Over the past few years, there has been a league-wide change in defensive approach. It used to be that most hitters were played similarly. Sure, the centerfielder would move more towards right field for a lefty, and fielders would generally make small changes depending on the hitter, but generally the defense stayed in the same place. There were some exceptions, as the Philadelphia Phillies’ Ryan Howard quickly comes to mind. That has changed drastically in the past few years. Now, teams are shifting on defense at a rate nearly six times higher than they did just three years ago, and more than 50% more than they did last season.
The Astros, in particular, shift a ton. They are on pace to triple the record for most shifts in a season, set by last year’s Orioles (595 shifts). Generally, shifts are endorsed by stat people, and they also make a lot of sense in most cases. Why not put more fielders where the hitter is likeliest to hit the ball, right? Well, I guess the Colorado Rockies just didn’t get the memo. According to Grantland’s Jonah Keri, the Rockies had shifted a total of 12 times this year, which is the lowest in the league. You would expect that the lack of shifts would hurt the Rockies, leading to a below average defense.
That hasn’t happened. In fact, the Rockies’ defense has saved 20 runs according to Baseball Reference. That is second in all of baseball, behind only the Atlanta Braves, who have the best defensive player in baseball (Andrelton Simmons). So if the Rockies haven’t shifted, how have they been so good defensively? It looks as if the Rockies’ brass have decided to improve their defense not with shifts, but by prioritizing good defensive players, Wilin Rosario and Michael Cuddyer aside. Now, while Troy Tulowitzki is a good defensive player, he isn’t the kind of guy I’m talking about. The Rockies definitely appreciate his fielding, but do you think they would take him out of the lineup if he were an average or even below average fielder? Absolutely not. No, I’m talking more about one guy who was called up in April of last season, and a few of the additions this off-season.
The most talented player on this defense is undoubtedly Nolan Arenado. We all know how good Arenado is defensively, and he’s recognized around the league for his defensive prowess. But Arenado wasn’t all that good offensively for much of last season, and he had a lot of really dry stretches with the bat. Would another organization have kept this guy in the lineup? It’s a tough call. But what I do know is that, through Arenado’s hot and cold streaks last season, the Rockies never wavered; they put him in the lineup every single day. As a result, the offense might have suffered a little, but the defense was so much better, and now the team is really reaping their rewards as Arenado’s bat continues to develop and his glove continues to dazzle.
But Arenado is just part of it. Also last season, the Rockies made an interesting decision: they sent Josh Rutledge to the minors, instead starting less-touted D.J. LeMahieu at second base every day. I don’t think anyone can dispute that Rutledge has much more offensive upside than the singles-hitting LeMahieu. But Rutledge is a career -8.1 defensively according to FanGraphs (including -3.2 last year), and LeMahieu is +15.1 career and +7.6 last year. And now he’s starting again this year and playing pretty well.
Look at some of the players the Rockies brought in this offseason. Brandon Barnes, Drew Stubbs, Paul Janish.. None of those guys have huge names or were applauded as signings/trades, but all have one thing in common: great defensive reputations. Barnes, Stubbs, and Janish are all well above average in their careers defensively, and even more importantly, all three play positions where it is vital to have a strong defensive player: shortstop and center field.
In a way, that’s just it. The Rockies have put a lot of money and thought not only into getting good defensive players, but getting good defensive players where it is really important. That was evident in free agency (the signing of Justin Morneau), and has been evident through the first month of the season. Rosario is the wildcard, because he has a bad defensive reputation but has actually been really good defensively this year according to FanGraphs (+2.5, fifth in the Big Leagues). So put him aside.
Outside of Rosario, the Rockies’ worst defensive players are Cuddyer, Morneau, and Carlos Gonzalez. Cuddyer and Morneau are well below average, and Gonzalez is probably right around average. But look at the positions those guys play. First base and corner outfield. Those positions have historically been the least important to the overall success of the defense, because the fewest balls are hit to the corner outfielders, and first base is probably the easiest position to fill defensively. Outside of those three and the wild card, everyone else is not just above average, but much better. The evidence supports that the Rockies know the importance of defense from center field, third base, shortstop, and second base.
They stuck with Arenado at third even when the going was tough. They picked LeMahieu over the more talented Rutledge once last year and again coming out of spring training at second base. They know Tulowitzki is their best player, and also knew enough to back him up with the best defensive shortstop available in Janish. And lastly, center field, the position that Charlie Blackmon is now doing so well defending (he’s also obviously picked up the slack offensively). But the clear emphasis in having a good defender at center goes beyond Blackmon and as far as bench outfielders Barnes and Stubbs.
Remember when Corey Dickerson had his great spring training and was supposed to make the team as the starting center fielder? That probably was never going to happen, simply because Dickerson hasn’t proven that he can play center. That’s the reason that both Barnes and Stubbs are currently ahead of Dickerson on the outfield food chain, even if Dickerson is absolutely smoking the ball.
The Rockies don’t shift much. Instead, they are simply better than most other teams at understanding the importance of good defensive players, but only at some positions. In the end, shifting might be helpful, but understanding personnel and the importance of defense up the middle and at third base is just as helpful. That’s why the Rockies are currently the second best defensive team in baseball, behind just Andrelton Simmons and the Atlanta Braves.