If there’s one thing we’ve learned about the Nationals’ new manager Matt Williams, it’s that he takes defense very seriously. Well, what else would you expect from someone who was arguably the best defensive third baseman of his time?
Throughout his illustrious 16-year-career (1987-2003), Williams was known for his aggressive nature which quickly helped him become one of the best infielders in the game. Williams was selected to five All-Star games and won the Gold Glove Award four times.
Given the impressive defense Williams boasted throughout his career, it should come as no surprise to anyone that one of his biggest goals coming into 2014 will be to improve the Nationals’ defense, a defense which had its fair share of problems last season.
“One, we have to be better than 13th in the league in defense. We have the ability to be better than that, much better than that. So that’s something that we want to address. There’s a lot of factors that go into that, of course, but it’s something that we want to make emphasis on.” -Williams on the importance of defense at the Winter Meetings last month.
In order to improve the team’s defense, Williams hired former DiamondBacks’ Special Assistant to the GM and Major League Advance Scout Mark Weidemaier, to serve as the Nationals’ Defensive Coordination and Advance Coach.
Despite his incredibly complicated-sounding title, Weidemaier’s job with the Nationals is quite simple: making sure players are where they’re supposed to be on the field. Weidemaier will serve as an advance coach, mostly in charge of the team’s defensive alignment. Weidemaier will work with the Nationals’ other advance scouts and video scouts and filter the information down to the coaching staff.
Adding a coach dedicated to defensive alignment shows a strong change of philosophy from former manager Davey Johnson, who was known for his more old-school approach. According to Bill James Online, the Nationals were among the teams least likely to employ a defensive shift during games in 2013. Why is Williams so confident that advance defensive scouting will do the trick? Because it has worked for him before.
“The philosophy that Kirk, myself, Alan Trammell, Don Baylor and those guys in Arizona put together was, we can do all the shifts we want and play tendencies all we want, but we have to understand what our pitchers are going to throw. How are our pitchers going to attack opposing hitters and what can we do accordingly? Leading the league in fielding percentage [last year was] key. We had two guys on the field that won Gold Gloves this last year. That proof is in the pudding in that they are fantastic athletes. But we helped them be in the right spot. We helped them be in a position to make a defensive play that helped us save a run or won us a game. I think that is most important for us.” -Williams on defense at his introductory press conference at Nationals Park.
Defense has changed a lot in the last few years and now more and more teams are relying on advance scouting for defensive alignments. As Ryan Ritchey wrote in a previous post, Major League teams shifted over 7,000 times last season, compared to just under 2,500 in 2010, according to Beyond the Box Score.
One team that has experienced great success with defensive shifts is the Tampa Bay Rays, who’s 299 shifts last season saved them nine runs, according to Bill James Online. Nine runs may not seem like a lot, but those nine runs could make or break the season down the stretch. Williams clearly understands the importance of defensive alignments, and he is convinced that Weidemaier will not only use advanced defensive scouting, but that he’ll use it well.
One of the reasons I wanted to bring Mark Weidemaier on board was that he’s an expert at that. He’s been an advance scout. He created our defensive advance reports with Arizona. He has scouted both leagues. He spent 175 of the 180 days of the season in a hotel room on the road. He knows what he’s doing. I think that will help us be a better team. – Williams on Weidemaier during his introductory press conference at Nationals Park.
There’s a reason teams have become so accustomed to using defensive shifts: they work. Nationals fans have experienced that first hand with Adam LaRoche who is a constant victim of the shift. Teams know LaRoche is a dead-pull hitter, so what do they do? They play their infield on the right side. You can call it advance defensive scouting. You can call it sabermetrics. I call it common sense.
Defensive shifts have helped many baseball teams in the past, and with Williams in charge, they’ll help the Nationals as well. By hiring Weidemaier and making it clear that defense will be a major focus for the Nationals next season, Williams has brought a new attitude and philosophy that the team simply didn’t have in 2013.
“[Improving our defense is] going to be our focus as a coaching staff, and we’ll let the players know certainly that we expect that to be a focus of theirs moving forward,” Williams said at his press conference.
The Nationals had many issues that led to their disappointing 2013 campaign and defense was certainly one of them. Fortunately for the Nationals, Matt Williams has a plan to turn things around in 2014.
That turnaround will start in the spring. Be there by getting your Washington Nationals spring training tickets here.