Cards Middle Infield Defense Rests its Case – Pt 2

One of the most overlooked, yet important aspects of the 2005 Cardinals' success is their middle infield defense. Dave Duncan, Joe Pettini and David Eckstein explain why.

Here we dig into a very important and rarely discussed aspect of the game – the defensive positioning of the middle infielders. This story is told in their own words by some of the Cardinals' most important contributors to this area of success – shortstop David Eckstein, pitching coach Dave Duncan and bench coach Joe Pettini.

As a point of reference, I suggest you read an interview I did with Pettini last season. Role of the Bench Coach

I caught up with the Cardinals in Washington during their previous road trip and asked Duncan about general process the team follows in terms of defensive preparations.

"Well, we keep track and try to set a general plan as to who is pitching. Generally, how we want to start with positioning and then you watch the game. If you think that somebody is doing something different, then you make adjustments. But, you just go into the game with a thought of where you're going to play each individual hitter. Sometimes situations in the game will determine a change in positioning," explained Duncan.

The pitching coach made it clear that each member of the coaching staff plays a role. "Tony pays attention. I pay attention. Joe Pettini is the guy that everybody looks at for the positioning or adjustments during the course of the game with the infielders and Dave McKay is the guy that will direct the outfielders during the game. They all pay attention to those two guys and if you think some kind of a positioning change needs to be made, then it gets made."

Given Pettini is the man earmarked to work with the middle infielders; I asked him if his preparation for the 2005 season was different, with Eckstein and Mark Grudzielanek both new to the team.

"I didn't really change the preparation. It has actually really turned out to be an improvement. I don't want to take anything away from the guys we had last year, but David Eckstein and Mark Grudzielanek do the same thing as far as preparation of our defense. What makes it so much easier for me this year is the fact that while David is new to the league and Grud, because essentially he has been around the league, these guys know…"

In getting ready to play in each new ballpark, I asked Pettini what he had specifically done that day in preparation for this group of Cardinals' first-ever stop in the Nation's Capital.

Before doing anything upon arrival, Pettini took photographic images of the ballpark and loaded them into his laptop computer. "The first thing I did was get my digital camera and went to the left side of the pitcher and to the right side and put in on the computer and cut it down so it will fit on one page and we set up where the positions are going to be right-handed straightaway and left-handed straightaway," said Pettini.

Once he had that information to go along with the histories of the hitters, the bench coach was ready to meet with the players. "I go through the positioning with each infielder prior to the series."

Pettini then opened his red binder, in which he holds the key information needed to position the Cards' defense. Two examples of its contents are included here. The photo above is a listing of all the players in the Washington starting lineup and from what side they hit. It designates where the infielders should be positioned when either a left-hander or right-hander is pitching as well as when the bases are empty or not.

On the right side of the page, Pettini captures real-time information from each at-bat as to where the ball traveled. That history information is kept for future use in charts like this one. All the Washington hitters are listed, along with every ball they've put in play against the Cardinals.

While it sounds complicated, Pettini has at least one prize student. "David especially, he goes and looks at it one time and he is very rarely, if ever, out of position."

But, even with all the preparation, this information is not the be-all, end-all. Pettini explained. "What it does for me is gives me a checkpoint, that I can look if a team that is supposed to be straightaway is near that or somebody forgets. You go through the lineup and with a pinch-hitter especially, I can tell then if I have to do any adjustments and then I do it."

Pettini acknowledges this is far from an exact science, but his job is made much easier because of the two players with whom he works most directly, Eckstein and Grudzielanek. "What we do with the positioning of the defense is not black and white. We're telling them where, preferably, we want them to play against this hitter or this pitcher, righty or lefty.

"What they do, both of them, is they improvise. They play the count, they play the situation and the hitters and how they're swinging the bat and how they got to a certain count. And, they position themselves accordingly based on what they are supposed to do. We tell them where we'd like them to play, but they both move on their own and they are both very good at it."

I asked Eckstein about the meetings and about the adjustments. From his comments, it is clear that he enjoys both the in-game flexibility he is granted and the challenge it presents.

"We have meetings where we talk about where we are going to play each guy and in this system, we have the ability to move ourselves in-game. So, it is not like we have to stand in one spot. If we can see a guy who is more pulling, then we can take the extra step to the hole to get ourselves into position. It is definitely key. A lot of our guys throw a lot of ground balls so we'll study hitters, trying to make adjustments. We're constantly looking, trying to get that little bit of an advantage to be in the right spot," explained Eckstein.

There is a lot of signaling going on between pitches during each at-bat. Pettini set up a situational example. "A lot of times, a hitter, we will be playing him straightaway, but a case in point, with a guy here, Vidro, with a runner at first base, he tries to pull the ball and take advantage of the hole at second base." (Pettini pointed at Jose' Vidro's entry on a page in his red binder.)

Pettini went on to share specifically what one of these adjustments might be. "What Tony (La Russa) likes to do a lot of times with left-handed hitters is to try shoot the hole with a runner at first base. Because the first baseman is holding, he'll ask me to move the second baseman over to try to cover that hole a little bit."

But, the enemy hitters aren't sitting still, either. The good ones are making their own adjustments, in what seems to elicit hundreds of small cat-and-mouse battles within each game, as Pettini reminded me. "Hitters have times when they are hot and hitters have times when they are cold. You might have a guy who you play as a dead pull hitter but when he's not hitting the ball as well, you might have to adjust and not play him as much to pull. He's actually making adjustments and trying to stay on the ball better. So, it is a constant thing. You're making adjustments. It's not a perfect guide, but what it does give you is the best chance to be in the right spot."

