- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 27, 2015

When Matt Williams was named manager of the Washington Nationals, he created a new position on the coaching staff for Mark Weidemaier. Now in the midst of his second season as defensive coordinator and advance coach, Weidemaier is responsible for orchestrating and implementing scouting reports on opposing hitters, shifting and shading Washington’s defense to prevent hits. The Washington Times recently caught up with Weidemaier to discuss the Nationals’ string of early errors, his defensive philosophy and his baseball career as a whole.

You were a scout for a lot of years. How did you get here, to your current job with the Nationals?
 “You know, my specialty’s kind of the infield stuff. So in spring training [in Arizona], Matt and I were always working together, doing the infield on the same field. So we developed a bond. It was not the last year there — the first year, in 2011, we won the division. … I think that was the year Matt said, ‘Hey, whatever happens, why don’t you stick around. I’m going to manage this fall league team, why don’t you help me the first couple weeks?’ We had workouts to get ready for the season. So I did, and we got closer. And he started talking about, ‘Hey, listen. I’m going to get a managing job one of these days, I hope, and if I do, I want you to come with me as a coach. Not just an advance scout. I want you to be with me in uniform.’ And sure enough, things worked out here. Last year, he brought me over here with him. One of the key things, I think, that made us attractive was the last year we were in Arizona, we had the best defense in baseball — fielding percentage, least runs allowed per the opposition. So with my reports coming to him and then him meeting with the guys like we do here —and I handle that here, putting together the schemes and how we’re going to play guys positionally — I think we did really well. I think that was a selling point here, because their defense hadn’t been very good. Now having said all that, we’ve had our hands full here.”

Q: With all those errors early in the season, fans were saying, “Oh, you have to improve the defense.” I’m curious: Is there really anything you can do to improve that?
A: “We’ve done a couple things. It all comes back to repetition: More work, more grounders, more focus on what you’re doing out there. And the way you do that is to give them more work, right? So, we’ve got a deal now where — and we’ve loosened up a little bit, and as it starts to get hot, we’ll loosen up a bit more — but we bring all the guys, middle-infielders, out at 3:30 [p.m.]. Nobody around. Don’t have to worry about batting practice balls being hit, flying around. You’ve got a clean surface. We bring the corner guys out at 3:45, and we really just accentuate, give them quality time. Some of them don’t even need groundballs during batting practice, because it’s a pretty good workout. A few guys keep taking a few just to stay loose. But that’s one thing we’ve done to say, ‘Hey, make it a priority.’ We’re going to give you a chance on a clean infield, without balls flying around, let’s just work on it. Pay attention to it. Guys, I think they just put more effort into it. And we’ve had the same guys out there for a while now, so there’s been more continuity.

“And I will say, [Yunel] Escobar’s been fabulous. I mean, this guy, we brought him in here to play second, then we tell him, ‘You’re going to go to third.’ And he’s done it with a smile, and he’s worked his [butt] off. His work — he comes out here, he’ll get on his knees, I’ll hit him balls on the grass. He fields them forehand, backhand. Then he gets up, takes short fungoes. Then he goes deep. Every play: forehand, backhand. Turns double plays, with energy and enthusiasm. For him, it ain’t work. He likes doing it. He’s having fun. But that, if you understand what I mean, that kind of rubs off, that enthusiasm. And because he’s really good at it, guys are like, ‘Oh, let’s all get into that.’ He’s had an impact. No question.”

Q: What’s your philosophy on shifts? I know you guys have done that a little bit this year, but not much.
A: “Well, it’s interesting that you should ask that, because last year there was a lot of talk about it. I think the public’s perception is a little bit inaccurate, OK? Shifting is when you have three infielders on one side, which is a pretty severe deal. We do, against the Yankees, we did more of it because there’s more guys according to all the charts we get — which, we have a multitude of information, spray charts, percentages — they have a lot of guys who pull the ball, so we tended to be a little more extreme. We do a lot more of what I call shading. In other words, we’ll play a guy strong up the middle. We’ll play a guy way off the line, way on one side, but we don’t put three infielders on one side, and to me, that’s a shift. We don’t do that a whole hell of a lot. A lot of what we do, we try to tie into what our pitchers do. A lot of teams, they don’t give a [crap] what the guy pitching does. They’re going to go off the book, what the hitters do. We really tend to blend it with our pitchers, and there’s certain guys that don’t want that. They’d rather be more straight-up or more shade, but not a shift. The thing I think a lot of people don’t really understand is three infielders on one side, that is a shift. But you’re going to see us play a lot of guys, [Ian Desmond], hard up the middle. Our second baseman, play to pull. [Ryan Zimmerman] will be way off into what we call the four-hole in between second and first. So, we do a lot of that, which I think puts guys in the right position.

