November 20, 2013
Baseball's New Kind of Coach
A few months ago, in a guest piece for BP, Gabe Kapler made the case for hiring Matt Martin, a coach whose passion and instructional skills had impressed him in the minors. On Monday, the Detroit Tigers took his advice, adding Martin to new manager Brad Ausmus’ staff.
The 44-year-old’s resume looks like that of many major-league coaches: some experience as a professional player, followed by close to two decades of minor-league coaching experience. His title is a lot less typical: “Defensive Coordinator,” a position familiar to football fans (though the NFL's "Quality Control Coach" is a closer equivalent) but almost unknown in baseball.*
It’s about to become much more common. Martin is just one of three men hired this month to play a similar role next season. The first was Mark Weidemaier, a former advance scout and special assistant who new Nationals manager Matt Williams brought with him from the Diamondbacks to serve as Washington's “Defensive Coordination and Advance Coach.” Next was Martin, followed by Rick Eckstein, whom the Angels hired on Tuesday as a “Player Information Coach.”
The titles differ from team to team, but the job descriptions are essentially the same.
Some of the details differ. Only Weidemaier will be in uniform, and in the dugout, during games, thanks to last season’s expansion of the maximum coaching complement to seven; Martin and Eckstein will look like coaches only until first pitch, when they’ll find a phone booth, change back into business casual, and start their aerial surveillance. The other big difference stems from how the hirings happened: Martin’s position is “the brainchild of Ausmus,” and Weidemaier’s was Williams’ “one request,” but the Angels’ “search was done largely by general manager Jerry Dipoto” (which is sure to make the buzz about a Dipoto-Scioscia power struggle slightly louder).
The defensive coordinator craze sweeping coaching staffs across the country is a direct response to an opportunity—and an accompanying problem—facing front offices in an increasingly data-driven sport. Incorporating new data sources and analytical techniques has allowed teams to identify areas in which they can keep pace with or gain an edge on their opponents. But it’s also exposed an information gap and an array of philosophical differences between the front office and field staff. Baseball Ops analysts and coaches don’t have the same skills and training, and a lot can get lost on the way from one group to the other. As I argued early last year, communication breakdowns have become one of baseball’s biggest inefficiencies.
Talk to front-office employees about their team’s in-game tactics, and you’ll usually sense some frustration (mixed with resignation) about the same sort of things that bother bloggers: lineup construction, bullpen/bench usage, and bunts. It’s not that they don’t know when the old-school skipper is giving away outs; it’s that they’re powerless to stop him, or willing to put up with some sins against run expectancy in exchange for a harmonious clubhouse. Throughout the season, interns and entry-level analysts supply coaching staffs with packets and binders bursting with predictive data, much of which is ignored in favor of deceptive, small-sample matchup stats. An office full of analysts can’t make the most of their research without clubhouse buy-in; when we try to evaluate a team’s brain trust, we should ask not only what the number-crunchers know, but how well they can communicate.
The challenge for the front office is to funnel information to the field without alienating anyone. Managers aren’t used to being told where to position their fielders, and they aren’t all receptive to input from upstairs. Even those who welcome assistance are careful to combat the perception that they’re just the general manager’s mouthpiece. If the players don’t believe that their skipper is pulling the strings, his clubhouse influence could be compromised.
All of which explains the way Ausmus introduced Martin:
Message received: no nerd to see here. Ausmus’ intro was intended as much for his players as it was for fans and columnists. As a rookie manager taking over a veteran team and succeeding one of baseball’s most senior skippers, Ausmus' strength is his rapport with players; understandably, he’s reluctant to squander that clubhouse capital before he starts. Of course, Ausmus isn’t trying to sneak a card-carrying stathead into the inner sanctum: what he said about Martin was true. But the fact that he felt he had to say it reveals how much resistance remains.
Because of these complications, a team won’t make a move as unorthodox as creating a new coach unless their decision makers are persuaded that the benefits are big. Convincing them can be difficult unless the evidence is right in front of their faces—which it is, more often than ever before. The analysis behind a smart signing isn’t easy to see, but there’s no way to ignore innovations in defensive positioning. Aggressive shifting has become the most visible byproduct of baseball’s embrace of big data. Even teams that aren’t doing it can’t fail to notice how often their opponents are, and every hit robbed by a second baseman in short right is a reminder that playing traditional defense might mean falling behind. If you can’t beat the shifters, the logical next step is to join them, at least until hitters come up with a counterpunch.
“That’s the way the game is,” former Giants catcher (and current catching coordinator) Kirt Manwaring once told me. “Once somebody does something, once somebody's successful at something, then [other teams] want to try to find the method behind the madness. 'Well, what are they doing?'" The Red Sox just went from fifth to first and won a World Series after shifting more than twice as often as they had in 2012; if the success of the Rays and other early adopters wasn’t enough to sway the copycats, Boston’s season surely was. According to Baseball Info Solutions, the Nationals shifted only 37 times in 2013, the fewest in baseball. The Angels and Tigers did it more often, but they weren’t among the league leaders, and Detroit’s defensive struggles offered more than enough incentive for Dave Dombrowsk to do something different. If your fielders have a slow first step and no second step, it’s even more important to position them properly.
The Nationals, Tigers, and Angels have come up with an elegant solution to the problem of passing on information without ruffling feathers, one that any team without an open-minded manager like Joe Maddon or an analytically inclined coach like Boston’s Brian Butterfield would be wise to employ. Don’t put the number-cruncher in the dugout, where he or she might make the players uncomfortable or jeopardize the other coaches’ authority. Instead, install an intermediary. He’ll look like a baseball man, talk like a baseball man, and have the background of a baseball man, so he’ll blend in without stinking of outsider. But because his purpose is to serve as a living line of communication, he can’t close himself off to front-office input. The knowledge gleaned from his own experience as a player and coach makes the people upstairs smarter, while the scouting and stat work he synthesizes (and translates into a language he speaks fluently) sends some wisdom the other way.
In a recent story about the potential for computers to call balls and strikes, I described the history of baseball as a story of specialization:
Whatever you call the new kind of coach, he’s the latest manifestation of the same trend. Just as PITCHf/x feedback has made umpires more accurate, front-office input can make managers better—but only if they surrender some responsibility to the specialists, and accept that in certain cases, data can do a better job (which helps explain why teams have become more comfortable hiring inexperienced skippers). Modern managers have enough to worry about without trying to predict the pitch selection or batted-ball tendencies of an opposing player they might not have seen more than a few times.
In practice, the new structure won’t work as perfectly as it does on paper, but the goal is good. On today's podcast, Sam Miller compared the new coaching position to the Trojan Horse, since it gives the front office a way past a wall. Like the Greeks’ gambit, it has the potential to end a long-lasting conflict. And best of all, there won’t be any bloodshed.
*These positions aren't completely unprecedented, though they've clearly become much more popular. On the podcast, Sam and I wondered why it wasn't one of the sabermetric early adopters that did this first. We should have known better: the Rays hired Tim Bogar as a "quality assurance coach" in 2008.