The Rockies and the Infield Shift

coors_field

Shifting infielders around in order to exploit the predictable tendencies of opposing batters is not new in baseball. Ted Williams’s hitting prowess was a famous intended victim of infield rearrangement, although it’s even older than that. Defensive shifting, however, is becoming more and more integrated into the managerial game plans across baseball. And it is no longer just powerful pull hitters, such as David Ortiz and Ryan Howard, who are shifted against. In Ben Lindbergh’s series about bunting to beat the shift, he writes that infielders are repositioning even when unthreatening hitters such as Ryan Flaherty are at bat. It is understandable. In an environment saturated with information, it makes sense to use any obtainable advantage that might help a team win.

This is where you might expect me to say that the Rockies are not shifting as much as other teams, that not doing so puts them at a disadvantage, and that they should do it more. The first part of that sentence is true. In 2013, the Rockies were in the bottom third of teams in terms of number of times the infield shift was on. The second part, at least in 2013, is false. I demonstrate below that despite a lack of shifting, Rockies pitchers were among the best in the league at inducing groundballs and turning them into outs before they could leave the infield. Finally, I suggest that, yes, the Rockies could benefit from shifting more, but only because it could possibly improve upon an already good situation.

In late February, Jeff Zimmerman of the Hardball Times released shift data for all 30 teams in 2013 (provided by Inside Edge). The figures indicate how many times each team used the infield shift, the opponent’s batting average on balls in play (BABIP) with the shift on, and their BABIP without it. In a follow-up, Chris Teeter at Beyond the Box Score estimated how many runs each team saved by employing an infield shift. Combined, we have an idea not only of how often a team used the shift, but how effective it was.

Unsurprisingly, the Rockies were in the bottom third of the league in terms of number of times they used the shift, at 119. Additionally, the opposing hitter’s BABIP was actually higher when the Rockies used the shift (.345) than when they did not (.321). According to Teeter’s analysis, the Rockies cost themselves about two runs in 2013 because of ineffective use of the shift.  Although those runs and the discrepancy between BABIP with and without the shift might very well be a product of home runs or extra base hits into an outfield gap. In other words, balls that no shift can prevent. Even if we attribute them to poor shifting, the number of runs allowed is marginal because of the small sample size. But we’re really concerned with the number of times the Rockies shifted, so in this case the small sample is the evidence.

We know that the Rockies did not shift the infield very often, but it is worth showing that there may be a good reason for the lack of shifting. It’s quite possible that shifting wouldn’t appreciably contribute to more outs, and that the team is successful without it. This has to do with the type of pitchers the Rockies like to employ, as well as the infield defense behind those pitchers. Bill Geivett recently talked with FanGraphs’ David Laurila about the Rockies team philosophy when it comes to identifying pitchers. Geivett stated explicitly what had long been assumed: the Rockies target groundball pitchers that induce a lot of contact. That is the reason the team was high on Brett Anderson. Even more recently, Juan Pablo Zubillaga, in these digital pages, demonstrated quantitatively that home run prevention is the most desirable skill while pitching at Coors Field. He compellingly argued that targeting groundball pitchers and not worrying about high strikeout rates is a sound strategy that may very well payoff in the near future. The Rockies have done a fine job securing ground ball pitchers, and they in turn have been successful in pitching to their type. In 2013, the Rockies were third in the league in ground ball percentage, at 48.6 percent, behind only the St. Louis Cardinals (49.7 percent) and the Pittsburgh Pirates (53.5 percent).

With so many ground balls induced, it might be expected that the Rockies hurt themselves by not employing the shift. But in 2013, that wasn’t the case. I’m focusing on groundballs only and ignoring line drives and fly balls for two reasons. On the one hand, line drives almost always land for hits, and they generally do so by leaving the infield, not staying in it. The league batting average on line drives last year was .683. On the other hand, fly balls tend to be either outs or home runs. The league hit .192 on fly balls last year, but if home runs are discounted, that batting average plummets to .103. For these reasons, groundballs are the batted ball type that infield shifts are mostly designed to cover.

In 2013, the Rockies were quite good at turning ground balls into outs. The batting average against all Rockies pitchers on groundballs was .223, tied with the Padres for sixth best in the league. Additionally, league average batting average on groundballs was .253, so the Rockies were above average in turning groundballs into outs despite not shifting very much, and despite inducing the second most groundballs in all of baseball. You can investigate the top ten in the graph below. Plate appearances (PA) indicates how many groundballs were hit into play.

Batting Average against on Groundballs
PA AVG
1. Los Angeles Dodgers 1,958 .210
2. Atlanta Braves 1,929 .214
3. Pittsburgh Pirates 2,204 .215
4. Baltimore Orioles 1,857 .215
5. Cincinnati Reds 1,849 .215
6. San Diego Padres 1,983 .223
7. Colorado Rockies 2,147 .223
8. San Francisco Giants 1,782 .225
9. Chicago Cubs 1,812 .225
10. Tampa Bay Rays 1,878 .226

The only team that induced more groundballs than the Rockies was the Pittsburgh Pirates, and they also had a very good success rate in turning those groundballs into outs. Their achievement, however, might have been due to the shift. Zimmerman indicates that the Pirates shifted 422 times in 2013, which was fourth most in all of baseball, and Teeter estimates that those shifts saved roughly three runs throughout the year. I do think that shifting contributed to the Pirates success, but I don’t think that shifting is a necessary component of success for all teams. The Rockies 2013 season is evidence of that.

