Talking shifts with new Nats defensive coordinator Mark Weidemaier

VIERA, Fla. - The Nationals have their first home night game of spring tonight, as they host the Astros in a game that will get under way at 6 p.m.

This means the typical morning schedule has been pushed back a little bit and players won’t be reporting to Space Coast Stadium until mid-afternoon. This also means that reporters don’t need to be at the facility until mid-afternoon.

Needless to say, I’m not too upset about this schedule.

If you’ve been here in Viera and have gotten a chance to watch the Nationals take batting practice or be put through the paces on defensive drills, you’ve probably seen Mark Weidemaier. You’ve most certainly heard him.

Weidemaier is the Nats’ new defensive coordinator and advance coach, and is also as energetic and lively a guy as you’ll find in any walk of life. He came to the organization from the Diamondbacks with manager Matt Williams, and this season will mark Weidemaier’s first in 35 years in baseball that he’ll be a uniformed coach in the dugout. He spent the last 18 years as an advance scout, traveling from city to city scouting opponents that his team would face next and building up an enormous database of information on pitchers, hitters, baserunners, defenders and even opposing managers.

The level of detail in Weidemaier’s reports is beyond impressive. From information about each pitcher’s tendencies, to how a specific infielder will indicate a pickoff is coming, to where to pitch a certain hitter when he has two strikes on him and a runner in scoring position. I’m talking pages upon pages of intense scouting information about every aspect you can imagine.

Now Weidemaier is in charge of improving the Nationals defensively, and he plans to use some methods that are new to the organization. I sat down with Weidemaier in the Nats dugout at Space Coast Stadium a few days ago, and while the below Q&A might seem lengthy, it’s really only the tip of the iceberg. There is so much that we’ve yet to learn about how the Nats will compile data in their advance scouting efforts and how they’ll use this data defensively, but hopefully my chat with Weidemaier will help give you a little glimpse into what we’ll see this season.

I didn’t want to leave anything out, so below is my full chat with Weidemaier.

It’s probably been a bit of an acclimation process for you with a new organization and in a new position, but now that we’re a few weeks into camp, how do you think things have been going?

“I think they’ve gone exceptionally well. First of all, I’m blessed to be here after 34 years of doing just about everything in baseball, including the last 18 advancing, even though I coordinated spring training for the Dodgers and the Diamondbacks and now here. To get to the big leagues is a dream come true, basically. And also, since I had a chance to do it with Matt, who I have such a great relationship with, the trust factor is enormous and that makes it even more special, because it’s not a stranger I’m working with. It’s like I know what he’s thinking before he says it. So we can play off each other really good.”

“But as far as camp, we spent a lot of time this winter. He’d call me around 2:00 in the afternoon and sometimes we’d talk ‘til 4:00, 4:30, 5:00. Every day, for the better part of November, December and then we came to the Winter Meetings together and then most of January. So we planned this thing out, not only from the daily schedule, but the early and extra work, to the fundamentals, to the defensive matrixes. The bunt plays, pop-up coverage. The gamut. And you always wonder how it’s gonna be received, especially what we had heard the last couple years. Not that they weren’t well-run, but they might not have had the up-tempo type of approach.

“So we were really happy to hear when players start coming to you telling you how much they enjoy it. I mean, a lot of people can talk, and it’s eyewash. But when the players come to you, they tell you the truth. And more than one came to me and expressed that. And I’m talking about the big guys, big-name guys. So we’re very happy about that.

You seemingly handle a lot of roles - helping to coordinate and schedule workouts, throwing batting practice, putting the team through defensive drills, working directly alongside Matt. What’s been the focus so far?

“It’s obviously a very talented team, and I was brought over here to help the defense. That’s an area that ... they weren’t brutal, but they certainly weren’t good. Let’s put it that way. (Matt is) a very defensive-minded manager. He was that kind of player, and that’s one of the reasons I’m sure that they hired him here, because he sold the fact that we’re gonna play better defense. That’s a priority. So far, I’ve been pleased. We had one sloppy outing against the Braves here that, it was a windy day, the infield was hard as hell, there were a lot of factors. But it’s really unacceptable to make (five) errors. We’re going to try and cut that down. And if we play good defense, with our pitching staff and our ability to score runs, why not? Why not us to go a long way? It’s as talented a team as there is in the National League.”

Based on what you know, how many teams have a defensive coordinator type of position like the Nationals now do with you?

“From what I’ve read online, it’s interesting you ask that question, because it was Matt originally, and Mike Rizzo, that bought into it. We were the first. It was funny as hell, because there were a lot of copycats after the fact. (Brad) Ausmus (hired one in) Detroit. Matt Martin, he was a roving infield guy. I was with him with the Dodgers. (Rick) Eckstein got hired by the Angels in a very similar capacity. I think the major difference is those guys aren’t going to be in uniform in the dugout. They’re going to be more like an eye in the sky in the press box. As far as I know, I was thinking there might be one other club that did a similar thing. But as far as the defensive coordinator title theme, those two guys I know of. But it was like Matt started a trend, which is really interesting, because it’s a different way of looking at the game. Everything is starting to open up on the defensive side of the ball that for years wasn’t given a lot of credence. And you wonder why, because every major sport has that kind of focus. I mean, defense is key.”

So why has baseball been so slow to adapt in that area?

