Is the Rockies’ pitching sustainable?

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The Rockies mascot is a purple dinosaur…couldn’t they have just coaxed Barney out of retirement?

The Colorado Rockies, at 23-13, good for the best record in the NL West and 5th best record in the MLB, are baseball’s surprise team to the start the 2017 season. For some context, Colorado was the NL’s worst team and the third worst team in all of baseball from 2012-2016, cobbling together a 347-463 record (42.8% winning percentage) in that span. Although things have been rocky in Colorado (sorry, had to do it), it looks as if the team has turned the corner roughly 20% of the way through 2017. The question on many baseball minds is if the Rockies’ performance is sustainable, particularly in regards to their improved pitching. Unfortunately the answer is muddled – some Rockies’ pitchers have certainly benefited from some good fortune this year, while others have scuffled due to bad luck. An injury to staff ace Jon Gray has also weakened the rotation. How regression to the mean and Gray’s return plays out over the coming months will be interesting to observe.

Colorado pitching has stunk from top to bottom

colorado spThe Rockies’ long-term issues have been multifaceted, with a dearth of starting pitching being the most obvious. After all, take a look at their opening day starters from 2012-2016: Jeremy Guthrie, Jhoulys Chacin, Jorge de la Rosa, Kyle Kendrick and Jorge de la Rosa again. Miraculously, all four of those pitchers are still in the MLB, however Guthrie currently maintains a 135.00 ERA for Washington, Chacin sports a 5.26 ERA for San Diego, de la Rosa is now on bullpen duty in Arizona, while Kendrick has surrendered 12 earned runs in eight innings for Boston. The hard numbers back up this anecdotal futility, with Colorado’s rotation accruing the worst ERA and FIP in the MLB from 2012-2016. Of course, everyone knows Coors Field is a pitcher’s nightmare, so it’s not necessarily surprising that Rockies pitchers generally struggle in run prevention. What is surprising is that Colorado starters, on a relative basis, were almost as bad on the road as at home, ranking 14, 15 and 15 in the NL in ERA, FIP and xFIP respectively. Ouch.

Colorado’s bullpen didn’t fare much better. Once again, Colorado relievers maintained colorado rpthe worst ERA and FIP in the MLB. And once again, their performance away from home was relatively just as bad, sitting at the bottom of the NL in road ERA, FIP and xFIP. Colorado is certainly at a disadvantage in acquiring pitching talent, because outside of Mike Hampton, free agent pitchers have largely spurned Colorado due to the local atmosphere’s ERA altering effects. However, the organization’s inability to develop internal pitching prospects has been an organizational fault, although it has changed in recent years.

Investing in starting pitching

So what, if anything, is Colorado doing differently this season? One possibility is, that for the first time in a long time, the Rockies are fielding a half-way decent starting rotation. Despite being without opening day hurler Jon Gray for most of the season, the Rockies have managed a 4.34 ERA, which dwarfs the 5.04 ERA the staff put up from 2012-2016. How much of this is sustainable remains to be seen, but one encouraging aspect is that four of the seven pitchers who have started games for the Rockies this season were first round draft picks. The Rockies invested first round picks in Tyler Anderson (2011), Jon Gray (2013) and Kyle Freeland (2014), and acquired Jeff Hoffman, who was selected one spot behind Freeland in 2014, from the Blue Jays in the Troy Tulowitzki trade. The Rockies, after years of neglect, have built a young rotation through the correct channels.

2017 Rotation Performance

2017 rockies pitch

Interestingly enough, outside of Kyle Freeland, who has been a revelation, the first round picks have provided little value thus far. Gray has only pitched 12 1/3 innings due to a foot fracture, Tyler Anderson, despite having okay peripherals, has been hammered by base hits and long balls, while Jeff Hoffman made his first start for the team last night after being called up from AAA.

The aforementioned Freeland has paced the staff with a 2.93 ERA and a league-leading 65.9% ground ball rate. Freeland’s lack of strikeouts and his unsustainable 0.2 HR/9 rate forecast bleaker days ahead, however his ability to induce groundballs will ensure his place as a suitable mid-rotation starter and limit the damage done by the thin Denver air. The biggest surprise on the staff thus far is the undrafted Antonio Senzatela, who has held opponents to a stingy 2.86 ERA. Senzatela had a banner spring training and always put up good minor league numbers, so his MLB success didn’t come completely out of nowhere. Yet, his 4.59x FIP, 13.6% strikeout rate and average groundball rate will make it hard for him to sustain an ERA below 4.00.

