And that shift has been shown through many more shifts.
Baseball Savant, an MLB-operated stats website, defines a shift as three or more infielder on the same side of the second base. In 2019, that meant the Nationals rescheduled only 14.3 percent of their opponents’ record appearances, which was good for the 27th of 30 teams. In 2020 that number rose to 42.6 percent. This was the sixth highest ballpark behind the Los Angeles Dodgers, Detroit Tigers, Pittsburgh Pirates, Milwaukee Brewers, and Houston Astros. The league average also rose from 25.6 to 34.1, meaning the Nationals are following the trend.
The team’s advanced stats didn’t nicely reflect the Nationals. They came last in saved defensive runs, a statistic that, true to its name, seeks to quantify how many runs a player or defense prevented. Both Washington’s inside and outside fields were considered below average, which manager Dave Martinez confirmed in the last few weeks of the season. He mentioned spring training planning and defense high on his to-do list. And that meant a relocation would be required.
“We’re going to be doing a lot more shifting exercises, people in different positions, and learning how to position yourself in shift and how to throw yourself out of shift,” Martinez said in September. “Talk a lot about not leaning back on baseball, being more aggressive, all of those things.”
Bank coach Tim Bogar leads the defensive positioning of the Nationals. In the spring of 2019, Bogar pushed back the official definition on the suggestion that Washington hadn’t changed much. He stated that the Nationals change for each stroke, but what Baseball Savant calls a “shift” was more of a “thrust” to him.
Bogar pointed out strategic directions based on internal data. There is no direct connection between the move and team or defensive success. The Tampa Bay Rays, which, according to analysis, had the best defense in the league in 2020, finished 19th overall. The Tigers and Pirates, conversely, had two of the game’s worst records. Moving on, however, can show an increased commitment to cracking numbers, especially for a team like the Nationals, and generally increases the likelihood of outfielders being in the right place at the right time.
Anecdotally, they shifted more in the middle of the bats in 2020 than in previous years. Martinez often described the change as a collaborative effort between the coaching staff and the front office analytics team. He also hinted at interviewing successful teams – including the Rays, Dodgers, and Astros – to see how Washington could get a new head start.
“So you look at the numbers: I think we were 22nd last year, alternating, [and] I think that’s because we were 22nd in what I would call “over-shifting”, “Bogar said in that interview in February 2019, just before the Nationals lost a few more places in the overall shift.” But the positioning of our players is not the standard. What people see is that we are straight. There is a lot of middle ground. “
Two seasons later, part of that middle ground has disappeared. The most typical shift of the Nationals is to move their third baseman into the hole between the second baseman and the first baseman. So, third baseman Carter Kieboom ended up with a franchise record of 11 defensive assistants against the Baltimore Orioles in August, most of whom were on the right. The shifts benefit Kieboom as most of his pre-2020 experience was shortstop and second base.
But Martinez mostly likes it for another reason: by leaving shortstop Trea Turner alone on the left, Martinez has his fastest player chasing flat pop flies in the dead zone behind third base. An interesting element of the Washington relocation is that it was pretty even for left-handed and right-handed people. In contrast, the Miami Marlins switched to the right more than any other team and were well below average at 38.1 percent with the left in the box. The Nationals ranked 11th against the right and seventh against the left. And this balance kept her field players in constant motion across the field.
“It’s not a bad thing that you have people who can move around the entire infield,” Bogar said at the team’s annual Winterfest in January. “People are moving around in the infield anyway, so you don’t play your usual place like in the past. It’s really good to have people who are versatile. “
The infield is still being built for 2021, but the returning pieces will fit into this shape. If Kieboom, as the everyday third baseman, gets another shot, he can move to that point between the first and the second. Starlin Castro, the planned starter on the second base, also has experience in the shortstop and, to a lesser extent, in the third. Utility man Josh Harrison can take second, third, and even short spots in that order. Luis García, a 20-year-old who debuted last year, is sure to be around the diamond. And Turner, who has had a defensive year, can usually play from pitch to pitch wherever needed.
On paper, the Nationals have fought defensively for the past few years and will return a handful of well-known pieces. However, their displacement patterns show an increased effort to bend these parts into a different shape. And abstractly, that shows a willingness to adapt and learn.