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It’s hard to believe in the Rockies. In 22 seasons of play, the franchise can boast only seven winning seasons, and three with more than 83 wins. Their next division title will be their first, and just now, their next division title feels very far away. This summer saw them trade, arguably, the best player in franchise history, in order to kickstart a rebuilding effort and make a clearer statement of purpose in that direction. Still, it feels like their deep farm system has to pan out almost perfectly, if they’re to overwhelm the impossibly deep and well-heeled Dodgers, or the hyper-competitive Giants and Diamondbacks any time soon. It’s almost hopeless. Yet, the Rockies made one other change in 2015, aside from trading Troy Tulowitzki, that ought to give you at least a mustard seed of faith in them: the Mountains moved. A lot.

Through 2014, the Rockies were one of the league’s most shift-averse teams. In 2013, they had a shift on when 95 balls were put in play. Only six teams (four in the NL) shifted less often. In 2014, Colorado fielders were shifted on 114 balls in play, which represents hardly any added commitment to the concept, and which (since everyone else in the league was rapidly adopting shifting and installing shifts as vital parts of their run-prevention game plans) was 87 fewer than any other team in baseball.

Shifts Used, Colorado Rockies and NL Average, 2013-14

Season

Rockies

NL Average

2013

95

209

2014

114

296

I don’t know why this is. I can offer no inside information. Maybe the rationale was based on the unique challenge posed by Coors Field. The team might have felt it important not to put fielders in unusual, unfamiliar positions, since the line drives they must field already tend to move faster and decelerate less quickly than the ones they field everywhere else in the league. They might also have been concerned that, with home runs so easy to come by at Coors, opponents would simply lay down bunts to foil the shift at every opportunity, then tee off with runners on base and score runs in bunches. Maybe the size of the field itself is a factor, or the deep positioning of the outfielders. In both 2013 and 2014, though, the Rockies gave up the most runs allowed by any NL team. (The same goes for 2012, for that matter, and only Houston allowed more in 2011.)

That prolonged failure finally inspired change—radical change. In 2015, the Rockies shifted a staggering 1,011 times. Prior to 2015, no NL team had ever shifted more than 660 times. The Pirates joined the Rockies in aggressively advancing the art of shifting on the senior circuit, but even so, Colorado led the league. Non-Rockies NL teams shifted an average of 309 times in 2014, and 422 times in 2015, so the club went from shifting roughly 35 percent as often as their peers, to shifting more than twice as often. They still allowed the most runs of any NL team, but the shifts saved eight runs (according to Baseball Info Solutions), after the team had saved just one tally with their sparing shifts in 2014.

In combination with the decision to trade Tulowitzki, this change underscores something: The Rockies are taking a new tack to solving the problem of their home park. That problem is a multifactorial and multidimensional one, and it won’t be simply solved. There are finally signs of progress, though. Slowly, the team seems to be coming to some understanding of what kind of pitcher can and can’t succeed at Coors. (Oh, they signed flyball maven Jason Motte to a two-year deal this winter? Well. They’re starting to understand, anyway.) That was a crucial hurdle to clear. Another was to figure out that the added speed on batted balls, the huge dimensions, and the lower average strikeout rate at Coors all meant that fielders would need to share substantially in the endeavor of preventing runs; there is no perfect pitching solution. The team seemed to figure that out a few years ago.

Unfortunately, though, even a team emphasizing excellent all-around position players who are a credit on both sides of the ledger can’t simply snap their fingers and find eight such players. (Even the Cubs, who seem to have an endless supply of strong young position players, figure to start defensive liabilities at no fewer than two positions in 2015.) The Rockies tried it for a few years, with Tulowitzki, Carlos Gonzalez and Nolan Arenado as the anchors of a strong core. Alas, amassing more players who can honestly make a significant impact in all facets proved too difficult. By trading Tulowitzki and getting aggressive about shifts, the Rockies showed that they are willing to use the tools of the modern game to help ordinary defenders have extraordinary defensive impact, and even to paper over poor defenders at one or two spots. That was a necessary epiphany for them, because there just aren’t enough Arenados in the world to make their old model work very well.

Now about that pitching staff.

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kalimantan
1/27
I've always found the Rockies strange, in that the difference in their park to everywhere else should give them a MASSIVE home advantage - and yet they're rubbish.
garciamckinley
1/27
Part of the reason is that while Coors Field boosts home offense, it dampens road offense. The variance of pitch movement and timing between home and road appears to be a cause. This is supported by the regularity with which the Rockies are last in the NL in adjusted offense and the evening splits for guys like Matt Holliday and Dexter Fowler after they leave Colorado. In the parlance of Rockies die-hards, it's the "Coors Field hangover."
yibberat
1/27
The problem is that the biggest difference is one that is near-irrelevant in baseball. Baseball is not an aerobic sport. If it were, then the Rockies could have as much of a homefield advantage as the Broncos and (normally) Nuggets. Running around the field while the visitors are wheezing and sucking oxygen.

Batting and pitching at altitude doesn't create differentials that you can get acclimated to - it just helps all batters and hurts all pitchers. And while the latter has meant the Rockies have to pay more for pitchers (and settle for mediocrity), it hasn't been offset by batters beating down the door to play at Coors for less.
garciamckinley
1/27
For parts of 2013 and 2014, the best argument against the Rockies using the shift was fielding Nolan Arenado, Troy Tulowitzki, and DJ LeMahieu. I was unconvinced that the Rockies even needed the shift with such good defenders. Of course, injuries prevented that alignment for much of both seasons. With the hyper-shifting in 2015, everyone went along, but not entirely willingly. Tulo in particular was very skeptical. After reading Russell Carleton's chess analogy a couple of months ago, I was reminded of the way Tulo described the shift. Something like, "Yeah I'll do it because I guess it works, but I'm not going to feel great about it." I'll be very interested in seeing if the buy-in has changed from 2015 to 2016, as well as how players like Trevor Story approach the shift.
WaldoInSC
1/28
With all due respect to Tulo, the best player in Rockies history by a wide margin is Larry Walker.