Colorado Rockies at Baltimore Orioles August 17, 2013

 

We soldier on. Check out Tuesday’s entry, on the Twins. And please do listen to the EW preview podcast.

Listen: the Colorado Rockies have become unstuck in time. Basically everyone who talks about and writes baseball is in agreement that the Rockies are not going to be very good. That, in and of itself, is no great sin. We are quite comfortable nowadays with designed ineptitude in our baseball teams. But what is really frustrating about how bad the Rockies are is: they seem to be trying. Well, “trying” anyway.

Here’s how disconnected from reality the Rockies are: Dan O’Dowd (who had been GM since Clinton was President) finally left the team this off-season, only after turning down an offered extension. The Rockies are not in tank mode. They’re not trading away veterans, they’re not trying to get people excited about the 2018 Rockies,  they’re not where they think they are on the win curve. They’re unstuck in time.

The team has become defined in the greater baseball conversation by Troy Tulowitzki trade rumors, which persist to this day. It pains my heart to think about Tulo going elsewhere, yet it is slowly becoming apparent that doing so is the best chance the team has of hitting a reset button. This is unlikely to happen, however, for the same reason Dan O’Dowd was offered an extension: the team either does not care about winning or does not know how. There is no apparent reason why that will change dramatically this year, and the same can be said of last years record of 66-96.

So it goes.

Run Production

How do the Rockies score runs? Dang, man, how don’t they score runs. They were third in runs scored in 2014, second in home runs behind the Orioles, 4th in team OBP and first in slugging percentage. I apologize in advance for the soles of your shoes melting into the carpet from the heat of this ensuing take, but: a team that plays 81 games in Colorado is going to hit a whole bunch.

But, you might be asking, what does the offense look like when the Rockies play at altitudes where human beings and baseballs live in peace and harmony? Well, uh.

They scored the fewest runs on the road of any team in baseball, they had the lowest road OBP in baseball (lower than the Padres! Not A.J. Preller’s weird, interesting, possibly good Padres; the Padres from last year that probably made people regret living in San Diego for the first time in their entire charmed lives). They hit a home run once every 24 at-bats at home, which fell to once every 41 at-bats on the road. Why is this? It’s still an open question. Jeff Sullivan recently put a prevailing theory to the test, and found it is at the very least much more complicated. Is rectifying that imbalance necessary for the team to be successful? Maybe. The 2007 NL Champion team was still in the top ten in OBP on the road that year, although the 2009 Wild Card team was 20th in OBP and SLG away from home.

One thing that would seem to be clear, though, is that the 2015 Rockies offense is not likely to do much better on the road than the 2014 version, since it’s virtually the same. The infield is going to be the same, but with Daniel Descalso soaking up utility/post Tulo-injury at-bats instead of the not quite dearly-departed Josh Rutledge. Tulo should look like a definite MVP contender until some part of his body explodes in late July, DJ LeMahieu-amusingly-has accumulated 0.0 offensive bWAR over 1281 plate appearances. The interesting pieces are at the corners, Nolan Arenado was an above average player last year before even taking his glove into account, and should probably take another step forward in his age 24 season. If he can get on base at a .340-ish clip, he has a real chance to be the best third baseman in the National League (at least until Kris Bryant begins to destroy worlds). Justin Morneau, meanwhile, was much better than anyone expected last year and it’s not clear whether he can be as productive in 2015. Curiously, Morneau had the lowest strikeout and walk rates of his career last year. Like many hitters before him, it appears as if he took Coors Field as an invitation to start swinging at a hell of a lot of pitches, and like many hitters before him: it worked. His .330 BABIP last season is not outrageous for Coors, but still: expect his luck to take a hit this year.

The outfield situation is interesting in that two breakout players from last year are expected to get every opportunity to prove that their success was not a fluke. Corey Dickerson and Charlie Blackmon will probably both be opening day starters, and Dickerson is the one who has a chance to be something special. Blackmon got off to a hot start, but cratered in the second half, and if the Rockies are smart, he will primarily be platooned in center with Drew Stubbs. The Rockies have enough depth with Brandon Barnes and Kyle Parker to keep Blackmon and Stubbs from playing together too often, even after Carlos Gonzalez inevitably goes down.

The only position that is likely to change much is catcher. The team seems to have finally given up on trying to convince people that Wilin Rosario has any business behind the plate, so the present plan appears to be for a time share between Michael McKenry and the recently acquired Nick Hundley. McKenry had his best year ever in 2014, but had a BABIP at nearly .400, so expect him to be a below average contributor in 2015. Hundley, meanwhile, may very well be able to Coors his way to a .700-ish OBP, but not likely much more. Of course, the Rockies can get away with lack of offensive production from a backstop more than most, but if for some ungodly reason they find themselves in contention in July, don’t be surprised if they make a move for Carlos Ruiz.

