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Colorado Rockies getting used to defensive shifts

The Colorado Rockies have a massively different mindset about shifts in 2015 than they did in 2014. Are some of the best defenders in baseball buying in and is it working?

Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Baseball players are creatures of habit.

And for most major league infielders, defensive shifts have never been a part of their routine. But in 2015, the Colorado Rockies are challenging their infield -- dubbed by Purple Row community member Drew Baker as the "Coors Shield" by virtue of being regularly spectacular -- to change their habits and embrace a new wrinkle: the shift.

"We had a meeting about it early," says two-time gold glove third baseman Nolan Arenado. "Some guys were comfortable with it and some guys weren't, but that's why we had the meeting and it was important to have it."

One of the players not quite comfortable with it was team and defense captain Troy Tulowitzki.

"I might be the wrong guy to ask," says Tulo, "I'm kinda old school. I understand why we do it and what it is used for, but I'm not a big shift guy."

So, if there was some hesitation on behalf of even the most influential of players, and as DJ LeMahieu put it "we already believe we are the best defense in baseball, no doubt" then why make a change?

For the complete statistical case, read this excellently researched piece by Eric Garcia McKinley. The Rockies themselves were keenly aware of this evidence coming into the season and approached an already highly decorated infield about stepping into the wild world of shifts.

But strategic moves require the cooperation of (and execution by) actual human beings who had every reason to be leery of meddling with a successful formula.

"That's exactly what I was thinking," says Arenado when asked about messing with an aspect of their game already at an elite level, "We are good where we're at, we make our plays, we do what we have to as well as making the special plays ... But hey, if the statistics show that they are hitting the ball there, then we are gonna go for it."

And go for it they have. The Rockies are employing shifts at the seventh highest rate in baseball, according to Ben Lindbergh of Grantland. They are shifting even against right-handed hitters which I can't recall having ever seen the team do before. This amounts to an 590 percent increase in shift usage from the Colorado Rockies from last year. In second place for projected increase in shift usage are the Dodgers at 146 percent.

It's a bit too early to be reaching any conclusions on whether or not the new direction is working. Taking a look at the Rockies BABIP on ground-balls (defensively) over the last six seasons shows both that the team is in fact converting more grounders to outs than they did last season, but not more than they have in other years with no shifting:

2010: .222
2011: .230
2012: .254
2013: .226
2014: .251
2015: .223

My eye test tells me that the benefits the Rockies are receiving from additional outs made from shifting are outweighing any detriments from giving up a few hits they may not have if positioned normally.

But it can't be ignored that giving up a hit on what would normally have been a routine ground-out -- especially in a big spot -- can be much more frustrating than retroactively realizing that the team should have been in a defensive shift. The mental grind must be taken into consideration.

It's like a power pitcher going to a curve-ball on a 3-2 pitch. He would rather live or die on his fastball, but the curve may be the better strategy. You can bet, though, that if the curve is left up and hammered, he will be going right back to the fastball next time. Or, it's similar to going for two in football. It's a solid strategy to attempt a two-point conversion after every touchdown. While doing so is supported by a lot of numbers, when it doesn't work it can be similarly demoralizing because you feel like you are beating yourself.

"I don't mind shifting," says LeMahieu, "I think the only questions I had, and still have, are moving the short stop over to the other side of second base or the second baseman over to the other side. I get shifting guys certain ways, but when you put guys in uncomfortable situations, I don't know if the benefits outweigh the cons. But I don't disagree with shifting."

LeMahieu also recognizes that his comfort level is not the only factor for consideration."If I was a pitcher I would like it," he adds.

"We understand it's going to be hit or miss sometimes," says Tulowitzki, fully aware of this dynamic, "It's a tough subject. People are very opinionated about it and there is some strong evidence to back it up. But there is also some evidence that we are going too far with it."

But opinions, even those of the team's -- and National League's -- best player, only go so far, and Tulo understands that as well. "Ultimately, I'm just a player and this is something we are going to uphold."

Beyond the fact that anyone who has spent any time on Tulowitzki's Fangraphs or Baseball-Reference page knows he is more that just a player, it is the second half of this quote that is the most telling.

"We are going to uphold this."

When a player with Tulowitzki's credentials puts aside his own opinion to do what is best for the team, it sets quite an example.

Catcher Michael McKenry expounds on the attitude exhibited by the infield: "They're not just good, they want to get better. They lead by example, it's not always what they say but what they do."

There may be some hesitation in their words, but once they step onto the field, there is none.

"If you're in this clubhouse and you don't look to that and get motivated, there is something wrong with you. They are our leaders and they show you can continue to work your craft even when you are at the highest level."

Despite every reason to believe there was nothing wrong before, the Rockies infielders are committed to showing they can be even better.

And while it's still new and somewhat uncomfortable, the members of Coors Shield know that with more opportunity comes mastery.

"The more reps I'm taking at short -- or wherever that is I'm playing -- of course I'm getting more comfortable with it," says Arenado. LeMahieu echoes that sentiment, "The more we do it, the better the shifts will become."

So for now, most of us find ourselves in a similar place to the team's increasingly popular second baseman when he says,"I just need to see how the shifts work in the long haul. But trying it, to me, is not a bad idea."

Arenado sums it all up in the only terms that matter: "It's still not the same, it's still different but it's not bad. And whatever helps the team win, you gotta do it."