Spring training is rife with stories about what improvements the team has made and what specific facets of the game players are honing in on and refining. So far we have seen reasons to be optimistic about the health and improvement of many of our core players. One major facet of the game -- the team's defensive play -- should be a major priority for the remainder of spring training, and in making final selections for the team roster.
Defensive play is hard to report on. Save for the top web gems during the regular season, defense doesn't usually make news stories. However, if the relative dearth of information that we have seen does reflect a reality where this part of the game has not been prioritized, then this may not bode well for seeing a rebound in 2013.
Pick any defensive metric you like; chances are that in 2012, the Rockies were dead last, or very close to the bottom of the pack. The team is aware that they need to improve on that in 2013. Wilin Rosario in particular has made sure to improve his play behind the plate. The team is aware of the defensive weakness around third base and the debate around who will start for the team has not ignored this aspect of the game.
As fans, we remember 2007 as sort of the holy grail of the Rockies seasons, and defensive play is no exception. Since we tend to remember the spectacular over the mundane, moments such as this brilliant pickoff play by Brian Fuentes and Jamey Carroll seemed to be the rule rather than the exception. The team achieved a record fielding percentage. That team committed only 68 errors, just over half of the 122 committed by the 2012 team. This was a team where the pitching staff were the benefactors of a tight defensive team with steady, rock-solid fielding.
A good defense does not require massive restructuring or blockbuster trades. It can be improved with the roster that we have by making it a focus for the remainder of spring training- perhaps second only to the sustained health and recovery of our core players who missed huge chunks of playing time last year. If these two things are improved then the team will see a rebound in 2013. The pitching staff defense disintegrated last year behind injuries and poor defensive play.
One metric that demonstrates this point is FIP-. This a park adjusted value which measures how much better the pitching staff was than the league average in Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP): Ranked from best to worst, the FIP- for the 5 NL West teams are shown below:
Do those results surprise you a little bit? Despite how dismal our pitching staff was in 2012, they were not that much worse than league average and not too far behind the Giants or Dodgers when it came to the three true outcomes -- strikeouts, home runs, and walks -- which are not affected by defensive play.
Much has been made of the front office and management's stated goal of finding ways for the pitching staff to succeed at Coors Field. Solid -- not even spectacular, but solid -- defensive play will go a long way in this regard. A tight defensive infield will boost the ability to get groundouts, which the pitching staff strives for. A strong defensive outfield can generate more more flyball outs, turn triples into doubles, or turn doubles into singles.
Solid defense is not a showstopper. Nor is it a panacea for all of the Rockies' struggles. That said, it should be made a top priority by the team, if it hasn't been, and the lack of news on this front concerns me.