And that shift was shown by, well, a whole lot more shifts.
Baseball Savant, an MLB-powered statistics website, defines a shift as having three or more infielders on the same side of second base. In 2019, that meant the Nationals shifted on just 14.3 percent of their opponents’ plate appearances, good for 27th out of 30 teams. In 2020, that number jumped to 42.6 percent. That ranked as the sixth most in baseball behind the Los Angeles Dodgers, Detroit Tigers, Pittsburgh Pirates, Milwaukee Brewers and Houston Astros. The MLB average also jumped from 25.6 to 34.1, meaning the Nationals are following the trend.
Team advanced statistics did not reflect kindly on the Nationals. They ranked last in defensive runs saved, a statistic that — true to its name — tries to quantify how many runs a player or defense prevented. Both Washington’s infield and outfield were considered below average, something Manager Dave Martinez acknowledged in the final weeks of the season. He mentioned planning for spring training and having defense at the top of his to-do list. And that meant shifting would be involved.
“We are going to do a lot more shifting drills, guys in different positions and learning how to position themselves on the shift and learning how to throw from the shift,” Martinez said in September. “Talk a lot about not sitting back on baseballs, being more aggressive, all those things.”
Bench coach Tim Bogar heads the Nationals’ defensive positioning. In the spring of 2019, at the suggestion that Washington didn’t shift a lot, Bogar pushed back on the official definition. He explained that the Nationals shift for every batter, but what Baseball Savant tallies as a “shift” was, to him, more of an “overshift.”
Bogar pointed to strategic alignments based on internal data. There is no direct correlation between shifting and team or defensive success. The Tampa Bay Rays, who analytics say had the sport’s best defense in 2020, ranked 19th in total shifts. The Tigers and Pirates, conversely, had two of the game’s worst records. But shifting can show a heightened commitment to number-crunching, especially for a team such as the Nationals, and generally improves the probability of fielders being in the right place at the right time.
Anecdotally, they shifted more in the middle of at-bats in 2020 than in previous years. Martinez often described the change as a joint effort between the coaching staff and the analytics team in the front office. He also hinted at surveying successful teams — the Rays, Dodgers and Astros included — to see how Washington could gain a new edge.
“So you look at the numbers: I think we were 22nd in shifting last year, [and] I think that’s because we were 22nd in what I would call ‘overshifting,’ ” Bogar said in that February 2019 interview, right before the Nationals dropped a few more slots in overall shifting. “But the positioning of our players isn’t the standard. What people take that as is that we are straight up. There is a ton of middle ground.”
Two seasons later, some of that middle ground has disappeared. The Nationals’ most typical shift is moving their third baseman into the hole between where the second baseman and first baseman usually play. That’s how third baseman Carter Kieboom wound up with a franchise-record 11 defensive assists against the Baltimore Orioles in August, most of them coming on the right side. The shifts benefit Kieboom because, before 2020, most of his experience was at shortstop and second base.
But Martinez mostly likes it for another reason: By leaving shortstop Trea Turner alone on the left side, Martinez has his fastest player to chase shallow pop flies in the dead zone behind third base. An interesting element of Washington’s shifting is that it was fairly even for left- and right-handed hitters. The Miami Marlins, by contrast, shifted more than any team against righties and were well below average, at 38.1 percent, with lefties in the box. The Nationals ranked 11th against righties and seventh against lefties. And that balance kept their fielders in constant, cross-field motion.
“It’s not a bad thing that you have guys that can move all over the infield,” Bogar said at the team’s annual Winterfest in January. “People shift all over the infield anyway, so you’re not playing your usual spot as in the past. Having guys that are versatile is really good.”
The infield is still being constructed for 2021, but the returning parts fit that mold. If Kieboom gets another shot as the everyday third baseman, he is adept at moving to that spot between first and second. Starlin Castro, the projected starter at second base, also has experience at shortstop and, to a lesser extent, third. Utility man Josh Harrison can play second, third and even short, in that order. Luis García, a 20-year-old who debuted this past season, is sure-handed around the diamond. And Turner, coming off a down defensive year, is typically able to play wherever needed from pitch to pitch.
On paper, the Nationals have struggled defensively in recent years and will return a handful of familiar pieces. But their shifting patterns show an increased effort to bend those pieces into a different shape. And that shows, in the abstract, a willingness to adapt and learn.
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