WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — The Washington Nationals ran an in-game experiment Sunday at First Data Field. They ran the trial for each of the three times New York Mets first baseman Adrian Gonzalez stepped into the batter’s box during the teams’ second Grapefruit League meeting in three days. It didn’t raise any eyebrows. The casual observer didn’t notice. The Nationals think it worked.
A couple days earlier, the Nationals didn’t deploy the typical exaggerated infield shift against Gonzalez, a pull-heavy left-handed slugger, in his three at-bats. Instead of placing the shortstop to the left of second base to have three infielders on that side, the shortstop was up the middle behind second base. Gonzalez, the Nationals noticed, tried to hit the ball through the hole to the left of second base. He succeeded once in three at-bats.
On Sunday, they changed their scheme when Gonzalez batted, moving the shortstop to the left of second base to create the traditional infield shift against left-handed hitters of Gonzalez’s profile. Gonzalez, the Nationals realized, changed his approach. He tried to yank everything. He rolled two ground balls over and struck out in three at-bats.
Nationals first base and infield coach Tim Bogar explained the point of the change was to make Gonzalez uncomfortable, to force him to think about something else as he tried hitting 95 mph fastballs. Sometimes, he said, the Nationals will utilize alignments this season to confuse not only batters, but opposing coaching staffs and scouts.
“Whenever I can try to make a hitter do something he’s not used to doing, that’s another thought that goes into his mind,” said Bogar, who oversaw infields in previous coaching stops with the Boston Red Sox and Texas Rangers. “By changing his visuals, maybe we can get in his head. So if we can make him think that way, he might go away from his strength and that gives us an advantage.”
The example illustrates one of the ways the Nationals plan to implement shifting — or, as Bogar would rather call it, positioning — this season. Most won’t involve mind games, just hard data. The point, Nationals Manager Dave Martinez has repeated, is to compile 27 quick outs en route to victory. The quicker the better, no matter where the defenders are standing, an approach more teams have taken as the number of defensive shifts around the majors has grown exponentially in recent years.
“Our goal is to be where they’re going to hit the ball,” Bogar said. “If that means slight movement or a lot of movement, it’s just about giving us the best opportunity to get outs.”
Martinez, of course, came over from the Chicago Cubs, a club that made headlines last August for using a four-man outfield against Joey Votto in one of the more extreme examples of shifting in recent memory. Yet they ranked last in the majors in infield shifts last season, according to FanGraphs. The Nationals, meanwhile, ranked 21st. The Seattle Mariners ranked third. Bogar was the Mariners’ bench coach each of the past two seasons, and the Nationals’ approach seems to be trending in that direction with their overhauled coaching staff so far this spring.
Bogar explained he will work directly with the Nationals’ analytics staff, which uses a program that assesses thousands of scenarios, to determine the best ways to position fielders for each pitcher against each hitter. He’ll then relay that information to pitchers, catchers and pitching coach Derek Lilliquist in meetings. Nationals will apply the findings as a starting point. He explained different variables could affect how Nationals fielders are positioned over the course of the game — batter counts, runners on base, how the pitcher will attack the hitter, etc. — and pitchers have veto power.
“We’re trying to space the players correctly so that if we talk about cutting the field into pies, each part pie is covered by fielders,” Bogar said. “You want to see uniformity in where we are, so that when the ball is hit hard, we’re standing where the ball is hit hard. If it’s hit softly, they can move and cover the ground.”
Not everyone is a shifting proponent. Brandon Kintzler is adamant. The groundball specialist isn’t a fan because, he maintained, they hurt more than help him. The Milwaukee Brewers, for example, told him he was victimized by the shift more than any other reliever in baseball in 2014. He hasn’t forgotten. Stephen Strasburg is on Kintzler’s side. He said he would rather have his fielders straight-up because he believes he has the stuff to consistently generate weak contact.
“If I execute the pitch, I think you’re going to get more weird swings,” Strasburg said. “For me, it comes down to the execution. And I think if my stuff’s there and I’m executing the pitch, I’d much rather we minimize the damage on those bleeders. Where if I don’t make the pitch and they crush one into the gap, we might be able to save that if we shift, but that’s also on me. I didn’t do my part.”
Max Scherzer, on the other hand, is completely on board with the movement. The two-time-reigning NL Cy Young Award winner remembered expressing skepticism when he was introduced to aggressive shifting tactics when he was with the Detroit Tigers in 2014. He feared left-handed hitters would just bunt their way on. He quickly realized they rarely bunted. Since then, he said he’s concluded batters will usually hit ground balls where the data indicates they’re going to hit them — regardless of pitch execution. Scherzer is instead more concerned with outfield positioning — and the possibility the Nationals use a four-man outfield at points this season, as Martinez recently suggested they could.
“That’s where I put most of my effort into game-planning,” Scherzer said. “I’m a flyball pitcher. I need to take away doubles.”
The Nationals’ aggressiveness was immediately on display against the Houston Astros on Tuesday, when they shifted the infield against Josh Reddick and Marwin Gonzalez, two left-handed hitters, with A.J. Cole on the mound in the first inning. In both instances, the shortstop, Wilmer Difo, was shifted over to the left side of second base and the second baseman, Howie Kendrick, moved to shallow right field. Anthony Rendon, meanwhile, moved over to shortstop against Reddick, but was closer to third base and in against Gonzalez.
Reddick flew out, but Gonzalez socked a solo home run. Four innings later, the Nationals implemented the same shift against Gonzalez. He roped a line drive down the left-field line. Rendon stuck his glove out as if to say he could’ve been over there. An infield shift, it turns out, can only do so much.