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Detroit Tigers getting crash course in AJ Hinch’s zone defense

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Lakeland, Florida – Professor AJ Hinch held a meaty media session Wednesday morning. The subject: zone defense.

Say what now

This wasn’t a basketball discussion. The way Hinch designs and teaches defensive shifts is similar to playing a zone.

“The reality is we don’t know exactly where the ball will be hit, we just want to believe we will,” he said. “If you take three people to either side of the infield, it’s about 110 to 115 feet, and I have three guys covering that. When you talk about this in this sentence, Zone Defense, you are talking about having to communicate through balls that are hit between them.

“It’s really important when you’re trying to get on the ground. It’s as simple as I can tell the players and it makes more sense. “

Hinch took defense to a new level in his Houston years. No team in baseball used the shift from 2015 to 2019 more often or more effectively than the Astros. He even used four outfielder orientations during his stay.

Tiger's manager AJ Hinch, right, hits floor balls during infield training.

The Tigers, as you may be surprised, finished second in baseball last year after the Dodgers. Hinch said to that, not the point.

“You can rate it in a couple of different ways,” he said. “Just because you switch the most doesn’t mean you have the most outs.”

The Tigers were in the middle of the field in terms of shift efficiency.

“I don’t see the number of shifts,” he said. “I don’t think this is relevant to the quality of the layers. I look at our defenses and more so, I am interested in creating clearance in the zone defense created by the shift. Not the total. “

The fact that Hinch had all-stars for the diamond in Houston – Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa, and Jose Altuve – doesn’t matter to the shift’s success. Hinch said the staff didn’t dictate the strategy. The data largely determines where the ball is most likely to be hit and where it will position the defense.

“The key is getting your players in the position where the ball will be hit the most,” he said. “And for the right reasons and with the right distance. And make sure we communicate and cover the area where you meet him. “

Easy-peezy, right? Far from it. There are so many variables that the algorithms cannot account for – batsman adjustments, balls hit incorrectly, pitches performed incorrectly.

“Where boys play, it’s a moving target,” said Hinch. “Is it unique in terms of customizations? Is that an adjustment for that one day or is it luck? Is it Swing Path? It’s about more than what is easy on the eye or what is pleasant for all of us who are involved in sport. “

The problem, he said, is that the data always falls short of what your eyes see when it comes to when to make adjustments.

“If a player has enough bats for the data to suggest that you should shut them down and bring the defense back to a more traditional line-up, you’re probably too late,” he said. “So balance is important. Combine what you see with what you know and make the adjustment. “

But what if what you see with your eyes doesn’t match what the data tells you?

“I don’t sleep at night when this separation exists,” said Hinch. “We have a lot of debates about it in the coaches room. We have conversations during the day while you prepare for the game and we try not to make emotional decisions as the game develops or when a man beats the shift at a difficult time. “

There are no completely impenetrable zone defenses anyway, no legal ones. Not in any sport. Part of teaching Hinch in zone defense is dealing with the inevitable frustration that comes with a weakly hit ground ball rolling through the exposed right side of the infield.

“I told our infielders and pitchers that we are also frustrated when we are not perfectly positioned,” said Hinch. “The game shouldn’t be so perfectly isolated. We try to make judgments that we think the boys will make.

“But I want the players to have a feel for the game. I told our infielders, don’t lose your athleticism or your instincts. It’s not about a point on the field that you are supposed to wear. We’re just covering the room and there will be some nuances. “

Pitcher’s role in layers

Hinch was asked if he would give his pitchers a say in the line of defense.

“I’ll give them leeway at 2pm, 3pm, 4pm as we prepare for a game,” he said. “In the heat of competition, it is very difficult to have a clear head and all the information to make a decision.”

In an interview with the younger starters, Hinch said one of their first questions was: Are we throwing for the shift?

“The answer is no,” he said. “We move the defenders where the result is, not necessarily where you serve. In general, the guys we play drag the outfield all the time, they drag it to the ground. When you see the likes of Mike Trout, Nelson Cruz, and great physical guys, you think they can just tap the ball on the second base.

“They don’t do that. As if they were going to hit Homer right. No ground balls. “

Hinch used Miguel Cabrera as an example. He can and will, on occasion, intentionally roll a pitch against the shift on the opposite field. But not very often. Not enough to play it outright.

“Just because they can hit a ground ball doesn’t mean we’ll play for the lower percentage,” he said.

Around the horn

left handed Gregory Soto was in the camp for the first time on Wednesday. Its start has been delayed due to travel and COVID-19 testing issues.

Hinch said Soto, who has had a winter ball championship season in the Dominican Republic, will throw a live bullpen on Thursday. “Congratulations to the thugs who draw him tomorrow,” said Hinch with an ironic smile.

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Twitter: @cmccosky

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Dusty Kennedy