Scottsdale, Ariz. -- The Colorado Rockies have begun to embrace defensive shifts wholeheartedly the last several seasons, with generally good success the more they employ the new positioning. And although they may have gotten to the party late relative to other big league teams who took a chance on infield realignment quickly, now that the Rox are here, they aren't going anywhere.
Manager Walt Weiss addressed the subject of defensive shifts on Thursday before the club's second spring training game against the Arizona Diamondbacks, and for Weiss, the status quo seems to be the name of the game for the club's shift strategy.
"I wouldn’t say there are any new shifts," Weiss said, noting he refers to the positioning as "aggressive defensive alignment," during a discussion with the media on Thursday. "There is only so much you can do, but we pay attention to the information, the data, and we act accordingly. But I don’t see any type of new, innovative shifting on the horizon."
That's not to say there isn't plenty to work on, though—even with a talented infield that has claimed many a Gold Glove Award in the past.
"We have experience, but that doesn’t mean we are going to be right all the time," Weiss admitted. "You’re playing percentages, just like you do with a lot of things in this game. Sometimes the information is going to tell you one thing, but you’re going to be wrong, and they’re going to hit it away from the shift. There’s no exact science, well, ‘you should have shifted there,’ or ‘you shouldn’t have shifted there,' We can all say that after the fact."
But Weiss was quick to follow it up with the bottom line: the Rockies believe they had more quantifiable success in 2015 with shifting relative to recent seasons where they used the alignments less frequently.
"The bottom line is, we know we turned a higher percentage of ground balls into outs last year, so it was a positive," the skipper said. "We’ll continue to try to get a feel for that, but it’s never foolproof, no matter how much information you have."
Part of getting the feel for defensive shifts means feeling out how the infield realignment affects other players on the field, especially the pitcher and catcher, as they often need to cover bases that wouldn't normally be open depending on each specific game situation. Weiss relayed the club's need to be better this season with that than they were last summer.
"Those are things we’re working on that we didn’t pay as much attention to last spring, different responsibilities from different spots on the field," Weiss said of covering bases and other new responsibilities created by the demands of defensive shifts. "Guys have to get used to cut-offs and relays from a different spot, covering bases, and an awareness of not leaving a base unoccupied as a defender. Some of those things start to come into play and they have to be second nature, and those are the things we are working on."
But just like it's necessary of the Rockies' shifts to be mindful of those issues, so it is for the club's opponents, too.
"On the other side of things, we try to exploit those things offensively," Weiss said of other teams' inability to patrol the shift in their own right. "That’s when I talk about adjusting to the shift, that’s part of it. It’s not just hitting, it’s base running also."
Of course, from the Rockies' perspective, embracing defensive shifts becomes quite a bit easier with a third baseman who covers ground like Nolan Arenado. As Weiss points out, he's one of the few third basemen in the game to stay on the left side of the infield during a left-handed shift, thanks to the Gold Glove winner's range and athleticism.
"If I want to have one guy on that entire side of the infield, I want it to be Nolan Arenado," Weiss said. "Plus, Nolan’s gotten a real good feel when he’s the only guy on that side defending the bunt, moving and messing with the hitter, moving mid-pitch to a different spot to diffuse the bunt or the potential of a bunt. He’s just got a great feel for those things."
"And if he’s the only guy over there and he has to defend a bunt, who better?" Weiss added, asking rhetorically. "I wouldn’t want my shortstop trying to defend a bunt, he never has to do that. Nolan does that one in his sleep, as we’ve seen, so that’s why we keep him on that side of the field. He’s got shortstop range, shortstop feet, shortstop hands, so nothing is overwhelming for him."
So where do defensive shifts go from here? Obviously, some players have to start wholeheartedly adjusting to them, right? Weiss said he believes widespread adjustments are coming, especially from hitters who can't just rely on plus power to drive balls through and over the shift.
"Those guys are going to have to adjust, or they’re not going to be in the game for very long," Weiss said of non-power hitters against the shift. "When you’re that type of player, you can’t just go up there and hit into shifts time after time, there has to be an adjustment. These players are all used to making adjustments at this level and that’s one of them. But I do believe that Major League hitters will adjust to a degree with all the shifts."
Just not every Major League hitter, that is.
"I think the big boys will always try to hit the ball in the seats, for the most part," Weiss added. "And we’ll probably shift on them until the end of time."