On Thursday, the Colorado Rockies were officially and unceremoniously eliminated from postseason contention. The team went to the postseason in 2017 and 2018 -- it was the first time in franchise history the Rockies went to the postseason in back-to-back years -- but now they're looking at a potential top seven pick in the 2020 amateur draft.
The collapse has been stunning, truly. On the morning of July 1, the Rockies were 44-40 and sitting in the second wild-card spot. They were not having a dominant season, to be sure, but they were competitive and very much in the postseason race. That's more or less what everyone expected after their postseason trips in 2017 and 2018. Not great, but competitive.
Since then though, the Rockies have been one of the very worst teams in baseball. They've completely collapsed the last two months and change. Here are the bottom of the MLB standings since July 1:
- Detroit Tigers: 16-47 (.254)
- Colorado Rockies: 18-44 (.290)
- Miami Marlins: 19-44 (.302)
- Chicago White Sox: 25-39 (.391)
- Pittsburgh Pirates: 25-39 (.391)
What went wrong? Well, pretty much everything. Nolan Arenado, Charlie Blackmon, and Trevor Story have been great. They've done their part. Ryan McMahon's had a nice year and Jon Gray bounced back from a rough 2018 season before suffering a season-ending foot injury. Scott Oberg was lights out in relief until a blood clot ended his season. That's about it for the good.
Dan Murphy and Ian Desmond have been serviceable at best and below replacement level at worst, and rookie Garrett Hampson was unable to capitalize when given the second base job. Top prospect Brendan Rodgers struggled before having season-ending shoulder surgery. Last year's reliever additions (Wade Davis, Jake McGee, Bryan Shaw) have a combined 6.16 ERA.
Mostly though, the starting pitching went wrong. I don't think it's a stretch to say the Rockies have the most talented collection of young starters in franchise history at the moment, but after a strong 2018 season, the group collectively regressed in 2019. Only Gray has improved on his 2018 performance, and for him, it would've been difficult to be worse.
LHP Tyler Anderson
4.55 ERA and 3.0 WAR in 176 IP
11.76 ERA and -0.8 WAR in 20 2/3 IP
LHP Kyle Freeland
2.85 ERA and 8.4 WAR in 202 1/3 IP
6.98 ERA and -0.8 WAR in 99 1/3 IP
RHP German Marquez
3.77 ERA and 4.7 WAR in 196 IP
4.76 ERA and 3.6 WAR in 174 IP
Anderson suffered what proved to be a season-ending knee injury in May. Freeland finished fourth in the NL Cy Young voting last year and was demoted to Triple-A this June. Marquez was sporting a 3.48 ERA on June 1. He then allowed 63 runs in his next 15 starts and 88 2/3 innings. Marquez had to be shut down with arm inflammation last month and is likely done for the year.
Even if you include Gray, who had to be sent to Triple-A last year and threw 150 innings with a 3.84 ERA this year, the Rockies received 17.8 WAR and 746 2/3 innings from their top four starters in 2018. This year it's 6.6 WAR and 444 innings. That's how you sink a season, folks. (Fill-ins Jeff Hoffman, Peter Lambert, and Antonio Senzatela have a 6.91 ERA in 50 starts and 241 innings.)
As has been the case throughout their history, this year's collapse leaves the Rockies to wonder how they can build a sustainable and competitive pitching staff in Coors Field. The thin air not only skews results, it skews stuff. Pitches don't move the same way at altitude as they do at sea level. Pitching with what amounts to one arsenal at home and another on the road can't be easy.
Gray and Marquez are power pitchers with heavy fastballs and dynamite breaking balls. They're bat-missers. I wouldn't necessarily call Freeland a finesse pitcher but it is more of a finesse style, at least compared to Gray and Marquez. Freeland excels at getting weak contact. The Rockies have tried sinkerballs, changeup artists, hard-throwers, you name it. Nothing has worked consistently.
Gray, Freeland, and Marquez are all under team control through at least 2021 and Gray is the oldest of the bunch at 27. This is a young and talented group that led Colorado to the postseason the last two years. Is 2019 just a bump in the road, or a sign a new strategy is needed? I lean toward the former, but it is a question the Rockies have to answer for themselves.
The offensive core is strong with Arenado, Blackmon, Story, and a presumably healthy Rodgers going forward. Supporting that core with some smarter free agent signings -- I will never understand giving Desmond five years and $70 million, and surrendering the 11th overall pick to do it -- would get this team back to their offensive powerhouse days when they threatened 900 runs a year.
The pitching though? That remains a mystery. The Rockies are not going to tear things down and rebuild ---- and, frankly, they shouldn't. The core is strong and the pitching talent is there. It's just a matter of turning that talent into results again. In other words, it's more of the same for Colorado going into 2020.