Shrinking the outfield: The common sense series, part III

Justin Edmonds

In the final part of her series of Common Sense approaches to rebuilding the Rockies, Designated Columnist Cee Angi looks at the difficult problem of defense from a Rockies perspective.

The fifth inning on July 29, 2012, was a long one for the Colorado Rockies. Newly acquired lefty Jonathan Sanchez was on the mound and gave up a leadoff single to Zack Cozart, the third leadoff hit he had allowed that game. Drew Stubbs, who connected with the second pitch he saw, hit a line drive home run to left field to score two runs. Brandon Phillips flied out to center, good for one out, before Jay Bruce took Sanchez deep to right-center for another home run.

Sadly, that was a typical outing for Sanchez this year, no matter the venue, and manager Jim Tracy brought in right-hander Carlos Torres to stop the bleeding in the now 6-2 game. Torres struck out Todd Frazier looking and got Chris Heisey swinging. Ramon Hernandez threw the ball around the horn as Torres readied himself behind the mound for the next batter. All nine Rockies manned their positions, ready to get the next out.

So what's wrong with preparedness? Ordinarily nothing, but the Rockies already had three outs. None of the players on the field seemed to know the inning was over, though one suspects that at least one of them must have had an inkling but was afraid to move since no one else had. Perhaps Carlos Gonzalez was standing in left field saying, "Is that three outs? I swear that's three outs!" but it certainly wasn't evident he knew. Josh Rutledge, clueless, stood at short. Veteran Michael Cuddyer didn't budge. Somehow, neither of the managers did either. It wasn't until the home plate umpire walked to the front of the dish, help up three fingers and yelled (I'm paraphrasing here), "HEY! IDIOTS! You have THREE OUTS. GET OFF THE FIELD!" before everyone scampered off, humiliated, yet smiling.

This anecdote of ineptitude in the Sunday sun is a metaphor for a lot of Rockies-related failings. They are young and inexperienced, out of sync, and in need better leadership. Most importantly, I think, they are oblivious of to defense, and that translates into absent-minded players, errors, and ill-preparedness with gloves in hand.

The Common Sense Series Part III: Shrinking the Outfield

Almost 30 years ago, Bill James said that much of what we perceive to be pitching is actually defense. Subsequent research has only proved the truth of that. Rockies pitchers have a hard enough job dealing with the effects of altitude on their pitches and the distance that balls travel when hit without having to cope with an outfield of Dante Bichette types. The Rockies' 2012 FIP (4.59 FIP versus a 5.22 ERA) reveals that poor defense distorted their results this season, just as it's done in the past. It's another veil laid over what the park does that distorts our perception of the team's pitching.

Great pitchers might overcome some or all of these obstacles, but that's not something the Rockies currently possesses. The Rockies don't have pitchers who can escape from bases loaded jams by getting strikeouts (their strikeouts-per-nine was 7.2 this season, 15th in the league, and as a staff they have posted an above-average strikeout rate only twice in team history). Lacking that escape hatch, they must rely on a defense that by all measures has been the worst in the majors.

It's important to take a moment here to address the elephant in the room: Defensive metrics. Picking a favorite is a frivolous exercise because all the systems have limitations and biases, and it won't be until MLB chooses to share FIELDf/x that we will have anything resembling a concrete understanding of each player's defensive capabilities. Still, even though the current statistics are far from perfect, one thing is clear: all of them unequivocally dislike the Rockies, who were last in the majors as ranked by UZR, DRS, and Total Zone.

There was an article on this site in September that looked at batting average on balls in play and how the Rockies have ranked defensively over the past half-dozen seasons. As the table in that article indicates, these have mostly been bleak year for leather, but the team reached a new low in 2012. The author's assessment wasn't just a look at the numbers (which is good, since we're talking about defense here) but also an eye test on team's most obvious defensive flaws: Anyone who watched the Rockies regularly this season didn't need numbers to see that Jordan Pacheco, Chris Nelson, and Josh Rutledge were inadequate substitutes for Todd Helton, Troy Tulowitzki, and any mildly competent third baseman to be named later. Meanwhile, out in the outfield, Carlos Gonzalez had the consensus worst defensive season of his career.

Perhaps the best way to measure a team's performance on the field is Park-Adjusted Defensive Efficiency, or PADE, which was invented by James Click for Baseball Prospectus in 2003. PADE measures the percentage of all balls in play that a team's defense converts into outs with a park adjustment factor to account for the fact that it's harder to convert batted balls into outs in certain ballparks -- ballparks like Coors. Average PADE is close to 0.00 and a good defense typically has a value somewhere in the 2.00s and an excellent one in the 3.00s or higher. A bad defense has a negative number on the same scale. Much like the other metrics mentioned above, the Rockies have not fared well as measured by PADE. When comparing defensive performances over the past 62 years, the Rockies appear in the top ten worst performances as per PADE seven times. This season was particularly bad: The Rockies' defense ranked as the fifth-worst in history (and fourth-worst in franchise history), with a -4.82 in PADE, the worst in the league by a large margin.

