The Colorado Rockies play on the largest surface of MLB fair territory, which suggests that defensive strategy in Denver can be optimized far more than it can in a place like Houston:
One might reason that shifts in Denver are more advantageous than anywhere else. Outfield fences need to be deep enough to keep the elevation-fueled launchpad from going full Cape Canaveral, and all those extra blades of grass open up plenty of possibilities for defensive schemes.
The concept is not that simple, however. The Rockies have used the fewest shifts in baseball this year.
(Note: A Baseball Savant-defined ‘shift’ is any defensive placement with three infielders on either side of second base.)
Major League Baseball announced last week that, beginning in 2023, shifts will be banned. Two infielders will soon be forced on each side of second base, with both feet remaining on the infield dirt as a pitch is delivered. All of the above percentages will soon drop to zero, and any concurrent advancement of analytics will become obsolete by baseball law.
The rule change could make the Rockies better — as opponents will no longer be able to shift against them.
If shifts at Coors Field are ruled effective, this rule change means that opponents will lose more of an advantage in 2023 than the Rockies will.
Modern Analytics: Personnel
Colorado’s analytics department has been highlighted over the past two years, to say the least. Several new employees are now in those positions (with some announced as recent as early August). It is perhaps unfair to point at this new-look department as the culprit for few defensive shifts with many other variables at play (i.e. managerial preference, infielder range, weather, outfielder range and positioning, runners on base, etc.).
(Bonus food for thought: Coors Field features more baserunners than an average park, and with traffic on the base paths, it isn’t so simple to call a shift with force outs in play. This may contribute to the Rockies’ low shift percentage, although far from exclusive.)
If we assume the most analytically-savvy franchises are the ones with ties to the Andrew Friedman executive tree — primarily the Dodgers, Rays, Astros and Braves — this could help reveal a general idea for how advanced the art of the shift truly is. The Dodgers have used the second-most in baseball this year, with the 11th-largest fair territory as their home ballpark.
They are followed by the Astros with the third-most shifts — but the smallest fair territory in baseball.
Atlanta ranks 13th in total shifts, but ranks 29th of 30 on shifts with left-handed hitters at the plate. This could be the product of a short right field, however. (Truist Park has MLB’s 13th-largest fair territory.)
Tampa Bay ranks 23rd in total shifts this year, with Tropicana Field ranking 20th in fair territory expanse (while measuring 315 and 322 feet down the lines).
A basic trend could be drawn from this data if Houston were removed, but it’s a tall task to remove the current one seed in the American League.
The Rockies are an outlier on the opposite side of the spectrum: large square footage at home, few shifts. With a fifth-place standing in the NL West, record alone can make it easier to side in favor of Houston’s shift strategy.
Let’s Be Real - Addressing The Landscape
It’s extremely hard to push this detail down to one number, no matter what Jonah Hill says in Moneyball. The big picture is so much bigger than any outside fan can see, and all it takes is one valid counterexample to challenge how people think about a subject. (For now, that counterexample remains Houston.)
Despite all of the extra grass at Coors Field, the Rockies’ home still remains atop the park factor table, which is about as big of a ‘one number’ that exists when paired with square footage data. As said by Nick Groke in 2020: “An oversized outfield begs for balls in play, even at the cost of haphazard swings.”
With the low-shifting Rockies all but eliminated from 2022 contention, perhaps they will have an easier transition to new rules after following them more than anybody else this year. For now, we’re left to evaluate a new frontier in future strategy.
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With few days remaining in the 2022 season, there is a firm sample size to formulate an understanding on end-of-year award candidates. Brendan Rodgers, the Rockies’ current WAR leader, reasons as the most likely to end the year with some sort of hardware, says Rox Pile’s Nathaniel Sunshine.
As the Rockies open a brief two-game set on the south side of Chicago, the 77-year-old manager of the White Sox remains absent from his duties. Tony La Russa is currently recovering from a pacemaker procedure and may not return to the dugout for the remainder of the season.
Since August 31, one day after La Russa was first pulled from the dugout, the White Sox are 9-4 with bench coach Miguel Cairo filling in.
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On the Farm
Monday, September 12: League-wide off day for all minor league affiliates
New series starting today:
Triple-A: Oklahoma City Dodgers (LAD) at Albuquerque Isotopes (COL)
Double-A: Hartford Yard Goats (COL) at Binghamton Rumble Ponies (NYM)
High-A: Spokane Indians (COL) season complete (Final record: 30-36)
Low-A: Fresno Grizzlies (COL) at/vs. San Jose Giants (SF)*
* California League semifinal series (best-of-three):
- Tuesday, Sept. 13: Fresno @ San Jose (7:30 p.m. MDT)
- Thursday, Sept. 15: San Jose @ Fresno (7:50 p.m. MDT)
- Friday, Sept. 16: San Jose @ Fresno (7:50 p.m. MDT)
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