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Defensive shifts are less important than personnel, but the Colorado Rockies can stand to benefit by using them more

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In 2013, the Rockies had one of the most efficient infields despite not shifting very much. But that trend did not continue in 2014.

Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Late last April, I asked about the Rockies and the infield shift, by which I mean extreme shifts wherein three infielders are on one side of second base. I investigated the extent to which the Rockies used the infield shift along with how effective or ineffective the infield was in turning groundballs into outs. At the beginning of my research, I expected to write your standard blog post critical toward an ostensibly analytics-blind front office: "The Rockies don’t shift enough. Not shifting enough is bad. Therefore, the Rockies should shift more." Compounding the problem, I thought, was the team’s emphasis on ground-ball pitchers.

What I found was at once more surprising and more interesting. Using 2013 as a foundation, I showed that the Rockies were, indeed, among the least shifty teams in baseball; however, at the same time they were also among the best in turning groundballs into outs—seventh best in baseball, to be precise. And they did so while finishing third in ground-ball percentage and second in groundballs induced. The trend continued during the first month of the 2014 season. The Rockies ranked last in baseball for shifts deployed at the time the article went up, but they were among the best at turning groundballs into outs. I concluded that while the Rockies could still improve by shifting more, the team’s lack of shift deployments was not really hurting the team.

Below, I look at how well that trend held up for the remainder of 2014, with a glimpse ahead to the upcoming season.

★★★

The 2014 results were mixed. Two trends continued: The Rockies finished the season with the fewest shifts deployed (according to The Bill James Handbook 2015), and they maintained a high ground-ball percentage, finishing third in baseball behind the Pirates and the Dodgers. The course that did not persist was the Rockies’ superior ability to turn groundballs into outs. According to Baseball Reference, the Rockies ranked 18th in baseball in batting average against on groundballs. Opposing batters hit .251. Against the Pirates—a team that ranked first in ground-ball percentage and sixth in number of shifts deployed—batters hit .226 on groundballs. That was fourth-best in baseball in 2014.

For these reasons, the Rockies' counterintuitive 2013 results of few shifts yet excellent results did not carry over to 2014 to the same degree. However, despite being the team with the fewest shifts, the 2014 Rockies were still better at turning groundballs into outs than 12 teams that shifted more. Not only that, but they did so while inducing the largest number of groundballs in all of baseball.

To determine why the team took a turn for the worse, we have to start with personnel. The numbers above must be contextualized by the time that Troy Tulowitzki and Nolan Arenado missed. In 2013, both played more than 1,000 innings at third base and shortstop, respectively, while in 2014 both played fewer than 1,000. But for a team that places such an enormous emphasis on ground-ball pitching, pointing to injuries is unsatisfactory. One of the conclusions I drew last year was that deploying more shifts could make a good situation even better. Likewise, in the event of injury, doing so can potentially also improve a bad situation. It’s not easy to replace Arenado, Tulowitzki, and their gloves, but strategizing defensive placement might be at least small compensation. The catch, however, is that shifts can't be a "break glass in case of emergency" strategy. All of the players have to be convinced of its effectiveness.

We can learn more about the utility of the shift, as well as the value that Tulo and Arenado offer, by comparing the specifics of what happened 2013 to 2014. In particular, when dealing with groundball efficiency it’s worthwhile to divide the baseball diamond in two and look at groundballs hit to the left and right sides.

The following four hit heat maps, from the excellent resource Baseball Savant, help us here. The first two images chart all groundballs the Rockies’ pitching staff gave up either hit to or fielded by the third baseman, the shortstop, or the left fielder. The second two track groundballs either hit to or fielded by the first baseman, second baseman, or the right fielder. In general, that means balls hit to the left and right side of the infield, although balls fielded by any position player while in the shift are also tracked. The heat maps track hit frequency.