“(Laughs) Baseball’s been kind of slow to adapt to a lot of things, huh? It’s a very traditional game. If you ever read the book, ‘Men at Work,’ by George Will, the polycracy involved for years in professional baseball, as opposed to democracy or meritocracy, he called it. It was ruling by old friends. Slow to change! There’s no question about it. And don’t get me wrong, we have (an analytics) group here, Sam Mondry-Cohen and the guys that do the (advanced metrics) stuff that are tremendous. I’m not wired along those lines. Now, I will take that information, because you’d be foolish not to. But I still think you watch the game, like Tony LaRussa told me one time - purposeful watching. You watch for a reason.

“And also, what I know in (my head) is not just a gut instinct or an educated guess, it’s years of experience and seeing the players and having 18 years of an advance database. I’ve seen more baseball than most people ever would in three lifetimes. So you work it hand-in-hand. So we’re going to use some spray charts, try to adapt that, actually, and devise one of our own in-house along with some of the outside sources that provide spray charts.”

So you’re making your own spray chart?

“Yeah, I gave it to (advance scouting coordinator Erick) Dalton and Rosie (advance scouting assistant Christopher Rosenbaum). Because really, what pitchers want, I found this out the hard way with Kevin Brown and the Dodgers, he said, ‘Everything you’re giving me is what the league does in general against what you’re seeing. But I want to see where the ball’s going when they’re hit off of me.’ So the only way to do that is to be at the game when your man’s pitching. Well, it does make a lot of sense to specify it, if you do have a general spray chart and then devise one that’s specific for your individual pitcher, it’s got to give you some tendencies, right? That along with percentages of where a ball’s hit.”

So let’s get down to the shifting. What types of shifts will we see you utilize this season?

“I think it’s a little dangerous to overplay in the outfield because there’s nobody behind them, but as far as overplaying and shifting in the infield, why not? If we can put guys in a better position to make a play, it’s just common sense. Why wasn’t it done here in the past? I don’t know. Manager’s preference, I guess. Straight up’s not a bad defense sometimes. But not all the time. So if we can put ‘em in a better position with the athletes we have, we think there’s some merit to it. I read an awful lot about the sabermetrics and this and that, and where do the numbers really enter into it other than the probabilities and percentages. You can see a spray chart where it’s shaded where 60 percent of the balls on the ground are going here. Well, you have to look at that.

“But you still have to watch the game, because depending on what your pitcher’s got on a given day, your initial alignment might not be where you want. Because this guy’s fastball might not be as good, he’s going to his changeup more. So that’s where the players have to be able to, within the game, make in-game adjustments. You watch me during spring, I’m moving them all the time on the infield. And that’s what I’m talking about with the in-game part of it. Before every game, I’ve got a note card where I list straight up, slight opp, pull, strong-middle, whatever. That’s where they start. And they can adjust. And I work off of it, too.”

Some teams, like the Pirates and Rays, end up using a lot of different infield shifts throughout the course of a game. In recent seasons, the Nats have barely used any. How often can we expect to see you guys shifting this season?

“Every day. Matt and I came up with a form where it lists our pitcher, the opposition’s lineup, where we’re going to play prior to two strikes and with two strikes, infield and outfield. Every player will get one every day. We’ll have a meeting every day. We’re going to have a pre-series advance meeting, which is pretty general for most teams, but we’re also gonna have meetings every day with the starting eight, particularly the middle guys.”

I would imagine not a lot of teams do that?

“No. We’ll involve the pitchers as much as they want to be involved. Some of them probably don’t want a lot of information. They’re not gonna change the way they pitch. It’s basically more of a defensive meeting that we know some certain strong tendencies on some guys, and we’ll work off of that. Hey, we’re trying to get an edge, and anything you can use to do it ... it’s been proven with the Pirates, they’ve had success. There are teams that have done it well. So hopefully we’ll be able to, as well.”

We’ve all heard of the phrase “paralysis by analysis”. Are you worried about some players feeling like they have too much information kicking around in their heads during a game?

“I don’t worry about it, I just recognize who those people are so you don’t overload them. Some people, like in anything, one of the worst terms we have in baseball is instinct. Human beings aren’t born with an instinct to run the bases or catch a ground ball. My Labrador retrievers are born with an instinct to retrieve and swim in the water with webbed paws. You learn to play this game, you’re taught to play this game. The difference being some people have better powers of observation, more aptitude, better listeners, better watchers, purposeful watching. Better aptitude. If there are certain individuals who are not geared towards (it), if their makeup isn’t geared towards taking a lot of this data, we won’t give them a lot of it. But the ones that would like to have it, it will be there for them.”

So it’ll be handled on a player-by-player basis?

“Probably more pitcher-by-pitch basis. The position players are going to get the information whether they want it or not. It’s gonna be there for them. But we’re not gonna tell a guy how to pitch. You’ve got to go to your strengths. We’ll try to adjust off of that. I think that’s where you find more of the individuals who wouldn’t want the information.”

How important is it, then, for your position players to buy into this and see it as something that can help them and the team?

“Well, certainly the middle guys. The spine of the diamond is key. Catcher, middle infielders and center field. That’s the key. We’re also lucky here to have (Adam LaRoche) at first base because he’s got great awareness and guys will move with him. Like, he made the comment to me (recently) on a ball up the middle that Rendon almost caught. I had just moved Rochie more towards the 4-3 hole (the hole between the second and first baseman) and he said, ‘If I would have taken Anthony with me, he would have made that play.’ In other words, if he would’ve said, ‘I’m moving, you move.’ And he didn’t. I thought he was pretty much shaded where he should’ve been, but if he had moved with him, we would’ve made that play.”

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