “It adds a new look to the hitter. He gets in the box and looks out there and something ain’t right when there are four outfielders.”

That, Maddon said, is the idea behind the shift. “The primary goal is to try to get him to alter his swing,” he said. “What you’d like to see happen is to have him see the shift and see if that gives him a different thought. It’s the gamesmanship mentally that matters, too.”

As far as Maddon was concerned, why not give it a try? Why not see if Votto might be unclear how to respond? Pitchers and batters are always trying to mess with their timing. It’s all part of an effort to confuse. Maddon, to some extent, was trying to be confusing. Votto ultimately didn’t seem to care.

“No matter the infield setup, no matter the alignment of the infield or outfield, I do the exact same thing,” Votto said. “It’s when I get caught up in what’s going on defensively when I get myself into trouble, [like] changing my approach.

“If that turns out to be a detriment to hitting balls in the outfield, then I clearly have to hit it over the outfield and into the stands. That was also something I was thinking about doing.”

So maybe Votto’s head isn’t the right one to try to crawl into. It could be he’s impossible to bother. I understand the argument for why the four-man outfield might not have been optimal. I still don’t think I’d understand the argument against just trying it once. Joe Maddon tried it once, just to see. When Votto came up again, the leverage was even lower, but the defense was standard.

One time out of five on Monday, Joey Votto saw a four-man outfield in front of him. It didn’t seem to make much of a difference, as Votto shot a double where there wouldn’t have been a defender anyway, and that’s in part just a testament to Votto’s incredible skill. But don’t get caught up in a debate over whether the strategy was a smart one, or stupid. I don’t think we have the answer. It’s probably somewhere in between. Maybe it was kind of smart, and maybe it was kind of stupid. But it was definitely very different from what we usually see. That’s the real important thing. A baseball team did something teams typically don’t. Baseball’s long-standing wall of stubbornness can and will be dismantled brick by brick. Here we have one more brick, lying among scattered others on the ground.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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Steve Perry
6 years ago

Also in that game, according to the MLB Gameday play by play (4th inning), Anthony Rizzo and Tommy La Stella traded positions for a batter, with La Stella going to 1B and Rizzo to 2B, and swapping back after the batter.

6 years ago
Reply to  Steve Perry

They’ve done that ten times now this year. When the opposing manager is paying attention, it has happened that Rizzo was asked to change gloves. In a number of fantasy leagues, Rizzo has earned eligibility at second base.

Steve Perry
6 years ago
Reply to  HappyFunBall

Wasn’t aware they did that. Thanks!

6 years ago
Reply to  HappyFunBall

Happy, quiero saber por qué Maddon utiliza el mover a Rizzo a 2B?

6 years ago
Reply to  Steve Perry

This is relatively frequent for the Cubs when they want to spook a pitcher attempting to bunt by having Rizzo charge in hard.

Steve Perry
6 years ago
Reply to  Stevens

Thanks! I didn’t know they made that move that frequently.

6 years ago
Reply to  Stevens

Actually, the ‘Rizzo shift’ has been largely abandoned for the past two months. The last time this shift was employed was all the way back on June 20th. On that day, Jhoulys Chacin swung on a bunt situation and hit a weak grounder between Rizzo and the pitcher. Glad to see it back, as like this article says, it’s just kind of fun.