Just five short years ago, the Rockies' fielding was the talk of Major League Baseball. Most notably, the 2007 club set a record for team fielding percentage (.98925). Lest we sneeze at that because it's fielding percentage, the Rockies were 5th in the National League in Defensive Runs Saved, 3rd in the NL for RZR, and 2nd in the NL for Defensive Efficiency. Given this stellar defensive play, the Rockies had the 15th best UZR in all of baseball in 2007.
Wait, 15th? Only league average in the catchall "Ultimate Zone Rating?" How could that be? Well, this article in the 2008 Hardball Times Baseball Annual helps to explain the conundrum. The 2007 Rockies weren't spectacular at making plays out of their zone. In fact, they were middle of the pack. But the 2007 Rockies overcame their lack of team speed and range by making the plays on balls hit to them, as evidenced by their record fielding percentage (.989), as well as their Defensive Efficiency (.701) and league-best ErrR (19.8). What the Rockies lost in range, they more than made up for in clean play.
How things have changed. The 2012 Rockies were dead last in Defensive Runs Saved (-88), much worse than the 2nd-worst Astros (-70), who in turn were much worse than 3rd-worst Cleveland (-51). The 2012 Rockies also were last 2nd to last in UZR (-41.6). As Andrew Martin noted back in October, the defense cost the Rockies nine wins in 2012.
The reasons for the poor defensive play aren't hard to identify. As compared to the rest of the league, the Rockies have slipped from mediocre to well below average when it comes to range (e.g., 27th in OOZ in 2012). But the really troubling tumble has come from poor fielding on balls within the range of the fielder. The 2012 Rockies, for example, were last in the league in Defensive Efficiency (.657) and fielding percentage (.980), 2nd to last in RngR (-41.1), and 25th in ErrR (-5.0). Unlike their 2007 counterparts, the 2012 Rockies' fielders were dramatically worse in cleanly fielding balls hit to them in their vicinity.
The weak spots aren't hard to identify, either. Bill James' 2013 Handbook has a breakdown of Defensive Runs Saved by team and position. The trouble areas for the Rockies were third base (a league worst -32), shortstop (a league worst -24), right field (-11) and catcher (-11). At third base, neither Chris Nelson nor Jordan Pacheco scored well on balls hit outside their range, but they also scored poorly on balls hit within their range. At shortstop, Josh Rutledge pretty much gave what could be expected from him on plays outside of his zone, but still suffered with poor fielding within his range. In right field, Michael Cuddyer and Tyler Colvin not surprisingly had better fielding numbers than their infield counterparts (given the inherent bias of fielding metrics), but suffered from limited range. And as for catcher, poor Wilin Rosario's struggles are common knowledge, and overshadowed Ramon Hernandez's own subpar numbers.
What does this portend for next year? Some worries, but some reasons for hope, too. The team range isn't likely to improve at third base or right field, with Nelson and Pacheco penciled in to play third base and Cuddyer and Colvin playing in right field. But as the 2007 Rockies demonstrated, limited range can be overcome, or at least mitigated, by clean play.
Some help is on the way with a healthy Tulowitzki at shortstop and Rutledge sliding over to second. It may also improve, as Thomas Harding argued yesterday, with better pitching that will keep the defense alert. But much more importantly, playing sound defense on balls within the fielder's range should be, and likely will be, a point of emphasis for a new manager well remembered for his defensive play. At the very least, emphasizing clean defense is consistent with Dan O'Dowd's remarks last month that the team needs to better focus on the issues that are "controllable."
Defensive metrics are still a bit dubious, at least as applied to some players and context (one context, as Buster Olney noted yesterday, perhaps being Coors Field). For example, Michael Cuddyer had DRS and UZR scores last year better than both Dexter Fowler and Gold Glove winner Carlos Gonzalez. So the numbers don't tell the whole story, or an entirely accurate story, about the defense. But we do know that the 2012 Rockies were pretty bad when it comes to fielding in ways that don't depend on speed or range but, instead, on cleanly catching and accurately throwing the baseball. That can improve, and must improve, for the team to compete in 2013.
Buster Olney (ESPN Insider) - Top 10 Outfields in MLB: In yesterday's blog (subscription required), Olney ranked the 10 best outfields going into 2013. The Rockies didn't make the cut for two reasons. Defense, as noted above, was one of them. I'll let you guess the other.
Very little in Hot Stove action on New Year's Day, other than David Price reportedly avoiding arbitration with the Rays by signing a one-year deal believed to be around $10 million, and Brett Myers signing a one-year deal with Cleveland. In the rumor mill, Seattle apparently has had some discussion with Miami about acquiring Giancarlo Stanton, as reported by FOX Sports' Jon Morosi. However, a source described the deal to Morosi as "doubtful."
Jon Heyman tweeted yesterday that Brandon Webb will throw a bullpen session for "several interested teams" in Arizona later this month. No word on whether the Rockies are involved, but one report suggests the Twins will send an observer.
Finally, today's the 101st anniversary of Charles Hercules Ebbets' historic announcement that he would build a new brick-and-steel ballpark for his Brooklyn club. While he wouldn't be the first to build such a park, he was the first to do so in New York, and it represented major progress both for Brooklyn and the sport. The park opened in 1913, and the Dodgers would play at Ebbets Field for 44 years before relocating to Los Angeles after the 1957 season.