When we last checked in on the NL West over a month ago, the Rockies and Diamondbacks were playing hot potato with the division lead, the Dodgers were slowly creeping back into contention, the Giants looked to be in trouble, and the Padres were playing many games of Major League Baseball. Another month into the season, and we’re pretty much in the same place, with the exception that Los Angeles kept on creeping up the standings and joined in on the fun with Colorado and Arizona, San Francisco looks like one of the worst teams in baseball, and San Diego is still on pace to play 162 games of baseball this season.
If you’re looking for the biggest surprise in the division, it’s clearly either the Giants’ complete and utter self-immolation, or the Rockies’ continued on-again-off-again relationship with the division lead. They’ve gone from a 10.4% chance to make the playoffs to a 74.6% over at Fangraphs and from a 7.5% chance to a 82.4% chance at Baseball Prospectus, which is the single biggest jump by any team in all of MLB this season. So, on to analysis, both of what has come and gone and what is yet to be.
Starting Pitching You Can Start to Believe In
Going into the season, I predicted this would be the year the Rockies’ rotation would be good enough and, so far, they have decided make one of my predictions not look entirely dumb. Collectively, the starting rotation has an ERA of 4.21 and an FIP of 4.40. If those numbers don’t impress on their own, the fact that they’ve been able to do so while pitching in the sheer hellish miasma that is Coors Field is definitely worth a little something extra.
By fWAR, which calculates park factors into its calculations, Rockies starters have been worth 5.0 fWAR collectively, which is good enough to be tied for the 8th best rotation in MLB (and only 0.4 fWAR out of the top-five). Amongst that rotation, however, the only truly familiar name would be Tyler Chatwood, who has actually been the least impressive part of the Rockies active rotation.
After a very difficult 2016, in which he lost his mother to cancer and struggled with shoulder inflammation, Antonio Senzatela has availed himself in his first call-up (73 IP, 4.53 ERA, 3.89 FIP). Relying predominantly on a fastball that he can crank up to the high 90s, which he mixes in with a slider and an occasional changeup, Senzatela has given his team a chance to win at Coors more often than not, and they have responded (he’s 8-2 on the year).
Denver native Kyle Freeland also made his debut for Colorado this season and, like Senzatela, is off to a great start (70 IP, 3.34 ERA, 4.56 FIP, 0.9 fWAR). As with the former, I feel it’s appropriate to mention the win-loss stat here (7-3), even if it’s not necessarily going to tell you anything about what to expect in the future, just because it helps to see things through the old Coors-colored goggles.
German Marquez, who threw 20 innings for Colorado last year (5.23 ERA, 4.26 FIP), has thrown 45 this year, with improved results (4.53 ERA, 3.89 FIP, 0.9 fWAR). He’s striking out about two more batters per 9 (8.67) than he did in his first callup (6.53) with a fastball that, as with Senzatela, tops out in the high 90s. While the results haven’t been as positive for Marquez (he’s 4-3, and I promise that I’m going to ditch talking about pitcher wins and losses for the foreseeable future), he looks like a pitcher who, in the parlance that I just swore to ditch, will give his team a chance to win more often than not.
Rounding out the current rotation, Jeff Hoffman has been a revelation in his three starts for the Rockies. In his (albeit limited) 20 innings of work, Hoffman has a 2.33 ERA, 2.23 FIP, 11.17 K/9 and 0.93 BB/9. If we extrapolate his current fWAR (0.8) over 200 innings, he would be an 8 WAR pitcher. Obviously, that would be getting way, way ahead of ourselves and that’s something you need to be careful about with sample sizes, pitchers in particular and, now that you mention it, I guess we should go ahead and throw an extra caveat in there for Coors Field.
While those caveats apply to 4/5s of the rotation, that’s still four young pitchers who are succeeding in Coors Field at the same time. All of which makes for an exciting time to be a Rockies fan, watching a gaggle of young, cost-controlled pitchers who don’t look out of their element pitching at altitude.
Return of the G (Gray, That Is)
Of course, all of that fails to mention possible reinforcements, should any of the younglings stumble. Most notably, Jon Gray pitched in his first simulated game earlier this week, after being on the DL since mid-April with a stress fracture in his foot. Gray’s 3.60 FIP and 9.91 K/9 in 2016 over 168 innings (for 3.7 fWAR), were a couple of the biggest numbers I was excited for going into the season, even if there were certainly some live arms in the system that looked like they might be ready to contribute. The return of Gray to the mix gives the Rockies more options, which I’ve heard have something to do with finance, but as a baseball writer can only confirm is something that is good for a pitching staff.
