2011 Marlins Season Preview: Reading up on Perry Hill’s plans


Today’s preview is once again related to defense, a topic the Marlins have struggled with and I have harped on for quite some time. With the return of former infield coach Perry Hill, the Marlins feel like they have given their defense the best chance to succeed in 2011. Given the changes that the team is making on defense, fans are hoping that this is true. But how can one coach have such a strong supposed effect on professional ballplayers?

Well, this interesting read from USA Today sheds some insight on how Perry Hill prepares his players defensively. I figured it was worth a look to see the kind of drills the Marlins players were being run through in order to improve on the fielding aspect of the game. Here are some of the highlights of that article along with my responses.

“A lot of people know how to teach the game,” says Marlins infielder Greg Dobbs, a seven-year major leaguer who met Hill this spring. “Few know how to teach the game well. In two days, he made me focus on very small but very important things. He’s the master of teaching the absolute fundamentals of baseball.”

Hill comes with a strong reputation, and it is always good to hear that the players are receptive to his ideas. Still, a focus on “very small but very important things” and “the absolute fundamentals of baseball” sounds an awful lot like a focus on cutting down on errors. While the Marlins haven’t been good in terms of committing errors, the team also has problems outside of that aspect of fielding.

Hill’s unmistakable chatter has taken over another day in spring training camp. It’s shortly after 9 a.m., and the infielders are playing catch, knocking the morning cobwebs out of their brains and the dew off the grass.But it’s not just catch. Hill’s eyes dart from the stopwatch in his hand to the players, all the while twirling his fungo bat and explaining to three minor league coaches what their roles will be in the upcoming drills.

Everything is timed, even the warm-up tosses. The daily infield drills are woven into a schedule that includes batting practice, baserunning drills, all the staples of spring training. But Hill is going to make certain his guys get the full defensive treatment.

These sort of stories are often shown as a positive in terms of the ways a coach motivates his players. However, I wonder how different this aspect of coaching is between coaches; how dedicated was former Marlins infield coach Andy Fox compared to Hill? Given that I’ve read articles about the similar methods Fox used with Marlins infielders during his time here (Fox was a former Marlin infielder who played during Hill’s first tenure as infield coach), I figure that Fox used very similar methods and scheduling.

First basemen Dobbs and Gaby Sanchez take turns on their knees in the grass in front of first base. Hill slashes increasingly harder one-hoppers at them. He wants them to bring the balls to the middle of their gloves in front of the middle of their bodies.

“Hands first, prepare to throw, just like as a hitter prepares to hit,” Hill says of another drill in which fielders stand with their feet wide apart while taking grounders. “You want to be able to see the ball and glove in the same view. It’s the same as the ball and the bat.”

Hill often compares his drills to how hitters prepare. He knows how to get the attention of players who’d much rather be in a batting cage.

This particular drill is another one heavily focused on fundamentals. With the improvement of various players on their hands and how well they handle grounders, I wonder if this is more of a drill for repetition rather than that of teaching skills.

Now, it gets tricky. Hill quickly reviews what’s next with the coaches. Newcomers such as Dobbs and rookie third baseman Matt Dominguez (he’s Domingo to Hill) double-check their roles with teammates such as Emilio Bonifacio (Boni) because as many as three balls will be moving around the infield at once.

The goal is for everyone to maintain a fast pace and to be working together.

In the first drill, a shortstop fields a grounder and throws to a second baseman covering second base and, at the same time, a third baseman fields and throws to first base. That’s just two balls.

Next is three balls in which one first baseman fields a grounder in front of the base and throws to a shortstop at second base, while a second baseman fields another ball and throws to another first baseman at first … and, the third basemen take turns handling grounders and tossing them back to a coach hitting them from home plate. The three coaches, including Hill, are fanned out in front of the plate putting the balls in play with precise timing.

Outside of saving infield time, I’m not sure what this drill is accomplishing. My guess is that having so many activities occurring on the field at once forces players to remain focused on their tasks at hand come actual game time. In the same way that using a donut on a bat makes swinging more difficult and makes the load of a normal bat weight feel much lighter, perhaps Hill feels that making players focus with the chaos of three or four balls running around at the same time will make focusing on one ball in play during an actual game a lot easier.

“I’m thinking, ‘What are we doing?’ ” [former Marlins second baseman Luis] Castillo says of his first experience with Hill. “You know what? I felt so good in the infield after all that. He’s a smart man. He is a very positive person and the best infield coach I’ve ever worked with.”

Luis Castillo had a lot of good things to say about Hill and his effect on Castillo’s defense. Castillo was already quite a talented defender before Hill arrived, but his numbers do suggest at least an improvement once Hill began coaching the Marlins in 2002. In particular, Hill did a good job on cutting down Castillo’s errors, which did ad value to an already rangy defender.

The Hill method starts in the clubhouse and continues through the games.

Many of the Marlins wear T-shirts under their jerseys that Hill has been handing out for years with the phrase, “27 Outs, No More.”

Again, a focus on cutting down on errors is fine, and it certainly is better than nothing. In addition, Hill has mentioned that he is not going to get on the players for making “aggressive errors” in which an error was made primarily because of the difficulty of a given play. Still, the Marlins need assistance in more than just making sure mistakes are minimized. The team is not rangy, and I have heard that Hill’s other emphasis will be on proper positioning.

And [Hill] has put tiny plugs, similar to golf tees, into the dirt for home games to help with positioning.

He declines to discuss the practice, but managers and players who have worked with him, including Castillo, swear by its effectiveness as a means to put into practice Hill’s meticulous studies of positioning against each opponent.

The plugs are reference points the fielders can use, Castillo says, because during games the coaches, who are responsible for positioning the fielders, have one of the worst seats in the stadium for the task — at ground level and off to one side of the field.

This was the aspect of Hill’s coaching in which I had the most interest. Unsurprisingly, he did not give away his entire trade secret to an article, but it would have been interestin to hear more about how he manages the positioning of the players on a PA by PA basis. It would also be interesting to see how the team communicates these changes. To this point, all I have really heard about Hill’s system of positioning is about the plugs and their placement on the field.

It is doubtful we will get to hear much more than that, but this system and its implementation may be the most beneficial aspect of Hill’s hiring for the Fish. As I have mentioned here before, the Marlins have a had a problem in the past with range, not necessarily errors. In fact, the team has dropped its error count for the most part; Hanley Ramirez in particular had drastically improved in the error department since 2007. We’ll see how these systems and others affect the Marlins’ infield defense, but any assistance that Hill can ultimately provide will be of use for the Fish.

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