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.

About The Author

Steve grew up in Cincinnati a die-hard fan of Sparky's Big Red Machine. After 25 years living outside of Ohio, mostly in Ann Arbor, he returned to the Queen City in 2004. Contemporary Reds thrills: witnessing Jay Bruce's 2010 homer and Homer Bailey's 2013 no-hitter in person. The only place to find Steve's thoughts of more than 280 characters about the Reds is Redleg Nation, although you can follow his tweets @spmancuso.

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33 Responses

  1. DreadtheRed91

    Very interesting article. I feel like the idea of defensive shifting in regards to a hitter, the count, and pitch location is so complex. There are hundreds of different combinations that infielders can use to maximize defensive runs saved. I will be very interesting to see if the Reds and Price begin to use some of this.

    My only question is how much defensive shifting can happen before hitters start to pick up on it? As a hitter, if I see the SS take a couple steps toward second base before the pitch then I can count on the pitch being on the inner half of the plate. If the defense is truly in sync with the pitcher and what he is throwing, then that gives a slight advantage to the hitter in terms of pitch locations. All interesting stuff.

  2. preach

    I still get a chuckle out of Jr beating the extreme shift by poking a bunt down the third base line.

    Still, this doesn’t seem like such groundbreaking territory. Just like hitters have been trying to “hit them where they ain’t” for a long time, defenders have tried to be where the ball is going to be hit. I think looking at a hitters tendencies on what direction to shade is pretty basic. I would think that breaking it down by count, taking into consideration base runners and the arsenal of your guy on the mound is pretty complex. Great stuff to consider.

  3. Drew Mac

    In my estimation, this is the one area that the Reds could add a few wins without any changes in personnel. Like you, I hope Price jumps on board and recognizes how the data can make outs out of batted balls that would normally be hits.

  4. Johnu1

    So long as guys come to the big leagues without the ability to hit a breaking ball, the shifts will continue to succeed.

  5. pinson343

    The Pirates GM Neal Huntington simultaneously put in place a ground ball approach for his pitchers along with IF shifts based on metrics of where individual batters would hit the ground balls. Seems like it helped them.

  6. steveschoen

    With this talk, it all just reminded me of Greg Maddux. I mean, along the lines of, what many have said before about him, it almost seemed like he would be up there and tell the batter, “You’re going to ground out to 2nd.” And, the batter would. Then, “You’re going to fly out to left field.” And, the batter would. It seemed like forget the shift with Maddux; he could make his own shift.

  7. earl

    If you are going to concentrate on pitching being the center of your clubs attack, you got to be good at defense. Nothing sabotages good pitching more than mistakes in the field.

  8. WVRedlegs

    The thing about the Nationals Matt Williams hire of Mark Weidemaier is that he has not been a coach before. He was in Arizona’s front office advanced stats department. And now is going to be in uniform in the dugout during games. The game is evolving.
    Washington will now have 7 asst. coaches in uniform, while most teams have 6. Will Price follow suit of his former Arizona mates? They still haven’t officially named the coaching staff yet.

    • Drew Mac

      @WVRedlegs: I’m hoping they do follow suit. The numbers don’t lie, especially when a hitter has a long track record. Some guys do certain things with sliders (and curves and fastballs away, etc.) more often than not. Of course, to fully execute such a plan, it is important to hit spots. This is where, for the most part, the Reds are in very good shape. In fact, I would argue that the Reds, because of their solid pitching, should be able to take even more advantage of defensive positioning metrics than many other teams. If they were to fully embrace the numbers in this area, it could well add three to five wins in 2014.

  9. redmountain

    The game continues to evolve, for better or worse, it is evolving. Baseball has not evolved like the other sports. I still like to watch the game rather than follow all the metrics, however, I suspect that some of the people like to play with the numbers enjoy it too.

    Don,t the Reds have to name two coaches at least? Where was Bell coaching last year? I think it was the Pirates or was it AZ? He is the bench coach and he was working with advanced metrics, so perhaps he was brought in to work and or teach what other teams are doing.

    Isn’t this an indictment of the idea of trading our second baseman?

  10. Mark Tokar

    Great article!

    It occurred to me some time ago that the biggest advantage of sabermetrics was the advantage it gave teams over old school thinking. When all teams are up to speed, are we not back at square one, no advantage?

    Same with defensive shifting strategies … In the end, better skills, injuries and some luck will determine the winners.

    But it is important for the Reds to keep up to speed.

  11. hydeman

    Holy Cow is this a boring post…..The Reds have been good at positioning players the past couple of years. Lets just get em on….Get em over…..and get em in.

    • kramer1

      Holy Cow is this a boring post…..The Reds have been good at positioning players the past couple of years.Lets just get em on….Get em over…..and get em in.

      Agreed. 99% of fans could care less. Just win, baby.

