When the Houston Astros experimented with a four-man outfield during spring training, it wasn’t for show. Manager A.J. Hinch truly believes the data-driven defensive strategy can give his team an advantage, and he wasted no time backing that up during their 4-1 season-opening victory against the Texas Rangers.
The first player to face the Astros extreme shift is one Houston will see a lot of over the years. Rangers slugger Joey Gallo, whose power-oriented approach often leads him to hit the ball in the air, looked out and saw this arrangement before him.
Here's the defense the Astros used for Joey Gallo That's third basebman Alex Bregman in LF. Gallo hit it right to him pic.twitter.com/iH3WYTTKds
— Kevin Brand (@KBranded) March 29, 2018
Astros third baseman Alex Bregman became the fourth outfielder and essentially played a straight up left field. Houston puts its three remaining infielders on the right side, with second baseman Jose Altuve essentially playing short right field. That wrinkle is included because of Gallo’s tendency to pull the ball to right field.
Here’s a clearer visual of the alignment via Statcast’s Daren Willman.
— Daren Willman (@darenw) March 29, 2018
After one game anyway, Houston’s extreme shift should be considered a success.
Gallo hit directly into the shift in three of his four plate appearances. In the first inning, he lofted a fly ball to the relocated Bregman in left field. In the fourth, he hit a sharp fly ball that Josh Reddick handled in left-center field. In the eighth, it was a fly ball to right field. Gallo added a strikeout to go 0 for 4.
It’s safe to assume the Astros will continue employing the four-man outfield with an extreme infield shift against Gallo and other batters with his tendencies. That is, until they relent and make an adjustment. Jeremy Barfield, the son of former major leaguer Jesse Barfield, says he would have made that adjustment instantly.
I love hitting homers more than anybody but if a team ever shifts me like the Astros are with Gallo I’m bunting every single time. Easy double.
— Jeremy Barfield (@BarfontheField) March 29, 2018
Not all batters think like that. Given Gallo’s immense power, his thinking is that they can’t catch it if he hits it over the fence. That’s his game. That’s what he’s looking to do.
At some point though, it wouldn’t hurt to keep the Astros honest. Eventually, a batter will beat Houston’s shift with a bunt or a slow roller up the third base line. It will be interesting though to see how often batters are willing to test them, and how quickly Houston will adjust again.
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