Improved team defense a priority for Rockies
Club intent on minimizing errors while maintaining aggressiveness
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The ugly numbers made sense, if you're willing to let them.
First baseman Todd Helton was injured and no longer available to the Rockies after Aug. 5. Shortstop Troy Tulowitzki was gone after May 30. That's five Rawlings Gold Gloves gone.
Add to all that the struggles of rookie catcher Wilin Rosario, a lineup of players either making their Major League debuts or playing new positions and the injury-depleted and strike-zone challenged pitching staff, and it's little wonder the Rockies led the Majors with 122 errors last season en route to their worst finish in club history.
But Helton, who has three of the Gold Gloves and was a member of a 2007 Rockies team that set a Major League fielding percentage record, will have none of it.
"That's an excuse," Helton said. "You're big league players. The ball's hit to you, you catch it. You're going to make errors, but there's no reason or us to be last in the league in defense. We should be first in the league in defense."
Outs are at a premium during often high-scoring games at Coors Field. Runs are on a premium on the road, where the Rockies usually don't fare as well with the bats and tend to play tight, low-scoring games. Defensive miscues that cost outs at home and runs on the road lead to seasons like last year's 64-98 mark.
Defense has been a key component to successful Rockies teams past. The 1995 team that made the playoffs in the franchise's third year of existence, the aforementioned 2007 club that went to the World Series and the 2009 playoff squad all could make the spectacular play but were especially adept at keeping the routine play routine.
Correcting bad defense can be tricky. Teams must be clear that they can't accept mistakes, yet focusing on mistakes to the point that players are overly conscious can lead to more mishaps.
And because of injuries, Josh Rutledge was called up from Double-A to play shortstop; rookie Jordan Pacheco, who spent much of his Minor League career at catcher, played primarily third base and first base; Tyler Colvin, who came into the year with four games at first base, ended up there for 31; and Rosario, who hadn't played in Triple-A, was forced into everyday catching duty.
By the end, the Rockies had a bunch of inexperienced players who were well aware of the rising error total. It wasn't a good combination.
"Just everything went about as bad as it could," said Tulowitzki, who has recovered from left groin surgery and will reclaim shortstop while Rutledge will move to second. "Once you make some errors early, guys on the team start to think about it. They want to be perfect. You have meetings about it. Guys are paying more attention to it.
"When you're going good, you never talk about it and you expect to be good. Once it starts going south, it starts being talked about a little bit too much. We're Major League baseball players. We can all make plays."
New Rockies manager Walt Weiss, the shortstop on the 1995 playoff team, believes being overly careful is not the way to curb mistakes. In the last two games, catchers Rosario and Yorvit Torrealba have picked runners off base -- an aggressive maneuver. Weiss is pressing pitchers to force ground balls and insisting that the double play be a signature Rockies defensive maneuver.
So far, an aggressive defense has worked for the Rockies. They have just five errors in Cactus League play, while their opponents have 11.
"That's the only way to play up here," Weiss said. "When the ball is hit to our outfielders, we want them to charge it. We want to get to the ball quickly. We want to turn double plays. It's an aggressive mindset in all aspects. I think our defense has played well this spring."
Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Hardball in the Rockies, and follow him on Twitter @harding_at_mlb. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.