HOUSTON — In mid-May, with a third-place team that had yet to spend a day over .500, Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos sat down with infield coach Ron Washington. The start of the season had revealed several areas for concern. But Anthopoulos wanted to discuss just one in particular: The Braves were using defensive shifts less often than any other team in MLB.
This was in line with how they had operated for the last few seasons. But it was an approach that was beginning to look less tenable. The players were getting a bit frustrated. Their defense was consistently getting stung by balls that might have been caught with different positioning. It left the front office thinking that this could be the moment to make a serious change, and for Anthopoulos, the big question was how.
He knew that any major defensive change would require buy-in—from manager Brian Snitker, from the pitchers who would be playing in front of it and, of course, from the fielders themselves. But he wanted his first conversation about a potential new approach to be with Washington. There was nowhere better to start: The GM trusted the veteran coach on anything to do with defense and, just as importantly, on anything to do with the personalities and predilections of his fielders.
It was a complex subject. Yet the discussion ended up far more straightforward than Anthopoulos had been expecting. Seated in the dugout at Minute Maid Park on Monday, as his team took its first round of batting practice for the World Series, the executive remembered how he had first asked the coach if it would make sense to try drills with a shifted infield, gradually easing into the strategy for gameplay over the summer.
Washington answered quickly, Anthopoulos said: "He was like, 'Hell no, we’re doing it tonight.'"
If the front office believed that the defense would be this much better off with the shift, Washington figured, why should they wait to get started? There would probably be a few stumbling blocks along the way. But if they didn’t believe that they could work through those, and that it was worth it to do so, then why try at all?
“If he’s got something and he wants to implement it, we’re going to implement it today, as long as we can get the kinks worked out,” Washington said on Monday. “We got the kinks out. And the rest is history.”
Atlanta had shifted on just 13% of pitches before that conversation between Washington and Anthopoulos. Afterward—in a change beginning that very night in a game against Pittsburgh—the number skyrocketed to 52%. (This blew them past the league standard; before May 20, the Braves were dead-last in shift frequency, and after, they were second only to the Dodgers.) Their targeted positioning strengthened the infield defense over the course of the season. It served as a reminder to dismiss 69-year-old Washington as “old-school” only at your own peril. And it helped push the team to where it is right now.
It’s just one small example of the countless moving pieces that had to come together to take Atlanta from third place in May (and June... and July...) to the World Series in October. But it’s an illustrative one—not just a willingness to jump into something new, but to do it with a particular marriage of analytics, coaching and personal relationships that helped get everyone on board.
Soon after Anthopoulos and Washington talked about the shift on that afternoon in May, the two of them held a small meeting with the infielders, a few front office members and Snitker. The goal was not to definitively roll out a new strategy. Instead, it was rather squishier, Snitker recalled: “Everybody kind of talked about their feelings on this thing.”
To go from using the shift sparingly to using it on more than half of pitches was a big jump. It required understanding across the board—not just from the front office to the players, but the other way around, too. How were the analysts figuring out when it made the most sense to shift? What felt best to the fielders here? What felt worst?
“Nobody was rigid and nobody had to be right,” Snitker said. “Everybody was give-and-take… I think some of the analytics guys who were doing this learned some things. I know the players, they understood a little bit more about where they were coming from, and the end result was pretty good.”
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The meeting helped establish a layer of trust that remained important through the summer and fall. And the resulting sense of understanding about the shift resonated beyond the infielders. They were the ones executing the strategy—but the pitchers were the ones who had to trust themselves to work in front of it. Whoever was on the mound had to feel comfortable with the infield arrangement, and he had to know that if he wasn’t, it was safe for him to say something.
“At the end of the day, I think the goal is to make sure that the pitchers are comfortable with their arsenal when they’re throwing their pitches—that we’re in the right place that they feel comfortable that they can make their pitches and get outs,” said third baseman Austin Riley. “They have every right. When we’re in the shift, if they don’t like it, they can move us.”
But that’s been rare. With buy-in from just about everyone, Atlanta has kept its new infield alignment going straight through October, gearing up for the World Series after shifting almost 60% of the time in the NLCS. It’s paid off far more often than it has not. (Yes, even with the occasional single hit the other way.) And in case anyone needed another reminder, there's an obvious, physical one on the field: This Atlanta team has come a long, long way since May.
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