Again, we know that defensive metrics are certainly far from perfect at this point, but for a team's performance to measure so pathetically in all of the metrics, we have to assume there's validity, even though we can question precision.

Another indicator of poor infield defense is the batting average allowed on grounders by the Rockies compared to the league average. The Rockies allowed a .255 average, higher than .238 league average, which mirrors what UZR says about the infield defense this season. Now, the infield will immediately get an upgrade if Tulowitzki and Helton are healthy and playing regularly, but in the latter case at least that is asking for a lot. Upgrades to the infield corners and second base seem like a must if the team is to improve.

If the pitching is mediocre and the defense his worse, how do the Rockies improve? One complication is that the he solution isn't just a matter of shaking the glove tree, but requires a balance of offense and defense -- see the Seattle Mariners under general manager Jack Zduriencik, who tried emphasizing defense over all things and created an offensive team of historic incompetence. Even if they wanted to, the Rockies can't pursue that kind of solution. A Rockies team akin to the historic "Hitless Wonder" White Sox would still be a massive loser, because even though they would save a lot of runs, Coors Field will naturally allow for a weak offense team to be out-homered.

Nevertheless, there are some halfway steps that the Rockies can take, perhaps by configuring their team in a way that goes against baseball tradition. A discussed in part two of this series, it's interesting to wonder what might happen if the Rockies focused on constructing a roster that could win games at home. Of course, they'd still have to win on the road, but if they took full advantage of the ballpark, they would be under less pressure on the road.

What if the Rockies created a lineup to mitigate the defensive disadvantages of Coors Field by realizing that the park's major impact on defense is mostly due to the size of the outfield? If the Rockies want to get crazy, and I submit a team that used an pitch count-restricted four-man rotation is, indeed, crazy, they could put three center field-caliber outfielders in the lineup nightly for their defense, even if it means sacrificing some offense to get those speed-oriented players on the field.

The obvious problem with this plan is that the infield has to be constructed with as many bats as possible to mitigate the likely shortfall in the outfield, but with a healthy Tulowitzki, the Rockies have a head start in that department. Because the game is designed to frustrate, big bats and great gloves are rarely found in the same body, so even this emphasis carries some inherent risk to the defense. That said, the infield defense was so porous this season that the Rockies could sign a mediocre glove with a good bat to play third and would still reap a major benefit.

Nonetheless, if the Rockies pursued this approach gradually over several seasons it could be a big advantage, especially where drafting is concerned -- they'd be one of the few teams prioritizing extremely toolsy outfielders that have good defense and speed, and could corner that market. On paper it still sounds a bit crazy, but when you think about it, if an infielder lets a ball through it's just a single. When an outfielder can't get to a ball in that expansive outfield, it's a double or triple.

I know what you're thinking: "Cee, you've written nearly 5,000 words on the Rockies this week and now you're delirious." Sure, it sounds counterintuitive to suggest that the way to deal with baseball's most extreme hitter's park is to staff the outfield with rabbits from Whitey Herzog's 1985 Cardinals, but again, run prevention is as much a problem of defense as pitching and the Rockies might never be able to pack in so much offense that they can completely mitigate the park's even-handed generosity to all hitters, home team and visitor alike, and overpower the opposition with brute force. What they can do is change the equation for the visitors by catching enough balls in the outfield that in essence Coors Field will play differently for the road team.

There are a few speed/defense outfielders on the market this season. The best defensive outfielder this season, as ranked by UZR, was Michael Bourn, who is a free agent, but he's obviously expensive and will require a long contract. There are a few less glamorous options like Gerardo Parra (who might be available since the Diamondbacks also have Jason Kubel), or Angel Pagan who, like Bourn, is also a free agent.*

*As a Hail Mary of genius, Dan O'Dowd should make a phone call to Jeffrey Loria to see if he can fix the outfield long-term by saving Giancarlo Stanton from obscurity in South Beach. Not only is Stanton one of the best defensive outfielders, he has hit .360/.467/1.120 with six home runs in 30 plate appearances at Coors.

If you're not catching the ball and converting it into outs, you've got to figure out how to make the happen --and even small upgrades make a difference. The 2001 Mariners, the best defense since 1950 according to PADE, saved 47 more runs in a season than the average outfield, a credit to the ability of Ichiro Suzuki and Mike Cameron. That represents a swing of roughly five wins. The 1999 Reds, the second-best according to PADE, also thanks to Mike Cameron and Jeffrey Hammonds (along with a big helping of Pokey Reese on the infield side). Since the Colorado outfield is so big, the impact of outstanding outfielders could be even greater for them than for other team.

The same is true for all of the common sense approaches to a better Rockies future: Though some of it seems obvious, it's about implementation, not just good intentions.

Cee Angi is one of SBN's Designated Columnists, one of the minds behind the Platoon Advantage, and the author of Baseball-Prose. Follow her at @CeeAngi.

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