MLB trends: New wrinkle to position players pitching; Marcus Semien loses power; more four-man outfields

Table of Contents1 Semien’s power outage 2 Peak position player pitching 3 The rise of…

The 2022 MLB regular season is nearly two months old and we are beginning to see the contenders separate themselves from the pretenders. Several clubs that started out hot have come back to Earth and others that started slowly are beginning to climb up the standings. That said, there’s still a lot of season to be played and a lot of time to decide postseason races.  

With that in mind, our weekly series breaking down various trends across the league continues Wednesday with a look at one big-name player’s power outage, and league-wide trends with position players pitching and four-man outfields. Last week we examined Robbie Ray’s problem with big innings, Tampa’s latest pitching revelation, and Connor Joe’s breakout.

Semien’s power outage

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There is no sugarcoating it: Marcus Semien’s first season with the Rangers has been a disaster. That doesn’t mean he won’t turn it around at some point, but after going 1 for 3 with a walk Tuesday night, Semien is hitting .199/.266/.274 in Year 1 of his seven-year, $175 million contract. He’s hit one home run in 47 games after hitting 45 homers a year ago.

Semien’s lone home run came this past weekend against the Athletics, his former team. It was a grand slam and it is most notable because he hit it out to right-center field. Semien has 161 career home runs and only 27 have been hit to center or right field.

“When I hit it, I thought, ‘Oh, that’s probably gonna get caught,'” Semien jokingly told MLB.com after the game. “But it carried out. Sometimes with day games here, when you hit it right, it carries. Of course, a grand slam is great. The first with a new team, a good swing to help us win, I’ll take it.”

Semien’s 45-homer season a year ago was made possible by incredible results when he pulled the ball. Thirty-nine of his 45 homers were pulled, and he posted the lowest ground ball rate of his career on pulled balls. Semien didn’t just pull the ball a lot in 2021. He pulled the ball a lot in the air, which equaled home runs. Here are his rates when pulling the ball the last few years:

2018

57.4%

22.0%

90.3 mph

2019

58.4%

39.3%

90.5 mph

2020 (60-game season)

51.4%

23.8%

87.6 mph

2021

44.1%

45.9%

93.3 mph

2022

60.3%

0.0%

87.9 mph

MLB average for RHB

58.7%

29.6%

90.6 mph

Semien is still pulling the ball as much as usual (47.7 percent compared to his 45.3 percent career average), but he’s hitting it on the ground more often when he does pull it, and he’s not hitting it as hard as last season. That low ground ball rate and high exit velocity last year was very conducive to home runs. This year it’s the opposite. He’s pulling the ball in ways that don’t lead to power.

We know Semien isn’t hitting home runs because he’s not pulling the ball in the air with authority. The question now is why is he not pulling the ball in the air with authority? There could be an underlying injury we don’t know about. That’s always possible. Rangers manager Chris Woodward seemed to chalk it up to a mechanical issue. From the Dallas Morning News in early May:

“There’s been some inconsistency there from this year to last year and how his body is moving,” manager Chris Woodward explained. “But he’s been open to that. And he’s like: ‘I want to figure this out.’ I hope he doesn’t overwhelm himself. I don’t think it’s a huge fix. I think it’s pretty simple. But by simple, it may take a little time to get it perfectly right. I think he will be fine. He’s on the right trail to get solutions. That’s encouraging.”  

That was just about a month ago and Semien still hasn’t rediscovered his power stroke, which isn’t a good sign for the whole “he’s on the right trail to get solutions” thing. Semien’s batted ball data has pretty much leveled out. He’s not pulling the ball any more or any less now than he was in April, nor is he hitting it on ground any more or any less. He’s essentially spinning his wheels.

I don’t think anyone realistically expected Semien to hit 45 home runs again this season, but he’s on pace to hit four if we round up. That’s a problem. It’s June. Hot and slow starts and now officially trends, and with Semien being so early in a long-term contract, you can be sure the Rangers want to see some progress soon. We’re beyond the point of saying it’s still early.

“It’s human nature to press sometimes with a new team. I went through it last year too, just not this long of a slump or whatever you want to call it,” Semien told MLB.com over the weekend. “Of course, when I’m not getting hits and we’re not winning, I get frustrated, but I understand that this is a long season. You (go) through the ups and downs. Sometimes you start with slumps, but I am going to work as hard as I can to get out of it.”

Peak position player pitching

With all due respect to Jay Jaffe, position player pitching did not peak in 2019. I’m not even sure it’s peaking in 2022, but what we used to see maybe once or twice a month is now almost a nightly occurrence across baseball. In an effort to preserve arms — actual pitcher arms — teams routinely turn to position players to eat up an inning or two in a blowout.

Here are the number of position player pitching appearances by year (ignoring the 2020 pandemic season and not counting Shohei Ohtani):

  • 2022: 23 and counting (on pace for 79)
  • 2021: 95
  • 2019: 90
  • 2018: 65
  • 2017: 36

As recently as 2011, only eight — eight! — position players took the mound all season. Eight different position players pitched just last week (Giants outfielder Luis González pitched twice last week and three times already this season). We’re on pace for only 79 position player pitching appearances this year, though that rate will climb as the season progresses. It always does.

Beyond the sheer number of position players making pitching appearances, there’s a new trend emerging in the world of position player pitchers: they’re pitching in wins. Historically, position players were sent to the mound in blowout losses. It used to be an act of desperation, an acknowledgement you’ve been beaten so badly that it risks ruining your next game or two.

