Rockies working to perfect defensive shift

March 5th, 2016

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- A year after feeling hesitant about a defensive strategy of frequent shifts based on hitter tendencies, the Rockies are looking for ways to perfect their positioning.

"Any way we can get outs, or change a [batter's] approach for the worse, it definitely helps," second baseman DJ LeMahieu said.

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Last spring, color-coded charts began appearing on manager Walt Weiss' desk as players brought a "we'll see how this works" attitude. But Weiss was going to make it work. After using partial or extreme shifts a National League-low 114 times in 2014, the Rockies shifted a league-high 1,011 times last season, according to Baseball Info Solution stats published in the 2016 Bill James Handbook.

The commitment allowed the Rockies to spend the year sharpening the strategy. BIS calculated the Rockies with eight defensive runs saved with the shift over 162 games. About 10 defensive runs saved are considered worth a full victory -- significant, considering all the factors that go into winning ballgames.

Were there misses? Of course. Social media went atwitter on May 27, when the Phillies' Cody Asche rolled a single through the vacated shortstop hole in the eighth inning to end Chad Bettis' no-hit bid in a 4-1 Rockies victory. But shifts are based on high likelihood, not guarantees.

Rockies podcast discusses the shift

"You go in with the plan, don't deviate from it, and if you need to make adjustments along the way, you try to do so," said third-base coach Stu Cole, who gives positioning signals from the dugout. "You get beat playing regular in those cases, so you can't look at it that way."

The Rockies have greater shift flexibility than other teams because of the range of third baseman Nolan Arenado, who can cover the left side by himself if the shortstop has to work to the first-base side, handle bunts and even turn double plays.

"It's a little different when I'm playing short, but whatever gets outs, you know?" Arenado said.

The strategy has had to evolve as weaknesses showed up with runners aboard. One showed up immediately last year.

"First and third, the second baseman can't be shifting on the other side of second base. If the hitter bunts and the first baseman has to field it, I can't help at first," LeMahieu said. "It happened in Spring Training, and it happened once during the season as well. We made some adjustments as the season went on."

Plans for covering bases also deserve attention. The Dodgers learned the hard way in last year's NL Championship Series, when the Mets' Daniel Murphy went from first to an uncovered third on a walk after the Dodgers had shifted on Lucas Duda.

"Those are things we work on during Spring Training to explain how we want to handle those situations," Cole said. "You probably want the pitcher to be covering [third] in a pickoff [while the defense is shifted to the first-base side]. But in a steal situation, the shortstop is probably going to be the one that takes that throw, so Nolan will be able to get back to third base."

Potentially confusing situations arise quickly on batted balls.

"Guys have to get used to cutoffs and relays from a different spot, covering bases and an awareness of not leaving a base unoccupied as a defender," Weiss said. "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."

Offensively, Weiss is working on ways to take advantage. While the bunt is most reliable, bat-handling and baserunning are ways to beat a shift. But from the defensive side, the numbers would not weigh so heavily in the defense's favor if hitters could beat positioning with their intent.

"You're trying to hit a moving object, which is tough enough, then you're trying to guide it," Cole said. "It's not an easy thing."