MLB: Cincinnati Reds at San Diego Padres

There are plenty of roles more important than the lowly fourth outfielder. Going into a season with a question mark this menial on your depth chart should not keep anybody up at night. It is, however, a job that can pay distinct dividends.

There are many different ways to build a fourth outfielder. It is mostly a matter of need. Provide late-game defensive cover for the slugger with “fall down” range or do the opposite – offer “break glass in case of emergency” bench pop when a team needs instant offense.

As Spring Training slowly gives way to the regular season, it is this type of depth role that is often battled over among multiple options. Guys of this nature sometimes price themselves out of the role, leading to some last minute shuffling as the season nears and the ax falls in favor of a younger, cheaper player.

But what type of fourth outfielder you prefer says a lot about you and it says a lot about your favorite team. Your insecurities and worst held fears about the soft spot in the starting nine all bubble to the surface.

So let’s dig in and find out what kind of fourth outfielder works best for you. Yes, you.

Before we categorize, let’s get a handle on what a fourth outfielder looks like. Below is a list of outfielders who totaled more than one Win Above Replacement while coming to the plate less than 450 times. This sampling is curated, slightly. Gone are injured/suspended starters who are in no way “fourth outfielders.” Likewise for a few guys who played everyday in lieu of injured or suspended starters.

Rk Player WAR/pos PA Tm G H HR SB OPS Pos
1 Juan Lagares 3.7 421 NYM 121 95 4 6 .633 *89H
2 Craig Gentry 3.6 287 TEX 106 69 2 24 .759 *87H/D
3 Lorenzo Cain 3.2 442 KCR 115 100 4 14 .658 *89/HD
4 David Lough 2.7 335 KCR 96 90 5 5 .724 *97H/8
5 Cody Ross 2.5 351 ARI 94 88 8 3 .745 79H
6 Ryan Raburn 2.1 277 CLE 87 66 16 0 .901 *9DH7/41
7 Rajai Davis 1.8 360 TOR 108 86 6 45 .687 *79H8/D
8 Jarrod Dyson 1.8 239 KCR 87 55 2 34 .692 *8HD
9 Brandon Barnes 1.7 445 HOU 136 98 8 11 .635 *89H/7
10 David DeJesus 1.4 439 TOT 122 98 8 5 .729 *87H/9
11 Mike Carp 1.3 243 BOS 86 64 9 1 .885 73H/D9
12 Jonny Gomes 1.2 366 BOS 116 77 13 1 .771 *7HD/9
13 Jose Tabata 1.2 341 PIT 106 87 6 3 .771 97H
14 Juan Perez 1.1 97 SFG 34 23 1 2 .650 *87/H9
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 3/10/2014.

Looking back over recent years, names from the 2013 list pop up often. Craig Gentry is the cream of this crop. The group of Royals see their WAR inflated by great defensive play and friendly ratings with certain advanced statistics.

Cleveland rewarded Ryan Raburn for his great play down the stretch with a two-year contract plus an option. Raburn hit everything in 2013 as Terry Francona and the Tribe bent over backwards looking for ways to get him in the lineup.

Rajai Davis parlayed his decent play as a fourth outfielder with the Blue Jays into a job…as a fourth outfielder for the Tigers. He’s a terrific base runner with a demonstrated ability to hit left-handed pitching. Beyond that, well, less is more.

Other fourth outfielders masquerading as starters around the league include Gregor Blanco, Michael Morse, Chris Denorfia, everyone below Michael Bourn on the Indians OF depth chart, most Astros, all Mariners, and no Yankees.

From this sampling, we can drill down to three specific player types. Which one are you?

Near Starters

MLB: Cleveland Indians at Oakland Athletics

The near starter is for people who recoil with horror at the thought of investing heavily in the stock market or those who put baby gates at the top and bottom of the stairs within a week of their first child coming into this world. Regular viewers of NCIS might also seek solace in the safety of a known commodity.

Most teams cannot afford to hold a viable big league starter on their bench. But injuries and a starter with a tenuous grasp on his job could easily force a change.

The idea of Chris Young, signed by the Mets in the off-season, is just this. His struggles at the plate suggest he isn’t good enough to play every day, but he can play all three positions, and he has put together good seasons in the not-too-distant past. Michael Brantley is probably one of these guys, too. Justin Maxwell, now of the Royals, is an ideal fourth outfielder.

