The Detroit Tigers have a defensive coordinator this season. The role is being manned by Matt Martin, who joined the coaching staff shortly after Brad Ausmus was hired in November. Martin came to Motown with nearly two decades of experience as a minor league manager, coach and infield coordinator.
His job isn’t to reinvent the wheel. The 44-year-old was brought in to help make the Detroit defense more efficient. Metrics are part of his process, as is fine-tuning fundamentals. Much like his manager, Martin is a combination of old-school and new-school.
According to Baseball Info Solutions, the Tigers have 66 shifts on balls in play [as of Tuesday] – the seventh fewest in baseball – and two Shift Runs Saved. Nuanced positioning is far more prevalent. Even when it’s only a step or two, it’s by design – and it’s effective. Ian Kinsler has seven Defensive Runs Saved, which trails only Kolten Wong among second baseman. Miguel Cabrera, who was -18 as a third baseman last season, has two Defensive Runs Saved at first base.
Martin discussed defensive alignments – including The Big Papi shift and the importance of instincts – when the Tigers visited Boston earlier this month.
Martin on coordinating the Detroit defense: “Along with Omar [Vizquel], I position our defense, although Brad has the final say. We see who we want to shift – including who we want to put a major shift on – and make sure the pitchers are pitching to what we’re defending. Omar and I work with the infielders. Dave Clark has the outfielders and Jeff Jones has the pitching. I’m coordinating that so everybody is on the same page.
”When we formulate the plan of how to defend teams, Jeff is kind of the last line of defense to communicate with the pitchers. I’ll do it some, but Jeff has such a strong relationship with them. We want to run everything by the pitchers, because we want everybody on the same page. That’s why Brad wanted a defensive coordinator. He wants everything to mesh. He doesn’t want there to a divide.
“We’re looking at everything involved, but we’ll never go away from what the pitchers’ strengths are. We’re never going to dictate to “This is how we’re doing it’ to Justin Verlander or to Max Scherzer,’ We want them to have a say. Sometimes our pitchers are right on board, sometimes they’re not and sometimes we settle in the middle – we shift, just not as drastically. In this series [at Fenway Park] we’ve done the Big Papi shift on two or three guys.”
On positioning and shifting within a shift: “It all starts with, ‘Where are they hitting the ball?’ That’s the first thing we look at and we go from there. There are other factors. Where is it in the game? Will this hitter bunt? Everybody sees the Big Papi shift – that’s what we call it when we put our third baseman in short right field against any left-handed hitter – but more often we’re subtle with our shifts. Rather than shifting 20 feet, we’re shifting five or six feet.
“A player has X amount of instincts. If we can put him in a better position initially, and he uses his instincts to move a couple of feet either way from there… he can see what a hitter is telling you that day and what the pitcher’s ball is telling you that day. Basically, it’s shifting within a shift.
“Ian Kinsler has taken hits away this year doing that. He’s reading the hitter and adjusting himself by a few feet. He did it last night. We didn’t have to say, ‘Hey, Kins, move over.’ He did it himself. It was only a step-and-a-half, but how many times do you see a ball sneak through and it would have been an out had the infielder moved over a step-and-a-half?”
“It was often said about Cal Ripken that he was always in the right spot. Omar was the same way. The hitter is going to tell you what he’s doing. Maybe he was out running the streets until three in the morning and can’t get the bat head out that night. You’re starting out in one spot and the next thing you know you’re a couple of steps over because of what your eyes are telling you. If Brad, Omar or I see something’s not right, we”ll be, ‘Hey, hey, hey.’ But we want our guys to develop those instincts so they can recognize things and adjust on their own.”
On personnel and positioning: “Our shortstops – Andrew Romine and Danny Worth – can play anywhere in the infield. Romine has been strictly a shortstop for us, but he did it for the Angels. Guys like that you feel comfortable putting anywhere. Nick Castellanos has been a third baseman, he was moved to left field for a year and a half, and now he’s back to third, so it’s taken more work to get him out in short right field. But it’s different for Kinsler, too. He’s been on the right side almost his whole life, but it’s different when you’re 15-20 feet on the grass. The ground ball is different, the throw is different. It’s something you’re not accustomed to.
“I don’t think [personnel] has too much impact on how we shift. It’s hard to put a value on defense and defensive range. I know the metrics are getting better, but it’s still hard to assign a value that gives you an absolute. [Jose Iglesias] has tremendous range – it’s probably two feet to each side more than what we’re running out there right now – but we feel our shortstops have good range. From a guy who has solid range to a guy who has great range, it’s maybe a yard to each side – two to three feet – but we’re still going to position guys in a similar fashion.
“You’re seeing a lot of shifts right now and I think maybe it’s gone a little overboard. You see a team have success, so everybody thinks they should be doing it. Just like anything… if you look at the NFL or at college football, you’ll see the spread offenses. Everybody started jumping on that, it kind of had a high point, then it started filtering down. I think we’re at a high point with the shifting we’re seeing right now. Maybe it will continue in this direction – teams will actually shift more – but I don’t think it will.”
On trusting the process: “Sometimes you get your pitchers throwing their hands up, because it would have been an easy double play without the shift. Earlier in the year, I saw where [Jonathan] Papelbon was upset about a ball against the Rangers. They weren’t actually shifting, but [Ryne] Sandberg and [Larry] Bowa had the infield playing three-depth instead of being back about five feet more. Papelbon threw his hands up.
“Any time you get external voices, whether it’s the media, the fans – or especially your pitchers – it’s easy to start second-guessing yourself. But one thing about Brad is he’s extremely intelligent. But that doesn’t mean he’s what a lot of people think. They see his educational background and how well-spoken he is, and think he’ll go straight to the numbers – straight to sabermetrics. He looks at that, but it’s only a factor for him.
“If something continually goes against us – maybe teams are beating out shifts – we’re going to reevaluate. That said, it’s not going to be a knee-jerk reaction. If the media barks loud enough, or the fans bark loud enough, or the pitchers bark loud enough, sometimes there’s a knee-jerk reaction. But we’re simply going to reevaluate.
“We don’t want Justin Verlander, we don’t want Max Scherzer, we don’t want Ian Krol or Joe Nathan – any of our pitchers – to not be 100 percent on the same page with what we’re doing. We don’t want hands thrown up in the air if a ball gets through. We’re all in this together. Let’s throw the dice out there and they’ll land how they land. In the end, it’s all about putting our guys in the best position to make plays.”
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.