Nats shifting how they feel about shifts

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. - Asked yesterday where specifically he wants to see the Nationals improve in 2014, we got a glimpse into where Matt Williams is placing his priorities. The first area that he mentioned was team defense.

There's a lot that goes into that, of course. The error total obviously needs to drop; the Nationals finished with 107 errors in 2013, tied for the seventh-most in Major League Baseball. The Nats threw out just 17.4 percent of attempted basestealers, last in the majors.

Those are clear areas that can be improved by working on fundamentals in spring and placing a greater focus on being a sound defensive team. But there are other, more progressive ways that the Nats can look to get off the field quicker on defense and help their pitchers put up more zeros. One of those ways is by utilizing defensive shifts, something that the organization barely did at all under former manager Davey Johnson.

Williams brought Mark Weidemaier with him from the Diamondbacks' coaching staff to serve as an advance coach focused on defensive alignments. He'll be part of an initiative to pour over various scouting charts and opposing players' tendencies at the plate and then adjust how the Nats are setting up defensively.

The position players will be a part of this, to where shortstop Ian Desmond or third baseman Ryan Zimmerman can move to the right side of the infield more when a strong pull-hitting lefty is up. And the pitchers will be part of it, as well, because they'll need to know how to attack the hitters in order to lead to them hopefully hitting the ball to the right spot.

"We will have defensive meetings certainly every day," Williams said. "Every day within the season for 162 games there will be a defensive meeting. That will be with the pitcher, how he attacks the guys and how we play behind him. Again, there's no perfect world. But we have a road map and plan going on. I also want Ian Desmond to have the opportunity to say, 'I know (Stephen Strasburg) or Gio (Gonzalez) is trying to pitch this guy in, but he can't get the ball in.' That happens during the course of the game. I want to give Ian or anybody else the ability to adjust themselves.

"So we give them the road map. We have all the information in the world that we could possibly want. We want to give that to the staff, let the staff go crazy trying to figure all that out, and then provide something very simple to the players that they can follow or have as a road map going in. And then let them play the game."

There's a fine line here, of course. With all the newfangled advanced data, players might worry about having too much information floating around in their heads during the game instead of just trusting their instincts and positioning themselves where they feel they should be based on past experience or game situation. But Williams says the Nats will make sure that they're not going overboard when it comes to that side of things.

"If you get too aggressive statistically with the players, it tends to be paralysis by analysis," Williams said. "I want Ian to play, I want Ryan to play. I want Stephen to go out there and not worry about this guy's OPS, but, 'What am I going to do to get him out and have the confidence that I make this pitch and he hits it, he's going to be in the right spot?' I think we're making a little bit more of a concentrated effort on playing defense. We're not inventing the wheel, we're just shifting the focus a little bit."

"Shifting" the focus. I see what you did there, Matt.

This is a system that the Nationals have been working on since Williams was hired as manager, and so by the time the players show up to spring training in mid-February, things will be ready to be put into place. Weidemaier and the Nationals' advance scouts have been in meetings in the team's suites at the Swan and Dolphin Resort, gathering as much information on opposing teams and players as they can.

These defensive strategies won't just be something you'll see if you show up to Nats Park or pop on MASN to watch a game where the Nationals take on the Braves. You'll see more defensive shifting and infielders having more freedom to position themselves differently at all levels of the Nats' minor league system, as well, so that by the time prospects make their way up to the big leagues, they're comfortable with how the Nats will be asking them to align defensively.

There's a scale for how these shifts are utilized throughout the big leagues, obviously. Teams like the Rays use a lot of unorthodox infield alignments and move their players around fairly frequently in order to give themselves the best chances of making a play based on the statistics that they've looked over. The Pirates have recently overhauled their organizational philosophy in this way and are using a bunch more shifts than they had in past years.

Where will the Nats fall in that spectrum? We'll have to see how it plays out, but it sounds like they'll probably sit somewhere in the middle.

"I think it's going to be utilized a lot," general manager Mike Rizzo said. "It will be the onus of the coaching staff and the advance people to do the heavy lifting and to give out the information as needed. Not to inundate the players with information, just give each individual guy the information they need."

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