It’s not just football teams that are hiring defensive coordinators.
Forward-looking major league baseball teams have begun hiring coaches and/or assistants with that title and given the responsibility to study and coordinate advanced scouting and then assist the manager in getting players lined up.
The concept is pretty simple. Hitters have tendencies where they hit the ball, particularly in the infield. If defenses match up their positioning with those tendencies they’ll have an advantage. Strictly speaking, defensive shifting is not a new strategy. Lou Boudreau played on the first-base side of second base against Ted Williams in 1946. But today, a mountain of refined information is available to be deployed against every hitter.
Anecdotal data backs up the common sense that shifting will reduce batting average on balls in play (BABIP). That said, sabermetric skeptics of shifting, including Bill James himself, can be found. Of course, a batter can confound a shift by trying to hit the ball the other way. And shifting isn’t going to reduce batting averages down to zero.
Yet increasingly, major league teams seem to be investing in the strategy.
John Dewan, probably the foremost authority on defensive analytics in baseball (he authors The Fielding Bible), recently wrote: “Defense in baseball has gone unnoticed for a long time. I expect that there will come a time in baseball where shifting by batter and even by count and pitch type will become as commonplace as NFL defensive changes based on the down and distance situation. The Tampa Bay Rays are getting close to that now, and as they continue to succeed, other teams will begin to emulate their success, as they have begun doing.”
The New York Times has referred to Rays’ manager Joe Maddon as the King of Shifts. Led by Maddon’s Rays, the use of defensive shifts doubled from 2011 to 2012, according to Dewan’s Baseball Info Solutions, an analytics company that tracks defensive performance in every major league game. And shifts were even more common in 2013. So it looks like the shift will, um, stick.
It probably wouldn’t surprise you that the Reds under Dusty Baker were one of the teams that least utilized defensive shifts. But alignment strategy presents Bryan Price with an information-based opportunity for Dust-busting.
Like the Reds, other clubs have hired managers this spring with no big league managing experience. Two of them, the Nationals and Tigers, have already evolved, from organizations that rarely or never used defensive shifts, to the forefront of a more modern approach to data mining and defensive coordination.
Matt Williams, the new manager for the Washington Nationals, recently requested that the organization fill an open coaching slot with a “defensive coordination advance coach.” The Nationals hired veteran Mark Weidemaier in that role. “I believe that’s very important,” Williams said of having someone focus on defensive positioning and alignment. “I believe that preparation is the most important part of this game.” Williams had worked with Weidemaier at Arizona.
Washington GM Mike Rizzo acknowledged that seeing teams successfully use advanced defensive tactics influenced his thinking. He explained the move: “Weidemaier’s primary responsibility will be defensive alignments and taking all the advanced information from our advanced scout in the field and our two advanced video scouts with the team. He’ll take that information and filter it and distribute it to the various coaches that need the information. He helps us find an edge and improve ourselves.”
The Detroit Tigers just hired Matt Martin, a former minor league manager, as their “defensive coordinator.” The idea came from the Tigers’ new manager, Brad Ausmus. “It’s very important to me that the infield defense, outfield defense and pitching are on the same page,” Ausmus explained. “Matt will be a big part of that coordination.”
The push to modernize can also come from the front office. Thanks to the leadership of GM Neal Huntington, the Pittsburgh Pirates (remember finishing behind them?) have been aggressive in implementing defensive analytics. They hired Dan Fox, a former writer at Baseball Prospectus, as a “data architect.”
Manager Clint Hurdle and coach Nick Levya, who is in charge of positioning, are both self-described old-school guys. “When I first came over to the Pirates, you could consider me as an old-school guy. But numbers don’t lie,” Leyva said. “Halfway through last year for myself, I really bought it. … I was probably using maybe 50, 60 percent of what I was getting from stat guys last year. Now I’m close to 100 percent.” Huntington is convinced this emphasis has made a big difference. The Pirates and each of their minor league affiliates are among league leaders in defensive efficiency.
Pitching strategies have to be incorporated with defensive shifts. That’s the reason the Cardinals use defensive data selectively, especially with their veteran pitchers. Pitchers could end up completely negating certain alignments by the way they pitch a hitter. Manager Mike Matheny defers to his pitchers, although less to the younger ones, when it comes to implementing shifts.
There is no single formula for implementing defensive analytics. The Nationals will have Weidenmaier in uniform in the dugout during games. The Tigers will have Martin stationed in street clothes upstairs. The Pirates hired a computer scientist and an MIT graduate, who are often not even on location, to specify their shifts. The Nationals rely on advanced scouts to collect information on hitter tendencies, while the Tigers primarily use video.
If current trends continue, eventually every major league team will buy into the benefits of defensive alignment strategies. Each organization, including the Reds, has a form of an analytics department that can assemble data. Cincinnati did even under Dusty Baker.
The open question is how soon the Reds will shift gears and take full advantage. Let’s hope Bryan Price gives it a good, hard look.