    • Kyle Farmer

      @hydeman: Then don’t read it. What a sad statement that you would even make such a comment.

      I, along with many others, really appreciate the time and effort that the editors put into this site and the imagination that goes into keeping it fresh during the offseason.

      • hydeman

        @Kyle Farmer: While I appreciate all the efforts of the blogers here and read nearly every thread, This was boring, I did read it, and therefore my opinion is valid. Go Reds!

      • TC

        @hydeman: Valid, sure. I have my own opinion of you from you posting that. And that opinion is valid too.

  12. Sultan of Swaff

    The one Reds player these shifts affect more than anyone else is Jay Bruce. Moving forward, Mesoraco will see the same treatment since he’s a strong pull hitter.

    I would also say that team speed is a huge component of implementing these defensive strategies. Without strong defenders like Bruce, Cozart, and Phillips, these shifts won’t have anywhere near their intended effect. Throw Hamilton into the mix in CF……

  13. Johnu1

    Well, the Reds were one of the teams that used the shift the least … and were one of the few teams to win 90 games. So what’s the shift worth? It seems more like fretting over parts of the game that might affect one or two at-bats.

    • LWBlogger

      @Johnu1: Last year I read that Bill James article that Steve references above. Bill James isn’t a big believer in the shift really doing much for a team. I would like to see some more extensive research on the subject and make my own judgement but Bill James’ article made me skeptical of how much the shift helps a defense.

      • Johnu1

        @LWBlogger: My hunch is that it plays a bigger role in the hitter’s frame of mind than it actually does to help the defense. If that is the case, then it pays off. For a guy like Bruce, hitting into the teeth of Pedro Alvarez playing short right field … could be, it has an effect on him.
        Seems like that is pretty hard to measure — what’s a guy thinking — or have we come up with a mental metric?

  14. LWBlogger

    Chris Carpenter announced he is retiring. Whatever shall he tell his son about that?

    I don’t like the guy but to have an injury end a career like that sorta stinks. Don’t worry though. It looks like the Cards want to find a new role for him in the organization. As long as he is still tied to the team, I reserve the right to call the Cards the WLBs.

    • Johnu1

      @LWBlogger: Carp just never did do anything to make it “right” after all the shenanigans that were so over-blown. Could be, nobody cared to hear from him on it. I wearied of the WLB fans just dismissing it as him having an “intense will to win” but condemning anybody else for being the same way.

  15. timgraddy

    The Rangers just traded Kinsler to Detroit for Prince Fielder.

  16. redmountain

    Well, that is one guy the Reds might have gone after if they choose to trade Phillips. Cmon Walt, pull the trigger it is time for the party to get started.

  17. msanmoore

    So would Texas now be interested in Phillips?

    • concepcion13

      Doubtful; the trade cleared a logjam in the Rangers’ middle infield, clearing way for their top prospect, Profar.

      It also eliminates Detroit as a possible trade partner for Phillips – unless Detroit flips Kinsler to us for Phillips.

      I still like the Castellanos (sp?) kid & would like to see him come in a Phillips trade – to play LF for us – but it looks like they’ll move him to third & Miggy to first.

      • msanmoore

        @concepcion13: Thanks for the education … didn’t know the Rangers’ situation at all. I still think Phillips is gone for all the reasons discussed over multiple posts. The next month will be interesting to say the least.

        When to pitchers and catchers report?

  18. redmountain

    With Prokar, there is little possibility that Phillips would be a good fit. Unless Texas is interested in paying more for 2B and who is several years older. Just does not make much sense to me, but who knows?

    So after looking at the 40 man, who is available and who is not. In my opinion, which means nothing, Votto, Bruce, either Hanigan or Mesoraco, Cozart, Latos, Hoover, Cingrani, Marshall, LeCure and that is about it. Everyone else is a possibility, though some seem unlikely. Anyway, there are a lot of guys that could be packaged for players. This could lead to a couple of blockbusters or nothing might happen. I think the first option is more likely.

  19. preach

    Tigers/Rangers trade seems beneficial for both sides. Detroit gets rid of a bad contract and gets to move Cabrera to first while addressing their middle infield concern, the Rangers can now use their prized prospect and get a slugger whos numbers should improve going from a cavern to a hitters park. On the surface, that is what you like to see trades be: something useful on both sides. Not just stupid or salary dumping. It will be interesting to see how this impacts future deals. Pick up the phone and dial Atlanta, Walt. Or try flipping with Detroit. Or work a three way (mmmm, skyline….). Let’s get it done.

  20. earl

    Atlanta is really saddled with those two contracts for Dan Uggla and BJ Upton. Those are two expensive acquisitions that have turned pretty far south. They might be able to give those players away to KC if they pay almost all the salary for a prospect. I guess the thing to know is whether one of them might truly bounce back, as that does happen.