Now teams are getting a little cheeky and using position players to close out blowout wins. It happened four times last month: Albert Pujols (15-6 Cardinals win on May 15), Hanser Alberto (12-3 Dodgers win on May 17), Yadier Molina (18-4 Cardinals win on May 22), and Alberto again (14-1 win on May 26). They combined to allow nine runs in four innings in those appearances.

“They made me pay like I’ve been making pitchers pay for 22 years,” Pujols jokingly told MLB.com after allowing four runs in his pitching appearance.

Four position players pitched in a win in May and the Cardinals and Dodgers did it twice each, so this wasn’t a one-off with four different teams. Two teams did it multiple times. Prior to this season, the last position player to pitch in a win was Russell Martin with (who else?) the Dodgers. He did it twice in two-week span in Aug. 2019. Martin also did it that March.

As you might suspect, most recent position player pitching appearances in a win came under extreme or unusual circumstances. Orioles utility man Stevie Wilkerson got a save (!) in 16-inning game in 2019. Cubs catcher John Baker and Orioles slugger Chris Davis picked up wins in 16-inning games. Tigers utility man Andrew Romine pitched in a win when he played all nine positions.

Four position players pitched in wins in May. Nine did it from 2011-21, and two did it from 1969-2010. One was Rockies catcher Brent Mayne, who pitched the 12th inning on Aug. 22, 2000. The other was Tigers utility man Shane Halter, who played all nine positions on the final day of the 2000 season. This used to never happen. Then it happened four times last month.

Because position players don’t train to pitch and are put at increased injury risk when they take the mound, the MLBPA has grown concerned about the increase in position player pitching appearances, and there are now rules about when position players can pitch. The rules:

MLB teams must designate every player on the active roster either as a pitcher or a position player … Those designated as position players are unable to pitch unless it is extra innings or their team is ahead or trailing by more than six runs when they take the mound.

Personally, the novelty of a position player pitching has worn off for me, and I don’t find it all that entertaining. I’m far more likely to turn the game off than watch a position player pitch. I think the score being separated by six runs is too low a threshold. I say up it to eight runs, or even 10 runs. There’s no indication MLB is considering this, but I hope the league does. Now that two teams have used position players to pitch in blowout wins multiple times, it’s going to happen more often. Other teams will follow suit. It’s inevitable.

The rise of the four-man outfield

As recently as 2017, defenses employed the shift on only 12.1 percent of plate appearances. That number rose to 17.4 percent in 2018 and again to 25.6 percent in 2019. So far this season, 36.6 percent of all plate appearances have featured some sort of defensive shift. Lefty hitters are especially vulnerable — they see the shift on 58.8 percent of their plate appearances.

Shifts have evolved beyond the “play the second baseman in shallow right field” move. The newest defensive trend is the four-man outfield, which is not necessarily new, but is becoming more popular. It was newsworthy when José Ramírez and Joey Gallo saw four-man outfields in 2018. Now you’ll see it most nights. The four-man outfield rate in recent years:

  • 2022: 233.7 plate appearances per four-man outfield
  • 2021: 590.0
  • 2020: 566.7 (60-game season)
  • 2019: 998.7
  • 2018: 2,866.9

In the grand scheme of things, only 0.4 percent of plate appearances have a four-man outfield this season, though you can see how rapidly that rate is increasing. There were four plate appearances with a four-man outfield total in 2016 and 2017. There have already been 230 this season going into Tuesday’s games. Last year there were 370. That number will be shattered this season.

Here are the clubs that have seen the most four-man outfields offensively and used the most four-man outfields defensively in 2022:

It should be noted 11 teams have not seen one four-man outfield this year and only six teams have actually used the four-man outfield (the Rangers are the sixth team at 0.2 percent). Therein lies the pattern: AL East teams are leading the charge. They account for 96 percent of all four-man outfields used in 2022.

(It makes sense that the Tigers are among the six teams to use the four-man outfield this season. Their manager, AJ Hinch, was among the first to employ the four-man outfield a few years, when he managed the Astros and faced Gallo.)

The Yankees and Blue Jays have already played each other nine times, inflating those four-man outfield numbers. The Yankees have several extreme fly ball hitters (Gallo, Aaron Judge, Anthony Rizzo, etc.) and so do the Blue Jays (Matt Chapman, George Springer, etc.). Nearly six percent of all plate appearances in Yankees vs. Blue Jays games have had a four-man outfield in 2022.

Like infield shifts, teams are just playing the odds with four-man outfields. They’re putting their defenders where the hitter is most likely to hit the ball based on their batted ball tendencies. It’s so simple that it’s amazing it took so long for defensive shifts to catch on. Teams didn’t always have precise batted ball data, of course. Now they do, and they’re certainly using it.

I have been against banning the shift because I don’t want to stifle innovation. Four-man outfields might be my tipping point though. It’s one thing to steal away singles on ground balls back up the middle or soft liners to shallow right. It’s another to start taking away doubles and triples into the gaps and the corners. Homers are down already. We don’t need to take away doubles and triples too.

Every new innovation we’ve seen in recent years (infield shifts, openers, bullpen shuttles, etc.) tells us the four-man outfield will catch on. It’s a copycat league. Right now four-man outfields are mostly confined to the AL East, but they’re being used with greater frequency, and it’s only a matter of time until most of the league is using them too. Whether MLB intervenes (forcing infielders to keep two feet on the infield dirt is an easy enough solution for four-man outfields) remains to be seen.