Eckstein was very clear that his defense changes not only by hitter, but also depending on who is on the mound for the Cardinals. "Take today, for example. Our reports will probably be a bit different because Mulder is pitching, when you have the left-hander on the mound, compared to Carp or Matty Mo. Matty Mo does a lot of cutters, so on a guy that might be straight up, I'll be going to the hole on a right-handed guy - just because he will be trying to get them a little off balance. I do that with each pitcher and each pitch they are going to throw. I am constantly trying to make adjustments, so I can be in a better spot."

As expected, in addition to communicating with the coaches during the game, the two middle infielders are busy keeping in synch with each other, too. "You'll see me talking a lot during the game (with Mark). You might see me go more up the middle or more in the hole. You'll see us doing that a lot, especially with runners on, just knowing exactly where we're going to be at," noted the shortstop.

Another aspect of Eckstein's approach remains consistent. Despite having played with multiple third basemen this season, it doesn't really affect where he plays.

"Scotty (Rolen) usually doesn't play as close to the line. He is usually more over. That means I don't have to go as far to the hole. Nuney (Abraham Nunez) will go more to my side, so that helps to cover the hole. Every once in a while, we'll have that."

Eckstein explains that the Cardinals and his former team, the then-Anaheim Angels start from the same base preparation, but make their adjustments differently. "We have the same meetings as they did. Alfredo (Angels first base coach Alfredo Griffin) would look in and they would be constantly moving us there.

"It is just a little more of an in-game-type thing over here. Pitch to pitch we'll be trying to take the gamble. If you see a runner on second base and you don't want him to steal third, we'll play right behind him. OK, you can have the hole there, but he is not going to steal third."

He continued. "That wouldn't happen in Anaheim. There we would have to try to hold them on and then get back and still try to cover the hole. But, here it is like Tony has his priorities. He says, "No, I don't want that guy to try to steal third." We're going to be in a position where they might get a cheap hit to the opposite side, but we're going to play right behind them and not let them get a running break toward third with less than two outs, so they won't have as good of a chance to score a run."

With a pitcher who is slow to the plate, like a Mark Mulder, I asked Eckstein if that was an example of when he would be playing behind the runner. "Oh yes. We'll be doing it a lot. We'll be standing right behind the runner at second base. Because if you give them any room – Mulder is about a 1.8 (seconds) to the plate – the guys can walk to third base."

But, it isn't all designed to make it easier for the infielder. Eckstein explains the benefit for the man on the mound. "It takes the pressure off the pitcher as he doesn't really have to concentrate as much on the runner, worrying about him trying to take third if we can be right there behind him with a threat of taking him out of the play. It is one of the things that we do every day that is a little bit different."

The coaches also play an important part in in-game defensive adjustments. And it isn't just the second baseman and shortstop that are moving. Pettini provided some examples.

"Jose' (Oquendo) a lot of times sits down near the end of the dugout near where I am and Tony will yell down to him when he wants them to move up to take a bunt away. So, he's right there to let them know. The corners – it is kind of tough to do that with – to see exact positioning like with the middle guys. The middle guys are right there so you can tell the adjustments. At third base and first base, there are not only adjustments left to right, but also up and back. That is too much. But, Tony usually takes care of the third baseman as far as bunting. Tony and Jose, they take care of the bunters, depending on who the bunters are."

One of the most concrete manifestations of the Cardinals' improved middle infield defense is their league-leading 187 double plays so far in 2005. Another is a statistic called range factor. It is a measurement of individual defensive prowess, defined as the number of chances (putouts plus assists) times nine divided by the number of defensive innings played.

Range Factor

2004

2004 MLB average for position

2005

Eckstein

3.83 (Angels)

4.56 (shortstop)

5.09

Grudzielanek

5.10 (Cubs)

5.01 (second base)

5.47

Both of the Cards middle infielders' improvement in range factor from year-to-year is quite striking. But, it isn't just the fielders alone. As Jerry Modene pointed out in his recent story on Eckstein's range factor, the Cardinals' ground ball-inducing pitching staff also plays an important role.

Duncan agrees that his hurlers play a crucial part in the Cardinals' defensive success. "Our pitching staff gets a lot of ground balls and that is one of the main reasons that we turn a lot of double plays. We try to emphasize keeping the ball in the bottom of the strike zone for that reason. We try to be a ground ball pitching staff and for the most part, I think we are."

But, when asked if he and his pitching staff share pride in the stellar double play results this season, Duncan aimed the praise right back at Grudzielanek and Eckstein. "That is a credit to who we have playing shortstop and second base. We have a couple of outstanding guys out there who are both very good at turning the double play. They're the ones that deserve the credit."

Not surprisingly, Pettini agrees. "David, as you know, came over from the American League and has helped us out with some of the hitters from over there that he knew and Mark has been such a great… I shouldn't say surprise… but he is playing Gold Glove-caliber second base. And I don't think there is any one in the league who can turn the double play better than him. Like I said, both of them position themselves and move themselves and we're making a lot more plays on both sides of second base and shortstop than we have in the past.

"They have to be able to catch the ball. They have to be able to know what they see from their position and to watch the pitchers and knowing the hitters and… both these guys have been a great improvement to our defense this year."

Amen to that!

Brian Walton can be reached via email at brwalton@earthlink.net.


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