Sports Nut

Defense Rocks!

How Colorado’s fielding wizardry will change baseball forever.

Shortstop Troy Tulowitzki. Click image to expand.
Shortstop Troy Tulowitzki of the Colorado Rockies

Baseball is usually seen as a clash between pitchers and hitters—a test of wills between the guy on the mound and the slugger at the plate. The defense, on the other hand, is praised and scorned in extreme circumstances, glimpsed only in the final few moments on Baseball Tonight, and all but ignored when sportswriters call upon team management to find nirvana by signing Johan Santana or Alex Rodriguez. But if there’s ever a time to focus on the guys with gloves, it’s the 2007 World Series. This year’s Colorado Rockies are perhaps the greatest defensive team in baseball history. It’s even possible that their defensive prowess will change the way the game is played and the way teams are constructed.

In 2003, Michael Lewis’ Moneyball showed how Oakland Athletics General Manager Billy Beane used statistics to find undervalued players. Back then, these were typically guys like Scott Hatteberg who drew walks to keep innings going. By the time Lewis published the book, the secret was out and the art of plate discipline was no longer undervalued. Beane and other smart GMs around baseball had already moved on to the next great statistical frontier: defense.

Colorado seems like an odd laboratory to experiment with a team built around defense. The team plays at Coors Field, which sits a mile above sea level. High altitudes mean less break on pitches. Hard-hit balls travel farther because of the thin air, and when they don’t go for home runs, they typically land in the stadium’s spacious outfield. (Coors Field has the deepest fences in all of baseball.) In 2002, Joe Sheehan on Baseball Prospectus wrote that “the physics issues may preclude anyone from being a good defender at altitude.”

In retrospect, though, Coors Field was the perfect place to probe the value of defense. The team has tried pretty much everything else since hiring GM Dan O’Dowd in 1999. O’Dowd has studied weather patterns, tried out a humidor to control scoring, and toyed with a four-man pitching rotation. Much of O’Dowd’s work, such as research into the type of pitcher it would take to conquer Coors, resulted in bone-headed decisions like investing nearly $175 million in Mike Hampton and Denny Neagle. The team continued to lose, attendance fell, and the Sporting News belittled the club in 2002, saying they were “trotting out Plan G, or maybe it’s Plan H.”

Whatever plan they’re on now, it’s working. The Rockies enter this year’s World Series with one of the least-experienced pitching staffs ever to reach the championship round. These pitchers struck out the third-fewest batters of any staff in baseball, walked the ninth-fewest batters, and—with an assist from Coors Field’s ballyhooed humidor—kept home runs from being too much of a problem. In other words, the pitchers pitched to contact, daring opposing batters to put the ball into play.

The result?

The team tied the National League record for the fewest errors in a season (68) and set the Major League record for the highest fielding percentage (.989). But those statistics, seized on by some sportswriters, are only part of the story. Advances in fielding stat-keeping, helped along by the post-Moneyball search for the next great undervalued asset, make the Rockies’ defensive achievements look even better. Only four teams in baseball had better revised zone ratings—a figure used to measure the proportion of balls hit into each fielder’s immediate vicinity that are successfully converted into an out. Only four infields were better at capturing out-of-zone balls. The Rockies’ outfield was spectacular at grabbing flyballs and line drives hit to them, and average at capturing everything else, a feat that’s more impressive than it sounds, considering the spaciousness of the ballpark.

Then, there was Colorado’s rookie shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, who may single-handedly change the game of baseball. According to Win Share stats—invented by Bill James to capture a player’s value by translating performance during each play into a share of the team’s success or failure—the shortstop contributed about 3.5 wins to the Rockies based on his glovework alone. (Tulowitzki earned 10.9 Win Shares from his fielding. Each Win Share is worth one-third of a team win.) *  The second-best fielder in either league had a relatively paltry seven and a half. Tulowitzki has excellent range (he was responsible for a position-leading 87 outs that were outside his zone this year), a bazooka arm (his 561 assists led the majors), and phenomenal quickness. No shortstop in baseball turned more double plays.

Did the Rockies build a great defense consciously, or did they just get lucky after failing with big sluggers and high-priced pitchers? Much of the team’s core, including Tulowitzki and MVP candidate Matt Holliday, were drafted and developed by the organization. Teams will always recognize the value of guys who can both rake and play defense like Holliday and Tulowitzki. More impressive are the trades the team made to supplement its home-grown talent. Would other organizations have the guts to trade their best pitcher for a slick-fielding center fielder like Willy Taveras, or take a chance on a solid gloveman like Kaz Matsui, who was a gigantic flop with the bat in New York? And, of course, not every team would stay steadfast and hold onto a cost-effective, defensively gifted prospect like Tulowitzki if quick salvation beckoned.

No matter whether the Rockies lucked out or hatched a brilliant organizational plan, every other team in baseball will see that they rode a great defense to the National League pennant. During the offseason, those teams will consider what they need to do to find success in 2008 and beyond. Many teams will identify pitching as their primary need. The top free-agent pitchers this offseason are Carlos Silva (4.31 career ERA) and Kyle Lohse (4.82). Neither are savory options.

Before spending big bucks on a mediocre pitcher, some teams will perhaps consider the Rockies’ success—how the team allowed 54 fewer runs than the year before, despite having a low-budget roster and a ho-hum pitching staff that struck out very few batters. In baseball, it’s often said that pitching wins championships. But a mile above sea level, a team from Denver is fielding another approach.

Correction, Oct. 24, 2007: This piece originally misstated the value of Win Shares, a baseball statistic invented by Bill James. Each Win Share is worth one-third of a team win. (Return to the corrected sentence.)