Friday, March 8, 2013

The Future of Defense in Major League Baseball

If you’re an average baseball fan, you probably think of the sport essentially as a series of one-on-one match ups between a pitcher and a batter.  After all, if you turn a baseball game on the TV all you’re going to see is Jon Lester facing Derek Jeter.  You might get a shot or two of the base runners or fielders between pitches, but those are mere moons orbiting the essential planet of the pitcher/batter showdown.  If you look at your favorite players’ baseball cards, all you’ll see are statistics telling you how successful they are during the pitcher/batter showdown.  Ok fine, nobody looks at baseball cards anymore, myself included.  The point remains: if you look at the baseball reference page for David Ortiz, you’re going to find mostly stats from the pitcher/batter showdown.  The average baseball fan doesn’t know where the defenders are aligning, or why, or how good these defenders are at their job of preventing runs.

Over the last 8-10 years, cutting edge front offices have come to view defense as the last uncharted frontier in baseball.  Run prevention has become almost as desirable as run production.  Every question raised in this post has undoubtedly been debated at length in front offices around the league.  But why hasn’t this filtered down to the average baseball fan?  Do these front offices guard their defensive stats and approaches so close to the vest that they never escape the baseball offices?  Do media outlets decide that the average fan doesn’t want to think about the game beyond how fast a pitcher can throw and how far a batter can hit a home run?  Would the machinations of data-based defensive shifts bore the daylights out of most fans?  The answer to all three of these potential answers is probably a resounding ‘yes’.

Which leads to my essential question: what is the future of defense in Major League Baseball?

These thoughts came about when I read this interesting and encouraging (if you’re a budding “future of defense” thinker like myself) article from Fox Sports on the 2013 Red Sox.  Turns out, our new manager John Farrell, and especially our new third base coach Brian Butterfield are two of the foremost proponents of new-age thinking on defense in the major leagues.  Butterfield, as has been mentioned on this blog numerous times, is a fellow Orono High School graduate in eastern Maine and he seems to really be the engine behind this staff’s thoughts on the advances of baseball defense.  Which means he not only is the guy responsible for waving in or holding up runners rounding third while on offense, but also responsible for defensive positioning while on defense.  Oh, and he gets to the clubhouse at 3:30am.  Hardly surprising with his OHS education.  He is quoted in the article as saying:

“But with a man on first or nobody on, with those real good hitters, let’s go. Let’s roll the dice. We’re trying to defend well-executed pitches and balls hit firmly off the bat. So, you reinforce to your players, ‘Look, that was a ball off the end of the bat, a fisted ball that beat us. That’s OK. Don’t worry about it.’ We have a game plan on where we want to throw to him.”

I don’t know about you, but I’m excited to see how the Red Sox employ Butterfield’s shifts.  As Butter says, let’s go! Let’s roll the dice!  Let’s bring the Sox onto the cutting edge of forward thinking in the MLB!  


According to the article, the key to his shifts are the third baseman.  Now, the Red Sox Maineiacs have already made an entire post about the importance of Will Middlebrooks to this team, and how screwed we would be if he were to miss significant time this season.  This is before I realized he would be the linchpin to the defensive shifts preferred by our new coaching staff.  Willie Middle has the athleticism to play all over the diamond in shifts, and if he breaks out with the bat, the sky is the limit for his win probability added on a game-to-game basis.

The Fox Sports article highlights several advances in defensive thinking about to be deployed by our favorite franchise, but could it go further?  Again I ask, where does this go from here?  What is the future of defense in Major League Baseball?

Imagine the scene: As a batter comes to the plate, a team’s “defense coach” consults some spreadsheets on his electronic tablet (are electronic devices such as tablets allowed in major league dugouts currently?  Or does everything have to be printed out in a binder? Cell phones will be used for the first time this year to call to the bullpen. Can tablets for spreadsheets be far behind?).  The sheets are a combination of the batter’s overall spray charts, which indicate where the ball tends to come off of his bat because of his swing, the batter’s specific spray charts against pitchers that match the profile of the pitcher on the mound, the batter’s hot/cold zones against pitch types and locations, and the pitcher’s ability to throw certain pitches in certain locations against the profile of batters matching the one coming to the plate.  

The spreadsheet app takes all of this information in, runs it through an algorithm, and comes up with the optimal pitches and locations in which to attack the hitter, and the highest probable area of the field where that particular batter will hit the pitch thrown in the optimal location with the optimal movement and speed.  

Then the app will show where the defenders should be optimally deployed in order to cover the area(s) the ball will most likely be hit.  (Heck, defensive positions, in terms of a third baseman, a shortstop, a second baseman, etc. might cease to exist - replaced instead by “rovers” who are capable of playing in various spots and covering various base coverage/cutoff responsibilities).  The defense coach tells his assistant to hold up a large card/sign, similar to what football coach Chip Kelly uses at Oregon (or soon to be at Philadelphia) to make his play calls.  Something like this:


Or this:


Or, if we’re going all high-tech in MLB dugouts, then maybe the tablet is connected to an LCD projector that projects images or codewords onto a dugout screen for players to read.  Either way, the card or the projection tells the defenders where to line up and tells the pitcher what pitches to throw and what location to throw them in.  It might even remind the fielders what bases they are responsible for covering or cutoff responsibilities on a stolen base attempt or ball in play.  The defenders hustle into position, the batter enters the batter’s box, and away we go.  Baseball, 21st century style.

Of course, I don’t know how much of this type of approach is already happening in major league dugouts.  I assume that much of it already does happen, short of the tablets, cards, LCD projectors, and all the other gadgets mentioned.  Managers and coaching staffs certainly consult spreadsheets.  Defenses shift according to spray charts.  Pitchers throw certain pitches in certain locations depending on a hitter’s hot/cold zones and how their defenders are aligned behind them.  But I wonder when a team is going to take this to the next level.  With the rise of sabermetrics and computer analysis in baseball, I bet it comes sooner than you think.  If I ran a small-to-mid market team wallowing in the basement (Pittsburgh, Kansas City, San Diego, Minnesota, Houston, etc.), why not try to revolutionize the defensive side of the game?  What do you have to lose - running back the same traditionalist ideas and finishing in last place again?

The average baseball fan doesn’t know any reliable defensive statistics beyond gold gloves won.  Television broadcasts don’t mention much about the defensive side of the game.  But I think the defensive side of baseball has the potential for the most growth and change over the next decade.  The future of baseball defense might be here sooner than you think, and you may not recognize it when it arrives.

2 comments:

  1. Look who had study hall this afternoon!

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  2. If spring training has been any indication we will see more defensive shifts this year than ever before. Much love for OHS alum Brian Butterfield! He is going to have a quiet but profound effect on this team as a coach.

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