Erik Bakich has said in the past he believes his staff is leading the way on analytics. The defensive shift has taken over baseball, and Michigan is no stranger to using any advantage it can to make the difference.
“That’s a big picture over the long haul type of situation,” Bakich said. “So a few may have squeezed through and found a hole today, but over the course of the season by playing the non-pull side infielder more up the middle, we will actually take more hits away up the middle doing that.”
On Wednesday afternoon against Toledo, it seemed to hurt the Wolverines as senior infielder Blake Nelson saw several balls pass him after he shifted. In this case, the defensive shift didn’t pay off. But at the end of the day, it didn’t matter, as the Wolverines won, 8-2, and hope their shifts continue to pay dividends as the season progresses. And while it may seem strange to a casual fan that the defenders are leaving entire swaths of the field open, Bakich is firm in his belief that the method works.
“So, over the course of the season when the metrics are calculated and we look back at it, it’s going to be way more in the positives in our favor,” Bakich said. “Even those three or four balls that got through today — we’ve had so many outs up the middle just by having that non-pull side infielder up there behind second base.
“You see more fly balls that are hit, just across the board, you see more fly balls that go to the opposite field than more ground balls that go to the pull side. So we defend that a lot.”
The shifts are based on if the batter is right or left-handed. If the batter is right-handed the defense will often shift to the third base side. The shortstop moves closer to third and the second baseman moves to replace the shortstop. The scheme is simply flipped for left-handed hitters.
The defensive strategy seems to have paid off as Michigan’s team fielding percentage of .973 is second in the Big Ten only behind Illinois at .979. To come up with the defensive shifts, Bakich and his staff have to do more than just look at stats. The coaches have a substantial process to decide how to set up the defense.
The Wolverines utilize several companies for this. To look at their opponents hitting Michigan uses 6-4-3 Charts which gives the spray charts of their opponents. The Wolverines try to identify opponents’ tendencies on video using a company called Synergy.
“We watch all of our opponents each week,” Bakich said. “And then we know how our pitchers pitch and what our plan is against their hitters. And then we just try to put our guys where the opponents are gonna hit the ball.”
Michigan’s unique personnel allows it to be even more aggressive than most teams on defensive shifts. For opposing teams, the bold shifts add to the challenge of playing against such a tough defensive team in Michigan.
“There’s not as many ground balls hits that are hit the other way,” Bakich said. “Certainly not down the opposite field line on the ground. Which is why we have our corner guys so far off the lines most of the time. When you have an athlete like Jordan Brewer or Jimmy Kerr or whoever it is; you’re just shrinking the field.”