CHICAGO – The Twins’ infielders trooped into a meeting room in U.S. Cellular Field early Monday afternoon to discuss their scouting reports on White Sox hitters. But the players quickly sensed something was different.
“They asked our opinions,” second baseman Brian Dozier said. “We used to just have a sheet to read from, but this being my third year, you get to know everybody, and you get a feel for each hitter and what they’re likely to do on certain pitches, certain counts. We talked all that over, so it was pretty good.”
It’s also the Twins’ first tentative steps toward an information-age makeover of how they position their defense. As a tsunami of data pours into the game, measuring speeds and swings and reflexes, some major league teams are harnessing it to identify new strategies for playing the game, most notably on defense. And while the Twins have never been known as cutting-edge leaders in innovative thinking, they say they are more than open-minded about adopting techniques that work.
And teams such as Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh and Baltimore are proving that it’s really just as obvious as it sounds: Stationing defenders where batters most frequently hit the ball works well.
“We’ve got so much information now, from all the new data sources, and you’re starting to see some successful uses for it,” said Jack Goin, the Twins’ baseball research manager. “And every sports league is a copycat league. We all tend to gravitate toward what’s working.”
Defensive shifts have been a part of baseball for decades; Ted Williams famously hit into a three-infielder shift to the right for years. And batter-to-batter adjustments, most of them minor, are routine for the Twins, the product of those pregame meetings.
But manager Ron Gardenhire said he is more receptive to wholesale shuffles, to stacking one side of the infield or narrowing a gap in the outfield, than ever before. The Twins, whose defense ranked 20th last season in runs saved, according to Fangraphs.com’s statistics, used an exaggerated shift against Boston’s David Ortiz last week in Fort Myers, for instance, moving shortstop Pedro Florimon a few steps to the right of second base, drawing third baseman Trevor Plouffe into the hole at short, and backing Dozier into short right field.
He is prepared to do the same against Chicago’s Adam Dunn during this series, too, and a handful of other pull-happy sluggers around the league. “We overplay some guys,” Gardenhire said, “just not as much as other teams do.”
Gardenhire emphasized that he is open to such maneuvers, though, and Goin said he has sensed a willingness in the old-school manager to consider data-driven strategies. “Gardy and I have talked about a lot of things that might help the team,” Goin said. “In the end, he’s the manager and it’s his call. But he’s shown a lot of interest in a variety of areas, including defensive positioning.”
Not always that easy
Gardenhire’s pitch-to-contact, low-strikeout pitching staff would figure to benefit greatly from a better deployed defense, the manager agrees. But he points out, too, that personnel also prevents the Twins from being as aggressive with those maneuvers as teams such as the Rays and Pirates. Playing a shift does little good, after all, if you’re not pitching into the shift, too.
“If you can throw the ball where you’re supposed to throw the ball, we can shift. If you can’t get the ball where you want to, it’s really hard to shift,” Gardenhire said. He’s also had a constantly changing cast in the infield over the past five years, making it more difficult to develop any cohesiveness.
Those factors might have changed this year, though, and it could embolden the Twins to experiment more. The addition of veteran starters such as Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes, Gardenhire said, might create more opportunities, and his infield this year features three members who were at their positions last year, plus a 10-year veteran in new first baseman Joe Mauer.
“Gardy hit it on the head — this staff should be able to execute pitching plans better than last year,” Goin said, pointing out that the Pirates’ defensive strategy involved not just flexible positioning but a greater emphasis on ground-ball-generating two-seam fastballs. “Pitchers have to be committed and comfortable with it, for the shift to be effective. If pitchers can’t do it, it’s not going to work.”
There are greater risks (but perhaps greater rewards, too) for the Twins in moving outfielders around to shade players one way or the other, given that left fielder Josh Willingham and right fielder Oswaldo Arcia have limited range. That puts a burden on center fielder Aaron Hicks to cover more ground, but it also means that playing the percentages might help make the corner outfielders more effective.
A greater voice
One thing Gardenhire is convinced will help: giving the players a greater voice.
“We handed the [hit chart] sheets to players, and said, ‘Tell us what you think. Where are you going to play this guy?’ ” Gardenhire said. “They all did really, really nice. Instead of handing them a sheet, saying ‘This is where we’re playing,’ we got their opinion.”
Dozier said he is already making adjustments, mostly of two or three steps, in his own positioning, based upon his greater knowledge of opponents after a year in the league. “Our whole infield is getting better, and the information we’re sharing helps,” he said. “I can see us doing more of it as we go this year.”