Defense Matters

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim v Baltimore Orioles

Fly catchers are typically the domain of those who favor avant-garde advanced statistics. They contribute in ways the box score doesn’t always measure, so those who enjoy unpacking the mysteries of True Detective or those who enjoy the first two Arcade Fire albums (but NOT the latest) are sure to appreciate the nebulous production of a great base runner and fielder.

There is always a call for defenders. The Manny Ramirez Caddy who can check into a tight game in the late innings with an eye on preserving a lead. These players can step in and play center field when called upon. The difference between a defense-first fourth outfielder and a defense-first fifth outfielder is mighty thin indeed. It doesn’t take much to get passed on this arbitrary scale. These players are not for the faint of heart or the uninitiated because they usually can’t hit and that is tough to stomach in large doses. Buyer beware.

Craig Gentry is pretty much this guy on his worst day. The aforementioned Royals tandem of Cain and Dyson. David DeJesus adds the “known to draw a walk” wrinkle that could easily hoist him up to the first tier. Cardinals fans are about to learn that this is the best role for Peter Bourjos. Chris Denorfia could be a graduate from this ghetto into the real world of full time players.

Platoon dudes

MLB: Boston Red Sox at New York Yankees

Is your favorite movie Step Brothers? Do you share an email address with your significant other? If you so, you’re a platoon guy! Everybody needs a running mate, be it for garage karate to avoiding the infinite sadness of a moment alone with your own thoughts.

Does working symbiotically with a mirror image sound like your idea of a good time? Like the idea of sacrificing playing time in exchange for freedom from your job’s most difficult tasks? You’ve come to the right place.

The Red Sox platooned brilliantly in 2013, pairing Jonny Gomes with Daniel Nava and Mike Carp to form a relentless run-scoring machine. Nava ended up earning full time playing time, but the team was still mindful of matchups when deploying Nava. Gomes perhaps saw too much playing time through the playoffs, as manager John Farrell rode the hot hand a little too long, leaning on Gomes heavily in the ALCS before getting Nava into five of six World Series games.

If we’re being specific, the platoon outfielder is not a true fourth outfielder as their is no real starter. But it’s close enough. Other recent or noteworthy platoons include whatever the Rays do and the thing Oakland used to win all those games.

Rajai Davis is an ideal platoon outfielder often miscast as a one of the other roles, thanks to his speed (but defensive shortcomings) and strong play against the short side of a left/right split. His base running/stealing is among the best in the game. A weapon with specific utility best called upon in specific situations.

Sluggers

MLB: Oakland Athletics at Cleveland Indians

For fans of the Expendables movie series. Explosions. Violence. Fun. Baseball card stats. Red meat. Short sentences. Getting to the point. Myopia.

If you’re here for a good time not a long time, the fourth outfielder is for you. Can’t really field, not a great base runner? Who cares? Gimme that instant offense. I want to see dingers and I want to see them in large numbers. Mike Morse – welcome home. Ryan Raburn, you slippery devil, these are your people.

Sometimes players who aren’t really outfielders at all get stashed in left for a start here and there. The Evan Gattis Experience, as it were. The flexibility is nice but now we’re straining the credibility of the term “outfielder”.

Offense-only fourth outfielders are the antidote to the more “complete” players better suited to grinding out 150 starts a year. It’s about balance. The gains made from starters whose stock in trade are defense and base running starter require a mistake destroyer ready to turn a game around instantly. Create a more complete squad that is difficult to face in every scenario.

Everything in moderation

Blue Jays fielder Davis watches play against the Red Sox from the dugout during the second inning of their MLB American League baseball game in Toronto

The biggest thing for any fourth outfielder (or any sort of bench player) is smart deployment by the manager. Over one game the impact of a poor defender might be minimal, but trotting that statue out every day takes it toll. The same holds true in reverse. Even the finest outfield defender could go days at a time without flexing his biggest muscles. Marching him to certain death at the plate four times a night is no better a strategy.

Seems so simple: put players in a position to succeed as often as possible. Acknowledging what each player does best and where they struggle. Coaches know what their players can and cannot do. Setting guys up to fail reflects poorly on the man filling out the lineup card, not the player who does a few things well.

Managing a baseball team is not so simple as turning the key on an optimized lineup. Real life intervenes all too often, but finding the right fourth outfielder can go a long way to winning more games, provided he’s the right match for the situation. Again, sounds simple but never is.