What’s helped the Rockies get off to a hot start? Don’t overlook defense

The Rockies are the owners of the second-best fielding percentage (.993) in all of baseball. They’ve committed just five errors in 19 games.

Trevor Story has struggled at the plate this year, but he hasn't let that affect his work defensively. (Chris Humphreys/USA Today Sports)

Trevor Story has struggled at the plate this year, but he hasn't let that affect his work defensively. (Chris Humphreys/USA Today Sports)

Bud Black needed a fact check, and he wanted it done quickly.

On Saturday night, the Colorado Rockies manager was fielding questions about his team’s bats finally showing signs of life. The Rockies had put the final touches on a 12-3 beatdown of the San Francisco Giants just minutes earlier. It marked the first time Colorado hit the double-digit runs mark in 2017.

What Black seemed most interested in discussing after the game, however, was the Rockies work in the field.

“We feel really good about how we’re playing overall,” Black said. “We’re playing great defense. We’re catching the ball well. We’re throwing it to the right bases. I think we lead the (National) League in double plays.”

Black paused for a second, then glanced over at a member of the Rockies’ public relations staff standing in the corner. “Somebody check that,” he said. “Promptly. To see if I’m right.”

He was. The Rockies sat atop the N.L. with 24 double plays turned. It’s one of several defensive categories in which they are among the best in baseball. As of Monday morning, the Rockies were the owners of the second-best fielding percentage (.993) in the MLB. They’ve committed just five errors in 19 games. FanGraphs rates Colorado fourth overall in defensive runs saved with 10.

Several factors have played a part in Colorado’s 13-6 start to the season: a drastically improved bullpen, homegrown talents Antonio Senzatela and Kyle Freeland coming up big as members of the starting rotation, Nolan Arenado, Mark Reynolds and Gerardo Parra raking at the plate. Colorado’s defense shouldn’t be overlooked, though.

The Rockies employ strong defensive players at every position, especially in the infield. Reynolds quietly enjoyed an excellent year at first base in 2016, with a .993 fielding percentage and four defensive runs saved. He’s kept that up while filling in for Ian Desmond to start 2017. D.J. LeMahieu, who has 11 more assists than the next closest second baseman, continues to be among the best at his position. Second-year shortstop Trevor Story hasn’t let his offensive struggles affect his defense. And Nolan Arenado remains, well, Nolan Arenado.

The end of that clip is great. I’m fairly confident Ryan Braun looks over at Milwaukee’s first base coach and mutters, “Jesus Christ.”

“It absolutely gives you confidence as a pitcher,” Freeland said after throwing seven scoreless innings in Colorado’s 8-0 win over the Giants on Sunday. “I know they’re going to lay out for every single ball that’s hit at them. And I have complete confidence that they’re going to come up with it and make a strong throw to first.”

Freeland forced the Giants into 12 ground balls Sunday, which is something Rockies pitchers have excelled at this year. More than half of the balls opponents put into play (50.7 percent) are grounders. That’s the second-best ground ball rate in the MLB, per FanGraphs, which is critical when you play half your games in a park that’s notorious for allowing fly balls to carry.

When Colorado pitchers have allowed fly balls to Coors’ cavernous outfield, Parra, Charlie Blackmon and Carlos Gonzalez have done a nice job handling them. They’ve collectively committed one error and have saved two defensive runs.

“To have really good gloves at every position is big,” Reynolds said. “I mean even our outfield, too. We have great players out there. Defensively, if you can catch the ball and don’t give teams extra outs, you’re going to win a bunch of games. And those guys are doing a hell of a job. I’m just over there catching the ball for them.”

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