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The Rockies infield defense excelled in 2021, despite few shifts

Colorado Rockies news and links for Monday, December 20, 2021

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Baseball in 2021 looked quite different than previous years.

The season started without fans in the stands. The unanimously decided AL MVP dominated both sides of the game. And offensive production continued it’s spiral downwards - batting average league-wide was at its lowest level since 1972, the last year before the American League adopted the DH.

The league’s offensive woes are due to a combination of things, one of which being the increased prevalence of the defensive shift. The league as a whole shifted on 30.8% of plate appearances in 2021, down from the 34.1% of the 2020 season, but significantly up from the 13.7% of 2016.

The Rockies made an effort to shift more in 2015 (Jeff Bridich’s first year as GM), and this continued in 2016, where they deployed the fourth-most shifts league-wide. Since then, the trend has gone in the opposite direction from the league, with the Rockies most recently having the third-fewest shifts.

Rockies Shift Rates, 2016-21

Year 2016 2017 2018 2019 2020 2021
Year 2016 2017 2018 2019 2020 2021
Rockies Shift % 22.6 7.5 18.4 18.4 22.1 18.7
MLB Average Shift % 13.7 12.1 17.5 25.6 34.1 30.8
Rockies Rank 4 24 13 19 26 28
Baseball Savant

These numbers illustrate what we already knew - the Rockies are not heavily reliant on modern analytics for their decision making. Most teams have a lot to gain by embracing new concepts, but in this case the Rockies are actually having success without evolving to the new norm.

By the Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) metric, the Rockies infield defense was already the best in the league in 2021, totaling 52 runs saved between the four infield positions. Much of this was from Ryan McMahon’s monster defensive season, totaling 22 runs saved by himself, but the entire infield did their part - the Rockies and the Cardinals were the only two teams in the majors to produce positive DRS values at every infield position. But could more shifting have helped the Rockies?

Evaluating baseball defense is a fickle science (if it can even be called a science). It doesn’t take a physics PhD to realize that slight changes in pitch location or quality of contact lead to drastically different outcomes. Add in the fielders moving and these predictions become even more difficult.

The batting average on balls in play (BABIP) metric, though, provides a very simple, surface level look at the effectiveness of an infield’s positioning when applied to only ground balls in play. If a team’s infielders are always placed directly in the path of a ground ball, then they won’t allow hits through. Simple as that, it results in a BABIP of .000. If a team’s infielders are placed so that they aren’t able to stop any ground balls, the opposite will happen, resulting in a BABIP of 1.000. The goal of the shift is to place fielders where the ball will be hit, reducing the opponent’s BABIP.

The Rockies boasted the sixth lowest opponents BABIP on ground balls in 2021. This is mostly due to the aforementioned defensive black hole known as Ryan McMahon, plus the above average ranges of the rest of the Rockies infielders. But there is a regression from top rated defense by DRS to sixth rated by BABIP that can be at least partly explained by the relative absence of shifts. Of the five teams who had better opposition BABIP rates, three were in the top four league-wide in shift rate - the Dodgers, Astros, and Braves.

Shift Percentage and Opposition BABIP, 2021

Team Shift % MLB Rank Opposition BABIP on Ground Balls MLB Rank
Team Shift % MLB Rank Opposition BABIP on Ground Balls MLB Rank
LAD 53.7 1 0.209 1
NYM 50.3 2 0.232 14
HOU 46.2 3 0.219 3
ATL 38.9 4 0.221 5
COL 18.7 28 0.221 6
Baseball Savant, FanGraphs

It would seem that the Rockies, who already trot out an all-world infield defense daily, could benefit from being more selective in where they place said infielders. So why don’t they? There used to be an argument from players not wanting to drastically change their defensive angle from the batter. A shortstop has spent his entire life judging the ball off the bat from a certain position, if he moves to the other side of second base then there’s going to be a learning curve. But at this point, we’re beyond that learning curve and deep into the era of positional flexibility. Ryan McMahon is a great example of this - excelling defensively at both second and third base.

Another potential answer is that the Rockies front office is either unwilling or unable to leverage the shift. Unwilling, because the shift is a recent change that doesn’t fit with the traditional view of baseball. Unable, because knowing when and where to shift does take an analytics department with knowledge and influence, something the Rockies are still building after a turbulent couple of years.

For better or worse, this could all soon be a moot point. Discussions of banning the shift have been swirling for years, with Commissioner Rob Manfred recently saying that eliminating shifts would “restore [baseball] to being played in a way that is closer to I think what many of us enjoy historically”. Offense is good for viewership, yes, and MLB has not been shy about doing what they can to promote offense, but painting banning the shift as a step backwards towards a more historical game is an interesting choice. Fortunately, shift or no, we have more Ryan McMahon to look forward to.

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Ichiro strikes out 17 in 147-pitch outing during exhibition game | CBS Sports

Despite retiring more than two years ago, 48-year old Ichiro Suzuki is still making headlines. The most recent stop on his baseball tour de Japan was pitching against an All-Star high school girls team. While most players would leave a little in the tank for an outing like this, the opponents likely not yet being born before Ichiro had secured his third MLB All-Star nomination, Ichiro held nothing back. He hit 84 mph on the radar gun and showed off a devastating curveball on his way to a shutout performance. If you’re looking for something to fill a baseball sized hole in your recent media consumption, do yourself a favor and watch the recap video of his outing.

Sunday Notes: A Hall of Fame Ballot Explained | FanGraphs

David Laurila gives us an in-depth view of his reasoning behind his Hall of Fame ballot, a breath of fresh air from the typical lack of transparency that comes with some of the voting. For Rockies fans, the most notable inclusion is obviously Todd Helton who, after not being included on Laurila’s ballot last year, was decided as a “yes” by Laurila immediately after his last vote. Currently Helton sits at 52.5% yes votes, an improvement upon last year, according to Ryan Thibodaux’s Hall of Fame tracker.

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