Martin's defensive outlook a mix of old, new schools
Coordinator will rely on experience, understanding of players as well as sabermetrics
LAKELAND, Fla. -- For somebody in what is perceived as a new-school position, Matt Martin has a decidedly old-school feel.
He's the Tigers' first-ever defensive coordinator, as Detroit joins a growing group of clubs that have hired somebody to take statistical and scouting information and use it to employ defensive shifts. But Martin is also a former Tigers Minor League manager who knows Brad Ausmus from his playing career in Detroit.
"In 1997, 25 guys in this clubhouse might have been too many. It was so small," Martin said as he sat at a picnic table outside the home clubhouse at Joker Marchant Stadium on a quiet Sunday morning, reminiscing about Tigertown before its renovations.
"Things have changed. A lot of the faces are the same. It's funny, because this is where I first met Brad, his second stint over here."
They kept running into each other at various stops over the years, including Brad's final stint as a backup catcher with the Dodgers. When Ausmus had to put together a coaching staff for Team Israel for the World Baseball Classic last year, he thought of Martin.
"Brad -- so intelligent, so quick-witted, he's always firing off stuff. It's so quick," Martin said. "And so I'd fire right back and have something. So we developed a pretty good bond right there, and I think he saw how I went about things. So I think I was just on his list."
When Ausmus interviewed with team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski about their managerial opening, he talked about hiring a defensive coordinator, and he had Martin in mind. It wasn't about hiring a sabermetric wizard who could recite ultimate zone ratings and defensive runs saved, nor was it about finding a technological wizard who would come up with a new method for video work. It was about information and communication.
"In my mind, it was more about making sure that going into a series, the way we were pitching hitters matched up with the way we were defending hitters," Ausmus said. "Say we're playing a shift on somebody. Well, let's make sure that the shift in the infield parallels the approach of the pitchers to get that result of a ground ball to the left side.
"There were some teams that I played against that were very good at making sure their defense lined up with their pitching. The St. Louis Cardinals [and] Atlanta Braves consistently seemed to pitch opposing hitters to the strengths of their defense."
Martin knows metrics, but he also knows infielders, and he knows how to line up defenses. Some of that expertise came from working under legendary Major League coach Perry Hill, who was part of the Tigers staff from 1997 through 1999. Some came from roving infield instructional stints with three different organizations.
Martin is not a fresh-faced kid, but an instructor with nearly two full decades of experience. One day of watching him smash groundballs at pitchers in the now well-chronicled ragball drills showed an old-school toughness. And like Ausmus, he has seen the statistical analysis on defense blossom to a point where positional placement is quantifiable. Just as important, he has enough experience in different roles to gather information, throw out the noise, and keep what is practical and useful.
He knows what other teams do, but he doesn't necessarily look to copy.
"Sometimes teams, individuals get caught up in what everybody else is doing," he said. "Things will change if it's solid, if it's there long enough, but I think there's a lot of stuff being thrown against the wall, and some of it's sticking, and the game kind of adapts to it."
Martin finds himself at the intersection of advanced metrics, advance scouting and an increasingly available amount of video. His role is to put all that together and make sense of it, not only for an upgraded Tigers infield, but for an immensely talented pitching staff. He doesn't plan on playing favorites with any one aspect.
"We have databases that give us all the information where guys are hitting the ball, what pitch they're hitting where. We have all that information," Martin said. "But at times, it is necessary to put an eye on something. Just like in math, science, you want the larger sample sizes, obviously. But sometimes you need to know what's going on in the here and now. Maybe [hitters] made an adjustment to their swing that allowed them to free up and they're pulling the ball more, where it seems like they're late for the first month of the season. Sabermetrics doesn't show that aspect of it right there."
Just as important, Martin knows Ausmus, and how his thought process works.
"I think with Brad, people are labeling him as a sabermetrics type guy, and I think they're seeing extremely intelligent, Ivy League educated, and they're adding that up," Martin said. "And I would say nine out of 10 times they're right, but that's not so the case with Brad. He'll look at anything. He's not going to leave any stone unturned, but he's going to evaluate everything and come to a decision based on numerous factors, not just what sabermetrics dictate. Brad is just going to put that into the equation, and I think that's what some people are missing. I think we'll shift more, maybe not as drastic as many teams do."
The Tigers employed defensive shifts under Ausmus' predecessor, Jim Leyland, but left it up to the pitcher whether to use it. If a pitcher wasn't comfortable or confident pitching toward a certain defensive area, Leyland didn't want to use it. It fit into a staff philosophy that coaches would provide all the information a player wanted and let the him decide how to use it.
On a staff that included high-strikeout hurlers Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer and Anibal Sanchez, plus a young Rick Porcello with his own game to worry about, the shift wasn't exactly a cornerstone philosophy. Doug Fister used it more at certain times to specific hitters, and he's now in Washington.
Similarly, Ausmus said he has some thoughts on shifting, but he does not consider himself a "big shift guy."
"I think there's times to do it, I think there's hitters to do it against, and I think there's hitters to do it against but game situations that you would probably avoid it," he said.
Pitcher preference is still going to be a significant factor, which is where Martin and pitching coach Jeff Jones will collaborate. Both go back to the 1990s in the Tigers' organization.
The shifts, Martin warns, might be very subtle.
"We may be talking about a matter of playing our shortstop a yard further up the middle," he said. "Most people don't see that, and they're like, 'Well, that's not that big of a deal.' Well, over time, it is, the longer it plays out. That's where I think you'll see the Tigers more, where we're adjusting three feet, rather than 18 feet."
With the defense at Martin's disposal, especially up the middle, that might be all the difference. Jose Iglesias put his range on display in Detroit down the stretch and into the postseason. Ian Kinsler's range put him in the top five among Major League second basemen in Bill James' plus-minus rating over the last three seasons.
The goal is to mesh that with the strengths of the Tigers' pitching.
"At the end of the day, that guy with the ball in his hand is the most important guy in the stadium," Martin said.