2013

2014

2013

2014

In 2013, the Rockies were fifth-best in baseball at turning groundballs hit to the left side into outs, as opponents hit .188. But in 2014, the Rockies ranked 19th in this area, and opposing batters hit .231. Compare the first two maps above. Note how small the dense area in left field is in the 2013 map as opposed to the 2014 one. This suggests that fewer balls made it through the left side in 2013. In 2014, the left side was a bit more porous.

The Rockies maintained their ground-ball efficiency on the right side of the infield. When hitters put the ball on the ground toward the first and second baseman and the right fielder in 2013, they had an average of .188 that was good for 16th in baseball. In 2014, the batting average against was .187. The figures are practically the same, although the .187 batting average against ranked 12th in baseball in 2014, so it was a better season relative to the other 29 teams. The final two maps above reveal that right-side infielders in 2014 had more range than in 2013. This makes sense from a personnel standpoint. DJ LeMahieu was the only player to get regular time at second for the 2014 Rockies, and although he also played the most innings at second in 2013, Josh Rutledge, an inferior defender, still got his fair share. And at first, Justin Morneau in 2014 gave the Rockies more range than the combination of the almost 40-year-old Todd Helton and Jordan Pacheco in 2013.

The players on the field are more important than where they are placed on field. The Rockies’ groundball efficiency in 2013 is evidence of that, as is the right-side proficiency in 2014. But that doesn’t mean placement is insignificant. The left side defense in 2014 still had a whole lot of Nolan Areando and Troy Tulowitzki. Arenado played 68 percent of third base innings, while Tulo played 52 percent of shortstop innings. All of the innings given to Charlie Culberson and Josh Rutledge can explain a little bit of why the Rockies left-side efficiency declined from fifth to 19th in baseball. But I can’t shake the feeling that more strategic use of shifts could have made up for some of the loss, especially on the left side, which is the side of the diamond where shifts before 2012 or so were most uncommon.

★★★

What the new regime does with the shift in 2015 will be a really compelling storyline to follow. Two Jeff Bridich quotes from this past weekend’s SABR Analytics Conference in Phoenix provide some hints. The first has Bridich saying "we have been and will continue to press forward in analytics and look for specific ways to implement them." In the second, Baseball America's Matt Eddy reported:

In isolation, the first quote (which lacks context) isn’t telling. Deadspin’s Kyle Wager recently, and convincingly, argued that a declared emphasis on "analytics" has turned into nothing more than a branding campaign. In other words, it’s like touting the fact that the team employs a bench coach. So does everyone else. The second quote (also lacking context—it’s the tyranny of 140 characters) offers a clue about an area the Rockies might target to put analytics to actual use. Rockies General Manager Jeff Bridich indicates that shifts work. It follows, then, that the team will attempt to take advantage of a strategy that he believes is effective. The trick will be getting players to internalize that same belief.

If the Rockies shift more, it might suggest that the front office really is convinced that shifts are useful, and that the organization has the ability to communicate vertically, from the general manager to the infielders, in order to implement what it believes is a winning strategy. If the Rockies don't shift any more than before, it might suggest that the front office is unconvinced that shifts are effective. It wouldn't necessarily signify a breakdown of communication, but it might point to a lack of effort to persuade. Walt Weiss seems like an intractable "old-school" baseballer resistant to such changes; maybe he is, maybe he isn't. But if the Pittsburgh Pirates can sway Clint Hurdle to integrate a quantitative analyst as a de facto member of the coaching staff, then Walt Weiss and his players can also be moved. The argument just has to be framed in the language of competitive advantage and victory, which is something everyone understands.

It’s a matter of show and tell. What is shown is always more revealing than what is told. The last Rockies front office, at last year’s SABR Analytics Conference, told us that they embrace and use analytics to gain an edge. At least in the area of defensive shifts, they didn’t show us that that was actually the case. In the tweets above, Bridich implies rather than tells. We have to wait for games to start to see what the Rockies show on the field in 2015.