Alan Trammell on Infield Defense

Alan Trammell is about to fall off the Hall of Fame ballot. In his 15th and final year of eligibility, the long-time Detroit Tigers shortstop will once again fail to garner sufficient support from the BBWAA electorate. His Cooperstown chances will now rest in the hands of the Veterans Committee.

The following conversation with Trammell doesn’t address his Hall of Fame worthiness. I considered broaching the subject when I spoke to him this past summer, but ultimately opted against it. After all, what could he have offered besides humble platitudes?

I talked to Trammell about defense. More specifically, we discussed positioning and the proliferation of shifting. He knows the subject(s) well. A prolific defender in his day, Trammell — now a special assistant to the general manager — spends much of his summers tutoring infielders in the Tigers’ minor-league system.


Trammell on defensive positioning in his era (1977-1996): “We were positioned very little. Our coaches gave us some direction, but it was more of us making those decisions. They wanted it that way. In the first half of my career, we didn’t have any video — our primary scouting report was watching our opponent. That’s how we did it. The video and all that is great — they’re great tools — but you need a combination. You should never lose sight of how important it is to watch the game.

“You need the freedom to move. Where you’re positioned is a guideline, and you work from there. That’s never really changed. There’s a general ‘where to start,’ but as the count changes, and as you see things, you might move a step or two, or three. It’s about feel, and reads.”

On starting points: “We mark off starting spots on the field. (Defensive coordinator) Matt Martin does that in Detroit. In my current role — almost all of my work is in the minor leagues — I’m making sure they’re getting that information. They’re learning those steps and where to start from.

“There are certain things we’re looking for at every level. I don’t know if you want to call them shifts, because I don’t know how shifts are actually logged, but if the third baseman is way over toward shortstop, you’re obviously shading to pull. I don’t know if that’s considered a shift, but right from rookie ball we want to start implementing that kind of positioning.

“Players can feel more comfortable in a certain spot — where they’re used to standing — and we’re trying to get away from that. We don’t want guys standing in the same place for every hitter. There’s going to be a couple-step difference between a left-handed hitter and a right-handed hitter, but even beyond that you don’t play everybody the same. That’s where the feel part comes in. The guidelines are, ‘This is where we suggest you start’ and, based on what you see, you make your adjustments accordingly.”

On shifting: “There are some mandates now. There is more over-shifting than there’s ever been. It’s where we’re heading and it’s not going to stop — not this year or next year. It’s here to stay.

“Sometimes you’ll shift and then unshift. You might shift in the middle of a count. If a guy will bunt, you can play him up for a strike, then move back. Maybe he only likes to bunt on the first pitch. That’s the type of thing you’ll get from a scouting report.

“I see some guys shifted where I question it in my own mind, but that said, I don’t have the data in front of me. In all likelihood, there is a probably a chart that shows the hitter pulls more than I think.”

On the psychology of shifting: “Hitters are getting more accustomed to being shifted. Before, it probably played more mind games with them. But it’s been going on for awhile, so I think the novelty has kind of worn off. Myself, being what you might classify as more old-school, I don’t understand why guys don’t try to beat it a little bit more often.

“There are certain times, like when you’re not swinging the bat well, that you might want to try to beat the shift a little more. If you’re not feeling it, you’re playing into their hands even more by trying to pull the ball.”

On who would have been shifted when he played: “One of the few guys there was an over-shift on was John Mayberry. In spring training, there was Johnny Bench, late in his career. I didn’t play against him in the regular season — there wasn’t interleague play yet — but I remember he was strictly a pull hitter on the ground. He’s a guy you would have shifted against.

“As far as teammates, maybe Gibby (Kirk Gibson). Darrell Evans, for sure. He wanted to pull the ball. He got up on the plate and wanted to hook the ball into the stands, into the upper deck (of Tiger Stadium).

“You don’t shift against guys who hit the ball all over. Not that teams would have, but suppose they’d have shifted against Wade Boggs and Tony Gwynn? They’d have hit for an even higher average, because they hit the ball to all fields.”

On what Sparky Anderson would have done with shift data: “He probably would been have been a little standoffish, initially. But over time… there’s a time and a place, and I think he would have incorporated it. Like all great managers, Sparky adjusted. He was a smart man.

“One thing Sparky would have done is gone to his veteran players and asked what they thought. I know that for a fact. With the rapport we had, he’d talk to me a lot about things like that. Again, we didn’t have data to go off of like we do now.

“I came to the big leagues at a very young age, and I stayed. A big reason I stayed is that I was very observant. I did those things as a kid. I looked at the opposing team and tried to figure out where to play them. That’s how my mind worked. Little League, Pony League, high school — I was always into that cat-and-mouse game. Sparky was always encouraging me to make decisions based on what I saw.”

On late-career adjustments: “One adjustment I made later in my career was moving my glove. You start getting a bone bruise, so if you move your glove up a little bit, off the wrist, it takes away some of the pounding of your fingers. I had a little more length, maybe an inch, because my glove wasn’t as deep.

“I also went to a slightly longer glove. That said, I couldn’t tell you the size. I don’t know if they even had the size — 11-and-a-half, 11-and-three-quarters — on them when I played. They probably did, although I honestly don’t remember. For me, it was more about feel. But I do know that I changed from a smaller glove to one that was a little bigger. Other than that, I pretty much played the same way. I just got a little smarter.”

David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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First Casualty of WAR
7 years ago

Thanks for the interesting read! Trammell was my favorite player as a kid, and the reason why this NJ boy is a Tiger fan to this day.

Really wish he and Lou Whitaker will join the Hall of Fame together, if the Veterans Committee can see to it. But even if they don’t, every Tiger fan knows how special it was to have those two playing together for so long.