Nick Leyva is heading into his 36th season of professional baseball, but when it comes to positioning an infield, he isn’t as old-school as you might think. The Pirates’ third base coach still uses his instincts and experience — but he also relies on data supplied by Dan Fox, the team’s director of baseball systems development.
Leyva, on data and defensive alignments: “The game has definitely changed. People talk about being old-school, but I think the numbers and the tools we have now have made our jobs a lot easier. As far as the analytical part of the game goes, we never had those opportunities.
“I remember working for Whitey Herzog. Whitey was a stickler on stats and on positioning players, but he did everything by pencil. When I first started doing this — believe it or not — our defensive alignments were done with colored pencils. I’ll give you an example: Bob Forsch was red. I looked at the sheet and everything that was red was where an individual hit the ball off of him. John Tudor might be brown. Joaquin Andujar might be orange. We did that all ourselves and it was stored in a booklet. Nowadays you can push a button. That definitely makes our jobs easier, but only if you know how to use the data.
“A good thing about doing it by pencil was that when I wrote something down, it stuck in my head. Nowadays you read so much stuff — and go through it so fast — that maybe one little thing, one key note, doesn’t stick in your head. You have to be careful with that. Our guy, Dan Fox, provides us with a lot of information.
“As coaches — and I think Clint [Hurdle] would tell you the same thing — a lot of it still comes down to gut feeling. I set the defense on the infield and I can see how our pitcher is throwing and how a hitter is swinging. I know if he’s hot, and a lot of times you can tell by someone’s swing what he‘s trying to do. You can also throw a lot of the data out the window if you don’t have a pitching staff that can locate and pitch according to how we’re defensing the other team. That said, you have to play the percentages.
“We have pretty lengthy meetings with our advance scouts. We’ve also recently hired Dave Jauss to help us out in that area. We cover everything thoroughly. Our pitching coach starts out by saying, ’This is how we’re going to pitch to [an individual hitter].’ Then I’ll come in and say, ‘This is the way we’re going to defense him in the infield.’ Then Luis Silverio, our outfield guy, will let everyone know how we’re going to defense him in the outfield. I even go to the extreme of what he’ll do with a runner on first base. Does he try to hit that hole? With two strikes, does he shorten up and just try to make contact? A lot of stuff comes into play.
“Having a good shortstop makes your whole infield. It helps to have a guy that can take charge and has been around the league a little bit. This year we’ve got Clint Barmes, who is a student of the game. Clint goes on the computer — to the BATS system that we use — and looks at defense. Based on the way he’s playing — as far as hands and range and true consistency — he’s probably our best infielder right now.
“I run the infield, but [the shortstop] and I need to be on the same page. It’s one of those situations where you have to show respect to your guys who have been around for awhile.
“Neil Walker has a full year under his belt now at second base. Your up-the-middle guys are important. You’ve heard the old cliché about how you’re only as good as you are strong up the middle. You need to have a good catcher, and we picked up Rod Barajas, a veteran guy. We have some veteran guys up the middle now with Neil and Clint, and we obviously have Andrew McCutchen in center field. We’re a lot better this year because of that, our ability to be sharp up the middle.”
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