The Rockies should finish in the top three in runs scored again this year, they managed to hit that mark last year despite a hellacious year of injuries. Look for Dickerson and Arenado to put together very good years, and if Tulo can play 100+ games that would be a win for all mankind. But we all know the offense will be alright, it’s the pitching that will make or break this team.

Run Prevention

One of my favorite Old Hollywood stories concerns the famous adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep. The story goes that the screenwriters (one of whom was a hard drinking southerner named William Faulkner) were having some trouble getting a handle on the complex plot of the novel, so they reached out to Chandler. Chandler received a telegram saying that the screenwriters could not figure out who had killed a tertiary character, Chandler replied that he had no idea either.

Similarly: I have no idea what specific event doomed the Rockies pitching staff in 2014, just that it happened, and that’s the important part. Nobody threw 200 innings, and only Jorge De La Rosa came within 50 innings of that mark. Eight different pitchers started at least ten games for the team, and none of those eight were Brett Anderson or 2013’s breakout pitcher, Tyler Chatwood. They were the only team in baseball last season to give up 800 or more runs. The only team that struck out fewer hitters were the Twins, who believe strikeouts should occur as often as cicada infestations. The bullpen was effectively tied for the league’s worst ERA, and blew the most saves. Nowhere to go but up, we hope. And pray.

Seeing all of this, the Rockies brought in Kyle Kendrick. Kyle Kendrick is…listen, I’m not going to insult your intelligence by assuming you want to read anything about Kyle Kendrick.

This pitching staff is going to be bad. This rotation is going to aspire to not very good. Jorge De La Rosa would be a good third starter on a good team, he’s the best pitcher the Rockies have. That designation belonged to Jhoulys Chacin recently, but he had a terrible, injured 2014 and may never be the same again. The younger arms are a little more intriguing: Jordan Lyles was nothing special in 2014, but it was his first year pitching for the Rockies, and may be able to scrounge his 2015 FIP down to an even 4.00 (the fact that this excites me should tell you everything you need to know). Tyler Matzek is the real breakout pitcher, though. He pitched 120 innings last year with a 3.78 FIP, which is nothing to shake a stick at for a rookie in Coors. Last year, he and De La Rosa were the only Rockies pitchers to throw at least 100 innings with a K/W rate above 2, and he was the only such pitcher to give up home runs at a better than league average rate. Last season may have been a fluke for him, but his .315 BABIP-against is right in line with a Rockies pitcher should expect.

All the potential good news with the rotation is in the future. Eddie Butler had a short lived MLB debut last year, and Jon Gray appears to be more or less MLB ready. Butler had a rough 2014 so he will probably have to prove himself again to get a call-up, and the team may want to wait to start Gray’s service time, but it would not be a surprise if both logged serious innings for this year. Additionally, it is yet to be seen what the change in leadership in the front office means for the fate of the “pitch to contact” philosophy. New GM Jeff Bridich is not new to the team, so he may decide to keep things the way they are. But the idea of turning Gray away from striking people out makes my skin crawl.

The bullpen has two interesting new pieces: Jairo Diaz and John Axford. Diaz was acquired from the Angels for Josh Rutledge and has pitched all of five innings in the majors, but the stuff appears to be there. Walt Weiss is going to love having a Proven Closer like Axford to go with Proven Methuselah LaTroy Hawkins, but don’t expect too much from him. If Axford performs well in the first half, he’ll probably be shipped elsewhere; the Rockies probably won’t try to trade Hawkins during his retirement tour, unless he asks them to. The players to watch in the bullpen are Adam Ottavino and Rex Brothers. Ottavino had periods last year where he looked unhittable, and ended the season with a 3.10 FIP, which was best of all Rockies pitchers. Look for him to take over the high-leverage slot that belonged to the departed Matt Belisle. Brothers is trending in the other direction. He seemed ready to take the next step last year after putting together a 1.74 ERA in 2013, but instead imploded. He’s one of many Rockies pitchers at a crossroads in 2015.

The Rockies defense, like all things Rockies, is a bit backwards. When everyone is healthy, they may have the best defensive infield in baseball. Arenado may overtake Manny Machado as the game’s premium defender at the hot corner, LeMahieu is as impressive in the field as he is uninspiring at the plate, and Tulo appears to have kept most of his impressive range despite the injuries. But, the cavernous outfield is patrolled by defenders who are average at best. The biggest defensive change is going to be behind the plate, where McKenry and Hundley will likely be a little bit better than average, which will be a huge improvement over Rosario.

*

The Rockies have talent in the lineup, and some intriguing pieces in the pitching staff, but for them to have any chance in the suddenly stacked NL West, everything would have to break right, which does not happen in baseball. Instead, the 2015 Rockies are likely to only be interesting for the players they may possibly trade away and the rookies who debut. Expect the same to be true for the 2016 version.

My advice for Rockies fans would be to treasure every Tulo at-bat, make yourself a stiff drink, and know that at least we have this.

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