VIERA, Fla. — Before a recent spring training game, Manager Matt Williams led the entire Washington Nationals infield, reserves and all, through every type of defensive alignment imaginable. After every groundball, Williams grabbed the day’s schedule from his back pocket and shouted out the next game situation.
“Ryan Howard is at the plate with one man on!” Williams said.
“Full shift!” bellowed defensive coordinator and advance coach Mark Weidemaier, the man hitting the groundballs.
Second baseman Anthony Rendon jogged to his left and stood in shallow right field, shortstop Ian Desmond moved toward second base and third baseman Ryan Zimmerman stood alone between third and second base. This is not a standard defensive alignment, but the left-handed hitting Phillies first baseman, statistics show, often hits grounders to the right.
With the rise of sophisticated statistical analysis, shifting the infield defense based on hitters’ tendencies has become more widespread. However, the Nationals shifted the infield just 40 times on groundballs in play last season, fewer than all but two teams, the Philadelphia Phillies (35) and Minnesota Twins (32), according to data provided by Inside Edge, a scouting and research company.
Under their new manager, the Nationals hope to use more shifts and aggressive defense to rob opponents of hits and potentially save runs. And over the course of a 162-game season, those hits and runs can add up to wins.
“We understand that there’s a very fine line between [averaging] 2.5 runs or 3.5 or 4.5 runs,” Williams said when he was introduced as manager. “I do understand also that if we can cut one [run] down during some point of that game, we have a better chance of winning with the type of club we’ve got. That’s important.”
En route to a World Series title last season, the Boston Red Sox shifted 175 times on groundballs in play and saved 7.7 runs, the third highest in baseball. Ten runs saved is generally considered equal to one win.
The end of the Pittsburgh Pirates’ 21-year playoff drought coincided with a top-to-bottom organizational adoption of shifts to maximize their sinker-heavy pitching staff, defense and limited payroll. The analytics-heavy Tampa Bay Rays, who saved an MLB-best 13.9 runs last year, have been at the forefront of defensive shifting, joined by like-minded organizations such as the Baltimore Orioles and Houston Astros.
“If you’re not going to embrace some of this stuff, you’re not giving your team the chance to win that you should,” Orioles Manager Buck Showalter said.
Shifting a defense is not new — Ted Williams was a famous early victim of a shift to the right side of the infield in the 1940s — but it is happening more now. Weidemaier believes that playing the defense “straight up” is often a smart tactic, but with so much information on opposing hitters’ tendencies, why not take that into account, too? Teams can adjust not just for the extreme trends but also for other less apparent tendencies, such as balls hit back up the middle or the other way with two strikes.
“A lot of what you’re seeing right now is just availability,” Rays Manager Joe Maddon said. “And again, there is a greater willingness for a manager to work together with a group of people in the front office to supply this information and then utilize it. A lot of it has been some teams won’t do it, because they’re just stubborn. . . . Within three, four, five years at the most, I’d be surprised if anybody does not do it.”
Williams became a proponent of incorporating advanced analytics when he was a third base and infield coach with the Arizona Diamondbacks. During his interviews, Williams impressed Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo not only with his presence, preparation and knowledge of the organization’s farm system but his willingness to adopt defensive shifts. So when Williams was hired, he asked Weidemaier, then a Diamondbacks advance scout, to join him in Washington and implement more shifts. The Nationals hope to follow suit throughout their farm system this year.
Before every series this season, Weidemaier will put together a defensive cheat sheet on every opposing hitter. He will rely on reports from the video department and information from advance scout Bob Johnson and various scouting and data services.
The sheets will show hitters’ tendencies against left- and right-handed pitchers and with two strikes and otherwise. If a hitter pulls the ball on the ground at least 80 percent of the time, he is a shift candidate. At least 70 percent of the time, Weidemaier said, the Nationals would consider playing the hitter to pull but not as dramatic as a shift. Each position player will receive a copy of the defensive sheet, and the team will hold pre-series and pregame defensive meetings.
“Years ago, unless a manager or coach kept individual written notes and drew lines, you didn’t have these kind of charts available or have these computers or have Inside Edge or the outside services that provide the data or the sabermetric guys in the office,” Weidemaier said.
Pitchers are also a crucial part of defensive shifts. An altered defensive alignment could be rendered moot if the starter isn’t throwing the appropriate pitch to induce a groundball to that side of the infield. Weidemaier said pitchers will be involved in the pre-series advance meetings so position players have an idea how an opposing lineup will be attacked. But he stressed that the pitchers won’t be instructed to throw more sinkers, for example, in certain situations when the shift is on if it alters their approach.
“We would like to know how he’s going to attack a guy, but we’re not going to paralyze the guy,” Weidemaier said. “We don’t want him going away from his strengths. Pitchers are going to pitch to hitters’ weaknesses, but they’re going to pitch to their strength because they’ve got to [have conviction] to throw a pitch. . . .
“We’re just trying to align ourselves and have a game plan around them and the opposition.”
The Nationals’ pitching staff could lend itself favorably to the planned shifting. The team posted a 45 percent groundball rate, 11th best in the majors last season. Sinkerballer Doug Fister, acquired in an offseason trade, posted the sixth-best groundball rate (52.9 percent) over the past two seasons. Stephen Strasburg had a 51.5 percent groundball rate, eighth best in the majors last year, and Jordan Zimmermann had a career-best 47.6 groundball percentage.
Zimmermann sees the benefit to shifting for extreme pull hitters but doesn’t plan on pitching any differently with more shifts.
“Wherever they want to put them, they can put them,” he said. “But I’m going to pitch everyone the same. I’m not going to change my style of pitching because we’re putting some guys in a different spot. I’m going to keep pitching the way I’m pitching.”
Adjustments can be made in-game. Weidemaier will be responsible for aligning the infield, and first base coach Tony Tarasco will set the outfield, which will shift, too, but far less frequently. But if anyone in the “spine of the diamond” — shortstop, second, center field, catcher — notices something, such as a starter struggling with his sinker or locating inside on a certain day, he has the leeway to adjust.
Nationals infielders are open to moving the defense around more than in the past, but most believe the shifts should be reserved for extreme pull hitters. Last season, Desmond said, infielders adjusted for hitters but not as aggressively as Williams has planned this season.
“If you put yourself in a position to field the ball in the infield or catch it in the outfield, of course you’re going to save runs,” Desmond said. “It’s just about making sure that everyone is on the same page to maximize that. We’ll see.”