Tigers getting crash course in AJ Hinch's zone defense strategies

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Lakeland, Fla. — Professor AJ Hinch delivered a meaty media session Wednesday morning. The topic: zone defense.

Say what now?

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

“The reality is, we don’t know exactly where the ball is going to be hit, we just want to believe that we do,” he said. “When you take three guys over to either side of the infield, it’s about 110-115 feet and I’ve got three dudes to cover it. When you talk about it in that phrase, zone defense, you’re talking about having to communicate on balls hit between them.

“That’s what’s really important, trying to cover ground. It’s as simple as I can put it to the players, and it makes more sense.”

Hinch took shifting defenses to a new level in his years in Houston. No team in baseball deployed the shift more often or more effectively than the Astros from 2015 through 2019. He even used four-outfielder alignments while he was there.

Tigers manager AJ Hinch, right, hits ground balls during infield practice.

The Tigers, you might be surprised to know, were second in baseball to the Dodgers in total shifts last year. To which Hinch said, not the point.

“You can evaluate it a couple of different ways,” he said. “Just because you shift the most, doesn’t mean you got the most outs.”

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

“I don’t look at the number of shifts,” he said. “I don’t think that’s relevant in terms of quality of shifts. I look at our defense and more so I’m interested in spacing in the zone defense that the shift creates. Not the total number.”

The fact that Hinch had All-Stars around the diamond in Houston — Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa and Jose Altuve — is immaterial to the shift's success. Hinch said personnel doesn’t dictate the strategy. The data, for the most part, dictates where the ball is most likely to be hit and that’s where he’s going to position the defense.

“The key is to put your players in position where the ball is going to be hit to the most,” he said. “And do it for the right reasons and with the proper spacing. And make sure we communicate and cover the area where they hit it.”

Easy-peezy, right? Far from it. There are so many variables that can’t be accounted for in the algorithms — hitter adjustments, mis-hit balls, mis-executed pitches.

“Where guys play, it’s a moving target,” Hinch said. “In terms of adjustments, is it a one-off? Is that an adjustment for that one day or is it luck? Is it swing-path? There’s more to it than what’s easy on the eye or what’s comfortable for all of us involved with the sport.”

The problem, he said, is that the data is always going to lag behind what your eyes see, in terms of when to make adjustments.

“By the time a player gets enough at-bats for the data to suggest you should un-shift him and move the defense back to a more traditional set-up, you’re probably 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 jibe with what the data is telling you?

“I don’t sleep at night when that disconnect exists,” Hinch said. “We have a lot of debates about it in the coaches’ room. We have conversations during the day as you prepare for the game, and we try not to make emotional decisions as the game is unfolding or when a guy beats the shift at a tough time.”

There are no perfectly impenetrable zone defenses, no legal ones, anyway. Not in any sport. So part of teaching the zone defense, for Hinch, is managing the inevitable frustration that comes when a weakly-hit ground ball rolls through the vacated right side of the infield.

“I told our infielders and our pitchers, we’re frustrated, too, when we’re not in a perfect set-up,” Hinch said. “The game is not meant to be isolated so perfectly. We’re trying to make judgments where we think guys are going to hit it.

“But I do 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 you’re supposed to carry. We’re just covering space and there’s going to be some nuances.”

Pitcher's role in shifts

Hinch was asked if he grants his pitchers any say in the defensive alignments.

“I give them leeway at 2 p.m., 3 p.m., 4 p.m., when we’re preparing for a game,” he said. “It’s very difficult in the heat of competition to have a clear mind and have all the information to make a decision.”

In talking to the younger starting pitchers, Hinch said one of their first questions is, do we pitch to the shift?

“The answer is no,” he said. “We’re (moving defenders) to where the result is, not necessarily where you are pitching. Generally, the guys we play to pull, they pull the outside pitch all the time, they pull it on the ground. When you see guys like Mike Trout, Nelson Cruz, big physical guys, you think they can just tap the ball over to second base.

“They don’t do that. Like, they hit homers to right-center. Not ground balls.”

Hinch used Miguel Cabrera as an example. He can and will occasionally intentionally roll a pitch to the opposite field against the shift. But not very often. Not enough to play him straight-up. 

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

Around the horn

Lefty reliever Gregory Soto was in camp for the first time Wednesday. His start was delayed by travel and COVID-19 testing issues.

Hinch said Soto, who is coming off a championship winter ball season in the Dominican, will throw a live bullpen Thursday. “Congratulations to the hitters who draw him tomorrow,” Hinch said with a wry smile.


Twitter: @cmccosky