Tyler Chatwood is continuing his worm-burning tendencies, with a second straight season of a groundball rate north of 57.0%. He’s also sprinkling in some additional swinging strikes and has received some poor homer luck thus far, which results in a very solid 3.82 xFIP. Tyler Anderson, who actually owns a top-20 swinging strike rate in the majors, has lost some of his groundballs from last year and seems to be getting hit very hard. He’s basically the antithesis of the rest of the Rockies’ staff. German Marquez has pitched admirably this season, and had a no-hitter through six innings last night, but will struggle to maintain his rotation spot when Gray returns from injury.

colorado pitch mixIt’s obvious the Rockies have adopted a pitching philosophy that focuses on weak contact and groundballs. The rotation’s 51.9% groundball rate leads the majors and their .272 BABIP is 6th. The cost to inducing groundballs is usually strikeouts, and Colorado follows this trend, with the league’s 6th worst strikeout and stringing strike rates. This approach makes some sense given the limitations of Colorado’s home ballpark. Coors Field’s thin air can convert routine flyballs into homer runs while also flattening out the break on the sliders and curves that are needed to induce strikeouts. Not surprisingly, Colorado’s rotation ranks 2nd in the MLB in fastball use and 3rd in cutter use, while ranking 28th and 29th in slider and curveball use respectively.

The performance of guys like Freeland and Senzatela will definitely deteriorate going forward due to unsustainable BABIPs and HR/FB rates. However, it is likely that Chatwood and Anderson will make up  for this a bit with improved ERAs. The wildcard here is Jon Gray. If he can return in late May or early June and replicate his 2016 success, then Colorado’s rotation could be playoff-worthy.

Don’t forget about the bullpen

colorado bp 2017Lost in the mix with Colorado’s improved rotation has been their vastly improved bullpen. The offseason additions of former Kansas City closer Greg Holland, who missed the entirety of 2016 rehabbing from Tommy John surgery, and Mike Dunn, a lefty who anchored Miami’s pen since 2011, has bolstered a bullpen that was already on the rise to one of baseball’s best.

Colorado’s relievers currently have the 13th best ERA, 7th best FIP and 5th best xFIP in the MLB. This runs in stark contrast to a bullpen that ranked 30th, 30th and 28th in those respective statistics from 2012-2016. Like their starting rotation colleagues, the bullpen gets a lot of ground balls, ranking 4th in the MLB with a 50.9% groundball rate. However, the bullpen can also induce whiffs, with the 12th best strikeout rate and 10th best swinging strike rate.

Several individual performances deserve attention. Greg Holland has rekindled his circa-2013 Kansas City magic, with a 1.13 ERA / 1.46 FIP / 2.71 xFIP in 16 innings. He also has 15 saves if you’re into that type of thing. Holland has generally been set up by the trio of Jake McGee, Adam Ottavino and Scott Oberg. McGee is striking out over 30% of batters faced, while Ottavino is showing some chinks in the armor with an elevated walk rate and significantly lower ground ball rate compared to last year. Oberg’s 5.65 ERA is overstated according to his peripherals.

Veteran lefty Chris Rusin has proven to be an accomplished innings eater, working to a 3.00 ERA / 2.54 xFIP in 18 innings thus far. His 62.7% ground ball rate and 12.1% swinging strike rate underscore his impressive performance to date. Jordan Lyles’ 2.1 HR/9 rate and corresponding 7.94 ERA look pretty ugly, but he gets almost as many ground balls and swinging strikes as Rusin, indicating a bounceback on the horizon. Mike Dunn has performed as expected, however his low innings counts is curious given that he received a three-year, $18.0 million contract over the off-season. Colorado would be smart to up Dunn’s inning count and scale-back Ottavino.

All told, seven of Colorado’s eight relievers with the most innings have xFIPs under 3.70. If anything, the Rockies bullpen has gotten unlucky to date.

Summation

Colorado’s rotation is outperforming expectations so far this year, but the influx of young, cost-controlled talent among their starting hurlers is real. Gray, Anderson, Freeland and Hoffman are all former first round picks, while Senzatela is an exciting arm with an impressive minor league track record. The organization’s pitch-to-contact, groundball focused approach will benefit their rotation over the long run and could lead to ERAs that outperform peripheral expectations. Since Freeland and Senzatela will come down to earth soon, it will be imperative for Tyler Anderson to right the ship and for a healthy Jon Gray to return to the rotation. If those things happen, along with the bullpen maintaining their current performance, much of Colorado’s pitching improvement looks real.

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