The shift in coaching staffs

How long before we see this in baseball? - Stew Milne-USA TODAY Sports

Don't look now, but more and more teams are adding unconventional positions to their coaching staffs. Can we expect further innovation in the future?

Amidst the myriad of signings and trade rumors this week, some exciting news came out of Detroit that hasn't gotten quite as much attention as I feel it deserves. On Monday afternoon, the Tigers released information detailing their new coaching staff, including the hiring of Matt Martin as the team's "Defensive Coordinator". Aside from instantly becoming one of my top-five job titles in baseball, my immediate reaction was what does a defensive coordinator do exactly? And what does the hiring mean for the future of Major League Baseball coaching staffs?

To answer the first question, we turn to our resident Tigers' guru Neil Weinberg who covered the topic at New English D earlier in the week:

The idea behind the position is pretty simple. Martin will be in charge of shifting and positioning the infield against specific hitters and will work with the advanced scouting group to prepare for this kind of decision-making. He'll be joining with (Omar) Vizquel to form a super-infield-defense-academy. In other words, the Tigers are about to get shifty.

The concept seems to make quite a bit of sense. In 2010, teams used the shift 2,465 times, a number that jumped to 4,577 in 2012 and continued to climb up over the 7,000 mark this year. And the teams that shifted the most frequently in 2013 included the Pirates, Rays, and Red Sox. While I'm not certain we can credit any significant portion of the success of those teams to the shift, it's unsurprising that other teams are beginning to follow suit. In fact, as BP's Ben Lindbergh pointed out, the Tigers aren't alone in hiring a defensive specialist:

It's about to become much more common. Martin is just one of three men hired this month to play a similar role next season. The first was Mark Weidemaier, a former advance scout and special assistant who new Nationals manager Matt Williams brought with him from the Diamondbacks to serve as Washington's "Defensive Coordination and Advance Coach." Next was Martin, followed by Rick Eckstein, whom the Angels hired on Tuesday as a "Player Information Coach."

Interestingly, neither Martin nor Eckstein will be in their team's dugout during games. Instead, both will be a part of pre-game meetings and work, filtering information to players and the rest of the coaching staff before retreating to a viewing location much like their NFL counterparts to watch the actual games.

Although the positions aren't exactly conventional, the more important topic is whether better positioning and shifting will improve the defensive performance of these clubs in 2014. It's doubtful that it can hurt, but there remains some question as to if shifting even works. In the 2014 Hardball Times Annual*, Jeff Zimmerman wrote an article entitled, "Shifty Business, or the War Against Hitters," in which he sampled the 20 hitters that were shifted against the most and found that their BABIP was 37 points lower when the shift was used. While I have yet to read the article, The Book author Mitchell Licthman reviewed the piece on his blog with some concerns regarding Zimmerman's conclusions:

I am not crazy about that conclusion - "the shift worked." First of all, as I said, we need to know a lot more than BABIP to conclude that "the shift worked." And even if it did "work" we really want to know by how much in terms of wOBA or run expectancy. Nowhere is there an attempt by Jeff to do that. 37 points seems like a lot, but overall it could be only a small advantage. I'm not saying that it is small - only that without more data and analysis we don't know.

Furthermore, in the same piece Lichtman offers an even more obvious and simple explanation for the success of shifts -- regression to the mean. Jeff used the example of Orioles slugger Chris Davis citing that, "over the first four months of the season, he (Davis) hit inot an average of 29 shifts per month, and was able to maintain a .304 BA and a .359 BABIP. Over the last two months, teams shifted 41 times per month. Consequently his BA was .250 and his BABIP was .293." To which MGL responded:

If Chris Davis hits .304 the first four months of the season with a BABIP of .359, and his career numbers are around .260 and .330, then no matter what you do against him (wear your underwear backwards, for example), his next two months are likely going to show a reduction in both of these numbers! That does not necessarily imply a cause and effect relationship.

--snip--

Imagine this scenario - I'm not saying that this is exactly what happens or happened, but to some extent I think it may be true. You are a month into the season and for X number of players, say they are all pull hitters, they are just killing you with hits to the pull side. Their collective BA and BABIP is .380 and .415. You decide enough is enough and you decide to shift against them. What do you think is going to happen and what do you think everyone is going to conclude about the effectiveness of the shift, especially when they compare the "shift" to "no-shift" numbers?

Again, I haven't read Jeff's work yet, and there undoubtedly is evidence that shifts do have a positive impact -- if they didn't we wouldn't see as many smart organizations using them -- but it's important to continue researching the subject.

Regardless of the actual impact, the innovation in coaching staffs is extremely exciting. Many analysts have been calling for a front office-type on the bench for years, serving as someone to help with in game decisions and strategy. Teams are armed with more and more data by the day, and yet it seems there has been a difficulty getting managers to use that information. With these hirings, however, we may be witnessing the beginning of a revolution. The biggest step in any radical change is getting people on board with the idea, so consider it a huge positive that the word of Detroit and Washington is that Brad Ausmus and Matt Williams insisted on the positions. Of course if these three teams don't succeed, the media and fans may shut the movement down before it can really get going (like we saw with bullpens by committee), but with even moderate success there may be more and more unique positions popping up around the league. If you've ever dreamed of being the Game Theory Manager of the Cleveland Indians or the Director of Pitch Sequences with the Milwaukee Brewers, you may want to start updating your resume, you know, just in case.

*If you haven't ordered the 2014 Hardball Times Annual, do yourself a favor and go do so here.

. . .

Andrew Ball is a writer for Beyond the Box Score and Fake Teams.

You can follow him on twitter @Andrew_Ball.

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