Zack Britton and the five-man infield

Intrasquad games have been full of unusual things that wouldn’t be allowed in a normal setting. From vacant positions on defense to multiple designated hitters to five out innings, just about anything has been on the table. It’s been amusing to some degree, and to be fair, the Yankees can do whatever they want in these games. To wit:

That said, not everything unusual that the Yankees have done in these games is completely unfathomable in the regular season. With Zack Britton pitching the other day, the Bombers ran out a five man infield. Apparently, this is something they’ve considered doing since last year according to Aaron Boone.

There’s some sense to this alignment on the surface. Britton, of course, is an extreme ground ball pitcher. His bowling ball sinker led him to a 77.2 percent ground ball rate last season, and he’s posted a rate no lower than 72.6 percent each year since 2014. The lefty has been comfortably atop the ground ball leaderboard for a long time now. So with that in mind, the Yankees could steal a few more outs with an extra defender on the infield dirt.

vs. LHB, 2019
vs. RHB, 2019

Let’s break it down by batter handedness, starting with lefties. Last year, only one hitter managed to pull a ball in the air against Britton: Austin Meadows. That’s the blue dot you see in the right field corner — a double. The other blue dot you see in right field was a ground ball single by Rougned Odor, by the way. Everything else in the air was to center or left center.

The lack of pulled balls in the air by lefties against Britton isn’t just a 2019 thing. In 2015, 2016, and 2017, left handed hitters lifted balls to right field just once in each season. 2018 is the exception, but perhaps an anomaly.

So, Britton’s spray chart vs. lefties lends to three defenders on the dirt to the right side of second base with two on the opposite. It also could mean a left-center fielder and “regular” center fielder. I gotta say, no right fielder against lefties is pretty bizarre, but it could work in theory for Britton. It’s a pretty big hole to leave open, but again, lefties have an extremely difficult time pulling a fly ball against Britton.

Let’s turn to right-handed hitters where there’s a little bit more variety of batted balls to the outfield. Now, I count just three to dead center in 2019, all fly outs. That said, in earlier seasons, there’s a good mix on the spray chart. Ultimately, it’s not as cut and dry against righties for Britton.

If the Yankees were to utilize five infielders against a righty, you’d see three defenders on the left side of the diamond and the other two on the right. There’d probably be a left-center fielder and right-center fielder. In this situation, the biggest defensive holes are fly balls down the line. Still, it’s not that easy to expose those openings. Easier said than done.

Of course, to pull off a five-man infield, the Yankees need the right personnel on the field. In other words, one of the traditional outfielders needs to be able to play on the infield dirt. Guys that come to mind include Tyler Wade, Rosell Herrera, and Miguel Andújar (though Miggy isn’t a traditional outfielder yet). Ultimately, we could see Boone sub in someone like Wade pretty often late in the game, especially when Britton pitches, in order to run this alignment.

Whether or not the Yankees actually do this remains to be seen. This is one of those things that I need to see in a game that counts to believe it. It’s one thing to do it with a runner on third with less than two outs in a crucial spot, but it’s another thing to do it regularly. Can you imagine Britton, who’s got the interim closer tag, blowing a save because a lazy fly ball dunks in for a hit? The discourse would be ugly. Still, if there’s any pitcher that this strategy could work for, it’s Britton. And in a year that’s anything but normal, perhaps the Yankees feel emboldened to try something different.

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2 Comments

  1. Jeff

    This seems like a good idea to try with regularity over 162. Seems risky over 60 games. One or two bad bounces coming from that could decide a team’s fate.

  2. Jeff

    I think this is a good idea to try with some regularity over 162. Over 60 games? Seems risky….one batted ball backfiring could very well decide a team’s fate.

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