A great deal of the credit has to be given to the Rockies infield. Fifty eight percent of the groundballs hit against the Rockies in 2013 were by right-handers—1,249 out of 2,147 groundballs. Of those, about 55 percent were pulled to the left side of the infield, toward two excellent defenders in Nolan Arenado and Troy Tulowitzki (in addition to others who had less playing time). The batting average against on such balls in play was just .214 last year. When right-handers went the opposite way, toward the Todd Helton/Michael Cuddyer and D.J. LaMahieu/Josh Rutledge collective, they hit .259 against the Rockies. Although that sample is much smaller, as just 15 percent of ground balls in play by right handers went to the opposite field. Left handers also pulled the ball more often and showed a similar split. Sixteen percent of the time, lefties hit the ball to the opposite field toward Arenado and Tulowitzki, resulting in a .264 batting average. But when left-handers pulled groundballs toward the first and second basemen, which they did 53 percent of the time, they hit just .159. It is to be expected that balls hit up the middle by both right handers and left handers resulted in a hit more often; the middle of the infield, after all, is usually unoccupied. Indeed, the league’s batting average is higher when hitting groundballs up the middle, .272. Even in this area though, the Rockies outperformed the league, as opposing batters hit .262 against the Rockies for groundballs up the middle. This is also where the Pirates shined, as the batting average against for groundballs up the middle was just .213 last season, which was best in all of baseball.

The minimal shifts that the Rockies deployed last year seem to have been successful. I’m guessing that the Rockies used it in more traditional situations. For example, this past weekend the Rockies shifted against Ryan Howard, a powerful left-hander. Not very many pulled groundballs by left-handers made it through the right side of the infield, if that was due to the shift, then the higher batting average to the left side of the infield might also have been a product of it. However, the outs are far greater than the hits; it’s an easy exchange for the Rockies to make. If the team chose to implement the infield shift more frequently, the target should be the middle of the infield. I’m not sure what types of shifts the Pirates used last year to limit hits on groundballs hit toward the middle of the infield in 2013, but whatever it was, it might be worth mimicking. But the Rockies should do so only as long as it doesn’t disrupt what is already a successful rate of turning balls in play into outs.

The trend from 2013 is continuing this season. Through Tuesday, the Rockies have the best groundball rate in all of baseball, at 53 percent, and according to Baseball Info Solutions, they have only shifted eight times this year, the fewest in the league. Yet, the Rockies also lead the league in batting average against on groundballs, which sits at a pretty .191. While it’s still April, this isn’t a case of a small sample size, as Rockies pitchers have already faced 804 batters. For comparison, the league average groundball rate is 47% so far this year, and the league is hitting .235 on groundballs. Both are very close to the averages in 2013, so the league has probably already stabilized, which makes the Rockies success in this area even more remarkable.

The Rockies run prevention philosophy, which accounts for the relationship between pitching and defense, is working. What is striking is that the defensive component of that philosophy all but ignores defensive shifting. I still maintain that a correct implementation of the shift could make the Rockies infield defense even better. For instance, the Rockies are benefiting from excellent defenders. I showed above how good the Pirates infield defense was last year, but it must be noted that they did so while fielding inferior defenders. The Rockies enjoyed Arenado and Tulowitkzi on the left side of the infield last year, while the Pirates played Pedro Alvarez at third base next to either Clint Barmes or Jordey Mercer. Shifting could make a good thing better, but that does not blemish the success the team is having in turning groundballs into outs. So if you happen by a graph or chart that identifies the Rockies as one of the least shifty teams in baseball, I don’t see any reason to disapprove.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t issues to be solved. After all, the Rockies finished last in the National League West in 2013. Part of the problem can be found on the other end of the batted ball spectrum, as the Rockies were among the worst in the league in turning fly balls into outs last season. The chart below shows that the Rockies were among the best teams in the league in inducing groundballs, but the total batting average against was among the worst in the league–this despite having one of the best rates at turning groundballs into outs.

ESPN Stats & Info

ESPN Stats & Info

Now take a look at the image below, which charts groundball percentage and total batting average against for the 2014 season so far. It might be hard to find the Rockies logo, as they and the Pirates currently occupy the same plot.

ESPN Stats & Info.

ESPN Stats & Info.

The Rockies so far have improved in some important areas. They are inducing even more groundballs in 2014 compared to 2013, the opponent’s batting average against is even lower than last year when the team was among the best in the league, and so far this success is having a greater impact on the opponent’s overall batting average against–and all practically without shifting. Perhaps the chief takeaway from all of this is that these successes don’t appear to be short term, but are rather glimpses of accomplishments to come.

Editor’s Note: Some additional 2014 data and analysis was added to this article after it was published. Thanks to David Schoenfield for additional assistance in securing shift data from the 2014 season.

About Eric Garcia McKinley

I grew up in Colorado and have been a Rockies fan from the very beginning. I've previously written about the Rockies for Rox Pile. You can follow me on Twitter @garcia_mckinley.
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