“But I think people got caught up on the shifting, shifting. Well it’s not that we overplay all the time, but we do shade. We do play to percentages a lot. Not three guys on one side. That’s the big difference. And when you’re talking the outfield, which a lot of people don’t think about, we do a lot of that, shading in the outfield. Now you overshift in the outfield, it’s pretty dangerous, because there’s nobody behind those guys. In the infield, there’s somebody behind you. You’ve got to be a little more neutral in the outfield. But we have meetings before every series, before every new opponent, where we go over every hitter and how we’re going to play them. Then I have a sheet that we actually, it’s in plastic, but I post it right there, versus right-handed pitching and versus left-handed pitching, where every guy pull, straight up, hard middle, so they can refer to that during a game, if they have any questions.”

Q: So in terms of shading and shifting, how much of that do you do compared to other teams in the league?
A: “Well, it’s been proven, we’re probably not even in the top 20. I don’t know. I’ve seen stats where we’re down there. But I think they’re going off of shifts. They don’t look at shades. They look at three on one side. Astros are big at it, Tampa’s big at it. I just had, one of our guys gave me some stats, I think Tampa and maybe the Yankees do a lot of it, and they’ve held the batting averages down. The Astros do the most, and actually they’ve hit higher against their shifts, so you can’t get crazy with it. And I think, like the commissioner talking about doing away with it, are you [freaking kidding] me? No. 1, if you’ve got three guys on this side, the whole other side of the field’s open. We’re going to hit the ball that way. But we’re not that extreme as a lot of teams are. And also I think you have to take into consideration your athletes and what kind of range they have. Do you really need to do that? When we’ve got a guy like Danny Espinosa who has great range, we don’t need to. He could still be on this side of second, hard middle, and still get the ball that’s even on the shortstop’s side. It’s relative to your personnel. And we try to take that into consideration.”

Q: This your second year doing this. You’ve done just about every job in baseball. Which one was your favorite?
A: Well, this is the best job. I’ve never had a bad job in baseball. Early on — and hell, I managed in the Mexican League, I’ve been to winter ball for 28 years in one capacity or another — coming up, I really had two goals. One of them was to be a field coordinator, which I did, and an advanced scout, which I did. I’m not sure when I started — I’ve been in advance for a long time, damn near 20 years — I started saying, ‘You know what? I can [freaking] coach in the big leagues.’ And getting this opportunity, [shoot], I’m 60, it’s a dream come true. These are the greatest players in the world, and the best cathedrals, ballparks, in the world. There’s no higher league. These are the best players. Whether they play like it every night or not, they’re the best players. So, it’s the most fun. And the other big thing — I loved advancing because it was the closest thing to being on the field. For the Dodgers for all those years and Arizona, I coordinated major league spring training, but then I would break off to start scouting our opponents, in the advance scouting role. Well, the thing you miss most is 7 o’clock. It’s the competition of being in the dugout close to the action, you know what I mean? The competitive juices, which you still get doing that advance job, but you’re not right here where the action is. And that’s a lot of fun. Gametime is a lot of fun, being a part of that. So, it’s the best job I ever had. Bottom line. So, that’s about it.

“It’s been a good ride. Matt’s been great. I didn’t play in the big leagues, so I didn’t have a bubble gum card that was going to get me a job because of my reputation. I had to have a sponsor, and he was my guy. I couldn’t have picked a better one. I think he’s a tremendous manager. I think he’s going to be even better. I think he’s getting better, and he was Manager of the Year last year. His personality, his playing background, his competitiveness, his ability to teach — he’s the total package. So, it’s really neat to be with a guy like that. And he gives me a lot of authority to do my job, to run things on the defensive side, which there’s some guys you work for who micromanage. You’re kind of like, ‘Uh, am I just here to throw BP and hit fungoes?’ But I get to do a lot. I get a lot of input. So, it’s good. It’s good.”

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