The Rays ended the 2019 season with one defensively elite outfielder, that being (of course) Kevin Kiermaier.
In the off-season, the team may have improved that number from one to three, acquiring Hunter Renfroe and Manuel Margot from the Padres in two separate trades.
With the 2020 Summer Camp workouts currently underway inside of Tropicana Field, Kiermaier’s defensive play in single-man outfield workouts has put an intriguing idea inside the mind of Kevin Cash: Utilizing a two-man outfield.
#Rays Cash seeing Kiermaier roam the outfield by himself today, and what he's done in the past, makes him think more about using a two-man outfield— Marc Topkin (@TBTimes_Rays) July 10, 2020
When the most progressive manager on the most progressive baseball team throws out an idea that might seem crazy, it may deserve more thought and attention than laughter and criticism. Cash brings up something that could work very well in specific deployments.
Utilizing a two-man outfield
The first question that needs to be answered is not who can do this but, “who do you deploy this against?”
Ideally, this would be used against batters that hit that ball on the ground more often than they lift it. So batters with poor launch angles, high ground ball rates and low straightaway hit rates would be the first candidates to look at.
This is actually a quick thought experiment! For each of these metrics, we would want to look at league-average rates and find players with numbers lower than those. League-average launch angle in 2019 was 11.2º, ground ball percentage was 45% and straightaway hit percentage was 38%.
When you account for the teams that the Rays are scheduled to play in 2020, their AL East rivals and NL East opponents, about 30 eligible players come up that meet the cutoff point of below average. The Marlins have seven players on that list that could each have a two-man outfield deployed against, based on their below-average rates of quality contact.
Looking at other teams, the Mets have Wilson Ramos, the most qualified candidate based on his absurd 62% ground ball rate and zero degree average launch angle in 2019, in addition to two other players. The Orioles have five players, the Nationals have four, the Red Sox and Blue Jays each have three, the Phillies and Braves both have two while the Yankees have one.
So now that we know that there are situations where deployment can occur, the next question becomes, “who plays the outfield with Kiermaier?” The easiest answer to this question is newly-acquired center fielder Manuel Margot, based on his elite defensive abilities that nearly rival Kiermaier’s.
Overlaying outs recorded by Kiermaier and Margot in the 2019 season inside the outfield lines of Tropicana Field, the range of both outfielders is the least of any concerns about the possible effectiveness of this deployment.
You’ll note this isn’t a perfect overlay, as it comes from multiple stadiums played in and somewhat ignores the deepest part of center field, but in the situation this would occur, it may be statistically prudent to leave that part of the field open.
The issue with this partnering is that Margot’s bat performs much better against left-handed pitching, leading to a deficiency in the lineup solely for what would be a niche role. Luckily, the other outfielder that the Rays acquired could do just the trick, and that is where Hunter Renfroe steps in.
With Renfroe likely to be a regular in the lineup, utilizing his plus-defense for specific situations like this would give you the defensive versatility to run this type of deployment while also not removing what should be a significant bat in the lineup.
When overlaying Renfroe’s outs recorded in 2019 with Kiermaier’s, it is easy to see that this deployment has the potential of working under its very specific circumstances.
It’s easy to see how that range can be fit into a more standard outfield layout.
Of course, all of this is subject to Kevin Cash actually pulling the trigger on a plan like this and would require a lot more coordinating than just a day of Kiermaier playing a one-man outfield during a simulated game, but the idea is a fun one to think about and could prove effective if deployed during the season.