Angels embracing data, metrics to position defense
Club will shift its fielders more in 2014, using analytics team to calculate trends
ANAHEIM -- The Angels' biggest issue last year might not have been Josh Hamilton's swing or Albert Pujols' foot or the bullpen's depth or even the starting rotation's overall makeup.
It was, in many ways, defense.
Yeah, defense isn't sexy, and you can't attach a singular name to it, and it's still the toughest department in baseball to measure accurately. But defense is the area that saw the Angels inexplicably go from one of the best to one of the worst in six baseball months, and it's the department that has undergone the most internal tweaking.
Time to embrace some numbers.
"What it is," general manager Jerry Dipoto said, "is building trust with what those numbers represent. And I think that's happened over time."
Last year, the Angels ranked 28th in caught-stealing percentage (21.1) and committed baseball's fourth-most errors (112). Even more appalling was what took place from 2012-13, when they went from second to 27th in the Majors in Defensive Runs Saved -- a sabermetric statistic that looks to calculate total defensive value by measuring how many runs above or below average a specific player or overall team is.
In 2012, the Angels were 58 runs above average defensively.
In 2013, they were 63 runs below average.
So while the most notable offseason staff changes came with the return of some distinguished alumni -- Don Baylor stepping in as the new hitting coach and Gary DiSarcina coaching third base -- there's another sector that need not be overlooked. It includes player information coach Rick Eckstein and coordinator of player information Nick Francona, who oversees a quasi-analytics team made up of Jeremy Zoll and Jonathan Strangio.
Their job -- part of it, at least -- is to pore through batted-ball trends -- a great deal of which is compiled by a new Baseball Info Solutions program called "Bis-D," -- compare it to the traditional spray charts from Bloomberg's "Inside Edge," filter it and present it to the coaches, who cross-reference it with the internal spray charts compiled by video coordinator Diego Lopez and their own baseball acumen.
Manager Mike Scioscia calls them "the neck," an integral link between the front office and coaching staff.
"It's a process, but it's been really fun," Eckstein said. "To see the information that they're collecting and then putting it together, bringing it to the table, and then getting into it as a staff, it's been really interesting to see how that unfolds. Very cool, really, the whole sabermetrics and analytical side of it."
Spray charts use dots to indicate where balls have landed, but they can be confusing with regards to sample size and trying to interpret what those individual dots represent.
"Bis-D" separates the field into 12 slices, providing a percentage of the amount of balls a specific player has historically hit in each of those zones. The Angels -- in the middle of the pack with regards to defensive shifts last season -- are using it as a foundation to move their players more aggressively this season.
"We can't be blind to the numbers," said Francona, son of Indians manager Terry Francona. "We want to get an informed baseline of where we think are the strong tendencies that a certain player has."
Research done by Baseball Info Solutions has shown there are as many as 100 batters against whom some semblance of a shift is likely to be effective, which can go a long way in saving runs. It isn't just dead-pull left-handed hitters like Adam Dunn, Ryan Howard and David Ortiz.
Dipoto pointed to the Rays, Pirates, Cardinals, Red Sox, Blue Jays and A's as some of the more progressive teams with regards to shifting and defensive placement. The Angels, who started incorporating more numbers down the stretch last year, want to get there. Dipoto says Scioscia "absolutely buys into it because it's baseball history. This is what it's telling you -- play where they hit the ball more often."
Positioning isn't everything, of course, and many times balls just find holes.
"But we're not leaving any stone unturned," Eckstein said. "If the ball doesn't roll our way, we know that we've done our homework, we know that we've put everything into it as much as possible to really come to the greatest conclusion for us."
Zoll and Strangio will be based in Anaheim, compiling all the data for opponents and going over it with director of pro scouting Hal Morris. Francona will oversee it, and together they'll compile a binder -- one page per player -- for the start of every series. Then Eckstein, stationed upstairs during games and focusing on all on-field aspects, will cross-reference it with his own information before going over the findings with Scioscia and his staff.
In short, the Angels' defense will be based more on calculations than eyeballs -- but the key is finding the right balance.
"All these young guys have brought a lot of useful information that we can apply to the game," said first-base coach Alfredo Griffin, whose encyclopedic knowledge is still a valuable component to determine where the Angels position themselves. "You have to adapt to the new system. The game is taking a new direction with regards to the numbers."
Dipoto believes last year's drop-off in DRS is only partially a product of defensive positioning. There was also Pujols' plantar fasciitis, which prompted Mark Trumbo to spend the vast majority of time at first base. There were Erick Aybar's lower-body ailments, which dropped his Ultimate Zone Rating at shortstop from 2.5 in 2012 to minus 6.6 in 2013. There were Alberto Callaspo's uncommon six errors over a seven-game stretch in early June. And there was Mike Trout's temporary transition to left field.
As Griffin said, "You still have to make the plays." And as Dipoto emphasized, "We're not trying to recreate the game."
"We've always integrated numbers, used the data to suggest when we would switch defensively," Dipoto added. "I think this year we are more likely to shift in more situations. And sometimes subtlety, where you won't pick up on the shift because it's not overaggressive or widespread. We're not looking to reinvent the wheel or open a ballet company on the field."
Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Gonzo and "The Show", and follow him on Twitter @Alden_Gonzalez. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.