Right fielder Nick Markakis and the rest of the Braves’ outfielders have played a little deeper this year in the first season of intensive use of defensive analytics by the team. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

Analytics have helped Braves improve their defense

Soon after Alex Anthopoulos was hired away from the Dodgers to be the new Braves general manager in November, he brought Alex Tamin from the Dodgers to oversee an analytics department that would be significantly larger than the Braves ever used before.

A department operating with a bigger budget and producing much more information that would be supplied on a daily basis to manager Brian Snitker and his staff, who would then disseminate it to players.

While some old-school Braves staff members and players initially viewed the new way with a raised eyebrow and a “we’ll see” attitude, they are all believers now after a spring training spent implementing the new info and a few weeks of regular-season play in which it’s paid dividends every day and usually on multiple occasions per game.

Braves outfielders have been better positioned, getting to many fly balls in places where they seemed to drop in for hits in the past. And it’s become common to see shortstop Dansby Swanson lined up near second base or second baseman Ozzie Albies in the outfield grass -- not just in the standard shift defenses that most teams have deployed for years, but in a more sophisticated system designed for each opposing batter according to his tendencies in specific counts and against individual pitchers.

Welcome to a new age of Braves baseball, one that is a lot easier to embrace when the results are so evident and, oh yeah, the team is off to its best start in years.

“Every day we have a meeting. We have a hitters’ meeting and we have cards sent to us in our lockers,” Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman said, referring to index-like cards that each position player has tailored for him each day by the analytics staff. The cards list the opposing players’ tendencies and recommended defensive positioning. 

“There’s a lot of stuff going into it,” Freeman said. “Obviously it’s only been about 18, 19 games, but I think it’s paid off big-time so far.”

Freeman doesn’t take his card onto the field, but studies it thoroughly before games. Some players take the cards with them in the back pocket of their uniform pants. 

When Lane Adams replaced right fielder Nick Markakis during a double-switch recently, TV cameras picked up the moment when Markakis stopped and gave Adams the card Markakis had for right-field positioning in that night’s game.

Eric Young, a veteran former player and coach who’s in his first season as Braves first-base coach, handles the team’s outfielders and gives them all the analytics information. Third-base coach Ron Washington goes over all the analytics with his infielders. Both are old-school guys who’ve been around the game as players and coaches (and Washington as manager) for decades, as has Snitker.

And all have embraced an intensive use of analytics this season.

“I think overall we’ve played really good defense,” Snitker said. “I think the whole analytical thing and the defensive position and what Alex (Anthopoulos) and his team have brought in here have helped us. People ask me and I say, it works. I’ve seen it work already.”

Braves outfielders are setting up 5-10 feet deeper this season.

“Nick’s a little deeper and over in right-center than what he was last year, and I feel like there’s a couple of balls that he’s been catching on the track that were getting down (for hits in the past),” said Freeman, who also pointed to an example from the ninth inning of Thursday’s win against the Mets to illustrate different positioning by infielders than what the Braves used in the past.

“The double play with (reliever Peter) Moylan last night,” Freeman said, referring to a game-ending double-play grounder that Jose Reyes hit up the middle to Swanson, who stepped on second and threw to Ryan Flaherty playing first base. “I was already out of the game, and I was sitting next to Wash and they moved -- with a guy on first base we weren’t playing double-play depth; we were playing the positioning of where (Reyes) hits the ball. 

“So Ozzie was way over, and that’s why Dansby got to take that by himself. That’s all positioning. We weren’t even playing the double play, we were playing where he hits the ball. It’s almost taken the baseball (axiom) – where you’ve got to play double-play depth – it’s actually taken that out, and we’re just playing more where the hitter hits it most.

“There’s a lot of stuff that goes into it, and it’s paid off for us big-time, like last night.”

As a nine-year veteran first baseman, Freeman knows the tendencies of most opposing hitters and said he doesn’t take his card on the field because of that. But for younger infielders, it can be particularly beneficial to glance at on the field when needed. 

“I’ve played against these guys a lot so I just kind of know where to go on most of them,” Freeman said. “So the only (information) I’m looking at are, like, bunt threats. That’s when I look at the card, but I study it before I go out there.”

Some might have viewed it as information overload when the concept was presented to the Braves at the beginning of spring training. But after seeing how logical and useful the information was, after experiencing its practical applications, Braves fielders quickly came to appreciate it. 

“It makes sense,” Freeman said. “They’re not just doing data over 30 balls, they’re doing it over years. Obviously the numbers don’t lie, so we’ve been playing the numbers and it’s working out so far.”

Snitker said, “Alex Tammen is the one that heads all that up with his guys, and they’ve worked really hard. They’ve put a lot of time into all that information that they give us. And again, it’s like we said, it’s a tool. And it’s a really good tool. Just the daily information that we get on the game we’re about to play is pretty extensive compared to what we’re used to here (in the past). 

“It’s stuff that the guys are using and it’s good information, and it works. It’s not always going to work; it’s baseball. You play percentages. It’s not going to be 100 percent all the time. But I’ve been impressed with what we’ve done so far.

“The players have bought in, and I think the coaching staff has done a tremendous job of using the information and getting it to the players. I think the coaches are doing a spectacular job of getting it to the players. They’re not just beating them over the head with dull stuff. It’s useful information.”

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