Globe iconLogin iconRecap iconSearch iconTickets icon

Rockies shifted less as Black solicited input

Infielders welcomed staying put in 2017, but tactic will still be employed in certain situations
February 23, 2018

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- The Rockies helped popularize shifting the infield based on batter tendencies. But last May 5 with a runner at first and one out in the ninth, and David Peralta batting, shortstop Trevor Story didn't move to the second-base side.Shifting would've been so 2016.A year earlier, again a

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- The Rockies helped popularize shifting the infield based on batter tendencies. But last May 5 with a runner at first and one out in the ninth, and David Peralta batting, shortstop Trevor Story didn't move to the second-base side.
Shifting would've been so 2016.
A year earlier, again a runner at first in the first inning, the Rockies shifted and Peralta tapped a single down the left-field line. But in '17, the Rockies didn't give Peralta that option, and he pulled a double-play grounder.
Last season, the first under manager Bud Black, the Rockies looked at the data and pivoted the other direction. After 1,355 extreme shifts in '16, the Rockies did it 671 times, as published in the Bill James Handbook 2017.
While the trend has leveled off after five years of increasing, 20 teams employed fewer shifts last season than the season before. But the Cardinals' drop of 468 shifts was second-biggest.
Ask the Rockies' infielders -- which include Rawlings Gold Glove Award winners in third baseman Nolan Arenado and second baseman DJ LeMahieu, plus shortstop Story -- and they'll tell you they welcomed Black having them stay put more often.

"He got some feedback from me, Nolan and Trevor from things that we disagreed with it in the past, and we came to a conclusion on a lot of things," LeMahieu said.
Let's interrupt for a second to make clear that this isn't the story of a counter-revolution. Just like players weren't dolts who had no idea to play hitters before advanced data, this is not the spikes taking the game back from the stats. More accurately, it's just broadening the approach with more information -- with some coming from players who have to execute, some based on situational concerns.
We can get argumentative. The Bill James Handbook says shifting saved just three runs in 2017, as opposed to 22 in 2016. But the Rockies will have to be happy with two Gold Glove Award infielders and a return to the postseason for the first time since 2009. And, of 2017's eight postseason teams, all but the Dodgers decreased their shifts over the previous year.
When the Rockies originally implemented shifts under manager Walt Weiss, who ordered the data collection and liked the idea, the aforementioned rise in shift runs saved was a benefit.
But players were bothered that an infield that included LeMahieu, Arenado and Troy Tulowitzki (also a Gold Glove winner) went into a regular season without having adequately practiced from odd positions. Early on, some bunts and uncovered bases in situations were a problem, and the communication could lag when a backup was playing. There were also the guffaws from pitchers when a grounder beat the shift or fielders couldn't turn double plays that would have been normally easy.
None of that discredited the shift. Each event, good or bad, added information -- although it's hard to accept information when outs were lost and pitchers threw more pitches than necessary. And if any precious game is tipped to the loss column, it's hard to look at data over time and shrug. So, as last season's shift numbers across the Majors suggested, adjustment was coming. That's classic W. Edward Deming Plan-Do-Study-Act (PDSA) stuff.
"In situations where we were getting beat, if we had been playing straight-up or just a little bit shifted, we could have had some more outs," Story said.

Black developed his shift philosophy as the Padres' manager and as a special front-office assistant with the Angels in 2016. Black was a pitcher who at times during his career would reposition an infielder, such as with the Royals and Hall of Fame third baseman George Brett, and the pitcher is important to his shift strategy. With a starting staff that averaged 94.3 mph on four-seam fastballs last year (second to the Pirates), shifts to the pull side may not have been as needed.
Black looked at the Rockies' numbers and personnel and, as important as anything, he listened.
"Our coaching staff, our players -- it's inclusive -- some of our analytic group we get data from, we identify a number of things," said Black, who didn't go into many specifics for fear of exposing intel. "We tailor it to our pitchers. We tailor it to how we're going to pitch certain hitters.
"We tailor that to all the data of where players have hit balls -- spray charts, inning, runners on base, leading off the inning with nobody on, two outs and nobody on, all these things."
What the Rockies have found is as long as players are aware of tendencies, they don't have to stand exactly where the chart says. Since Arenado and LeMahieu are -- by far -- leaders at their positions in defensive runs saved (also in the Bill James Handbook) and Story was second in the National League to the Cubs' Addison Russell last season, the players have proven they can reach balls.
"That's a credit to them," Arenado said. "They trust me, and that means a lot."

Thomas Harding has covered the Rockies since 2000, and for since 2002. Follow him on Twitter and like his Facebook page.