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Shift happens: Phillies’ Bryce Harper could see more four-man outfields

Opposing teams will likely try to find a way to thwart the powerful hitter. Gabe Kapler's advice? "Hit a lot of homers."

Bryce Harper swings at the first pitch he sees in his spring-training debut with the Phillies.
Bryce Harper swings at the first pitch he sees in his spring-training debut with the Phillies.Read moreYONG KIM / Staff Photographer

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Larry Bowa looked out from the dugout on Saturday afternoon, saw eight fielders, and thought for a moment that a Toronto player was still in the dugout.

Then the umpire moved to the side and Bowa, a grizzled baseball man in his fifth decade around the game, spotted something he said he had never seen: The Blue Jays were using four outfielders to combat Bryce Harper.

“It was weird,” Bowa said.

The Blue Jays equipped a four-man outfield on Saturday in both of Harper’s plate appearances, perhaps offering a taste of the type of defensive alignments Harper could see this season.

Toronto moved its third baseman to left field to place outfielders in left, left-center, right-center, and right. The three remaining infielders stood to the right of second base. The entire left side of the infield was uncovered. Harper, who hit just 28.2 percent of his balls last season to the left side according to FanGraphs, walked twice. The shift will have to wait to be tested.

Asked if he expected to see shifts like this during the season, Harper said: “Man, I hope not. If they’re gonna start playing ball like that, it’s definitely different for sure.”

Teams used a four-man outfield 65 times last season, according to MLB’s Statcast data. It was rare. Only 14 batters faced the alignment, but it did work. In a small sample size, batters hit .186 with a .339 slugging percentage against the four-man outfield.

Harper never faced a four-man outfield, but he did face the third-most defensive shifts among all major-league outfielders, according to FanGraphs. He finished last season with a .889 OPS, but FanGraphs noted that number dropped to just .683 when a shift was used. It is certainly possible that teams could test Harper again with a four-man outfield.

“It’s probably not going to be the last time,” first baseman Rhys Hoskins said. “He’s professional enough. I’m sure he just takes his at-bat the same, but interesting to see it in spring. You see it, ‘Oh, OK.’ It doesn’t make you do anything different, because as soon as you try to do something different, they win. If I’m trying to hit a ground ball to the right side, then they’ve done their job and I’m not doing mine. You don’t want me to bunt, I promise you.”

The Phillies used the 10th-most defensive shifts last season across all of baseball. Their fielders seemed to be constantly on the move as they referenced the index cards in their back pockets to position themselves. Gabe Kapler even experimented last spring training by flipping his right and left fielders in the middle of an inning to place the better fielder on the side of the field where the batter was expected to hit.

» FROM AUGUST: The Phillies are using defensive shifts more than ever. Do they work?

Kapler, when asked about the four-man outfield, said “for a bazillion reasons, it probably doesn’t make sense to get into my take on the strategy.” The analytically inclined manager has surely considered using a similar defense. But how would he advise Harper to beat the extreme shift?

“Hit a lot of homers,” Kapler said. “You know, drive the ball, like you’re capable of. Do exactly what you always do. Be Bryce Harper.”

Harper returned to the dugout Saturday and grabbed Bowa. Perhaps the 73-year-old Bowa, in camp as a guest instructor, had seen that type of defense before. Nope, Bowa said. He read an article about it once and saw it once on TV but never in person.

“I was shocked, in spring training,” Bowa said. “I want him to whack one into the seats, and I’m sure that’s his approach: ‘I want to hit one out or I want to hit a double.’ The opposition is doing their job if they change his swing. You’re saying, ‘OK. I’ll give you a ground ball to left field. We won that one.’ That’s the whole mindset, to mess with your head.”