The fact that Chad Bettis is apparently starting rehab after undergoing chemotherapy for testicular cancer this offseason and could be a potential late season addition to the club doesn’t hurt, ether. Bettis (4.79 ERA, 4.26 FIP, 2.6 fWAR in 2016) may not have been quite as good as Gray last year, he definitely fit into the “good enough” model I was referring to earlier on, and his return would certainly be another positive development in the pitching department for a team that has already been experiencing plenty of them.
The Hits Gonna Come, Right?
As we move on to the lineup and hit some disappointing notes, there are some players we need to preemptively exempt from this section. Nolan Arenado (.291/.354/.573, 121 wRC+, 2.4 fWAR) and Charlie Blackmon (.333/.374/.610, 137 wRC+, 2.3 fWAR) are amongst the best players in baseball and and Mark Reynolds (.301/.378/.568, wRC+ 131, 0.9 fWAR) is having an excellent season, even it’s due mainly to weighted expectations. Even with those performances, though, the lineup has been struggling and, if we’re going to talk about offensive woes, we have to start with Ian Desmond.
Desmond may have been resurgent in 2016, but signing the 31-year-old shortstop turned outfielder to a five-year, $70 million deal to ostensibly play first base (and giving up the 11th overall draft pick to do so) was still one of the weirdest moves of the offseason. Splitting his time between left field and first, Desmond has been hitting .274/.303/.385, good for a 63 wRC+ and -0.4 fWAR when combined with some down-year defensive stats. If there weren’t the contract considerations and he was putting up those numbers playing shortstop, things would be different, but, alas.
Desmond has taken four walks in 135 at-bats, which is not good. If you’re into graphs, I recommend playing with Fangraphs game-rolling stats on Desmond’s page, because I did it for a hot minute looking for any positive developments and it didn’t go so well. That being said, I also find it hard to believe that Desmond has absolutely cratered and that he isn’t due for some sort of improvement, given his history as a hitter. Check back with me in five years when the contract is up, though.
To make matters worse, actual Rockies shortstop Trevor Story is also struggling. After his excellent debut last year (.272/.341/.567, 120 wRC+, 2.8 fWAR), he’s failed to make good this year (.217/.315/.429, 79 wRC+, 0.3 fWAR). Unlike with Desmond, if you head back over to those game-rolling graphs, you can see some general improvement trends on the season. While there have been plenty of one-and-done seasons in the history of baseball, we certainly don’t have any reason to believe that Story isn’t due to continue improving (and if for no other reason than his .290 BABIP at Coors is basically a sub-.200 BABIP elsewhere).
There are other struggles going on, as well. DJ LeMahieu (.277/.346/.357, 75 wRC+, 0.4 fWAR) seems to be suggesting that his breakout 2016 season (.348/.346/.357, 128 wRC+, 4.2 fWAR) may have been a bit of a fluke. Right field is basically its own article, with Carlos Gonzalez (.236/.318/.369, 65 wRC+) and Stephen Cardullo (.143/.250/.143, -1 wRC+) tied for the worst incarnation in MLB by fWAR (-1.0). Left field has been a little better, with Gerardo Parra and his 101 wRC+ making up for some of the time that Desmond and Cardullo have spent there, but it’s still not pretty (-0.4 fWAR, 26th in MLB).
If the Hits Don’t Come…
Fortunately there’s some good news on the horizon. David Dahl has been out all season after a spring training rib injury. His 63 games in 2016 (.315/.359/.500, 111 wRC+) showed serious promise and the 23-year old outfielder wouldn’t have to do much to improve the outfield situation, even if he’s not back just yet.
Furthermore, the Rockies went into the season pretty much a consensus top-ten farm system and there’s still untapped prospects (not to mention all the young pitching the Rockies apparently possess a plethora of now), so there’s plenty for GM Jeff Bridich to work with if a need arises. Barring further injuries, there’s not really reason to expect the Rockies to do much, both because they have the aforementioned reinforcements on the way, and because they will likely get some more production from at least a couple of the underperformers.
In conclusion, I realize that I haven’t even talked about the Rockies’ bullpen, which has been excellent this season, carried in large part by a pair of incredible seasons from Greg Holland and Jake McGee (as with right field, perhaps deserving of another article on its own). My lack of diligence having been noted, we were here to talk about the potential for continued success of the pitching staff and improvement in the lineup. After just three trips to the postseason in 25 years, you don’t have to look very hard to see this young core of pitchers being sneaky good thanks to park factors and perhaps making those postseason trips more of a regular occurrence in the immediate future.