Jonathan Villar (Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports)

Houston Astros' Defense is Much Smarter in 2014

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When it comes to talent, the Houston Astros are deficient compared to their competitors. That much we know and cannot be disputed. But that also doesn’t mean they aren’t trying to seek every edge possible as they look to improve their fortunes.

The Astros quite simply cannot have another 100 loss season. Their arrow must start pointing up, and the groundwork for the future must be laid.

No area of the game should be off limits. And that much is evident through the first two weeks of the season.

Last season defense was a big issue for the Astros. We all knew that needed to change, and so far the improvements are evident.

There is more to good defense than just making the plays in the field. Positioning plays a large part in that. But how fielders are aligned is not arbitrary. In fact, it is a lot more in depth and there is a lot of data that goes into it.

Data that the Astros have in large supply. But not only do they have troves of data, they have the expertise. That is the most important thing. And in that department Ryan Hallahan, Mike Fast, and Sig Mejdal have Houston more than covered.

Last season, shifting was something that did not sit well with the two “aces” of the staff; Bud Norris and Lucas Harrell. So for that reason, the Astros only shifted 496 times.

“I think it’s natural and human nature when you turn around and you see a ball go through a spot where all your life you’ve seen an infielder there, you’re going to feel like something’s wrong,” Luhnow said. “When you turn around and you see an infielder catch a ball where in the past it wouldn’t have been a catch, you’re happy, but you don’t really give it the same amount of credit as you deduct credit for the one that goes through.

“It’s human nature. We all do it. I just think it’s part of it. We’re going to have some players that are going to resist it, and we’re just going to have work through it.”

That resistance is something that the Astros have had to work past and deal with as they look to develop a new identity. Also, it is not like they didn’t shift at all last season because they were 5th in the league.

However this season, things are quite different. So far in this young season, the Astros have shifted 137 times per Baseball Info Solutions which would translate to around 1,700 shifts in a full season.

So far this season, the success has been evident as the shifts have led to outs on numerous occasions. It isn’t a perfect science, and the frequency and degree of the shifts will depend on who is on the mound and also who is at the plate. This is where there must be a synergy between the players, the coaches, and most importantly the front office.

“We do believe that our shifting allowed us to make more outs than had we not shifted last year,” Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow said. “I think the evidence is pretty compelling when you look across baseball at the amount of increased outs due to the shift. I think the evidence is there. You have to be flexible, because some hitters are going to figure out a way to adjust to it, and some aren’t. You have to continue to learn, but we do feel like it’s been a benefit to us and will continue to be a benefit.”

That teamwork and cohesion is what is most important. There is more to it than just blindly shifting. So far in this young season the Astros are showing that this is something they understand. It is just one tool of many that the Astros have at their disposal that will only enhance their results.

Listach, who’s in charge of infield defense, uses analytical information and watches videos of ground balls to put his infielders in the best position to be successful. He speaks with advance scout Tom Koch-Weser frequently and meets with the staff and the infielders prior to each series to talk about their positioning.

“If a guy had a tendency to hit the ball to a certain place on the field, we’re going to try to cover that place where he hits the ball, where he’s most likely to hit the ball,” Listach said. “We try to take out the little nubbers and the dribblers and broken-bat ground balls. We try to take all those out. And when a guy hits the ball on the ground, where does he hit most of the time?”

 

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