The Rockies are winning with pitching and strong arms, not just bats, go figure
Why a philosophy change has seemingly fixed the Coors Curse for pitching in Colorado
On a pleasant afternoon in June at Coors Field, Mark Melancon was in a world of hurt. The Giants closer had put two runners on with one out in the bottom of the ninth, and desperately hoped to protect a one-run lead. This was no easy feat in a ballpark that spits out runs like a video game. Even worse, Melancon had to face Nolan Arenado, the All-star third baseman who's an absolute terror at home.
On the first pitch of the at-bat, Melancon tried to come inside with his trademark pitch, his cutter. He just didn't come inside enough.
Arenado's three-run shot made history. Having already bagged a single, double, and triple that day, his home run completed a cycle, marking just the sixth time in major league history that a player had completed a cycle with a walk-off homer.
That's right. The team that's had just six winning seasons and three playoff appearances in a quarter-century of existence, the team that hasn't had finished above .500 in seven years, now stands poised to crash the postseason dance. They ran out to their best record in franchise history after 100 games, and have maintained a healthy lead in the National League wild-card race.
Like Arenado skipping home after a walk-off, ending years and years of miserable baseball in the mile-high city would be cause for a bloody celebration.
At first glance, the 2017 Rockies look a lot like the Rox of old. They lead the National League in runs scored, while allowing more runs than all but five NL clubs. But in baseball, context is everything. Unsurprisingly to anyone with even a cursory interest in baseball, or science, Coors Field yet again ranks as the most offense-friendly ballpark in the majors, with the stadium's mile-high elevation pumping up run-scoring by a huge 31 percent.
Neutralize the effects of Coors Field and all other MLB parks and something surprising happens. The pitching staff that's surrendered nearly five runs a game vaults to eighth-best in MLB in park-adjusted ERA. And offensively, the high-scoring Rockies drop to 29th in baseball in park-adjusted offense; only the dreadful Giants have been worse. (To show that this isn't an every-year phenomenon due to overzealous park adjustments, the 2016 Rockies ranked 20th in park-adjusted ERA, while the 2015 team ranked 26th.)
In other words, the Rockies are winning for a simple, yet completely unpredictable reason.
"It's pitching," said Arenado. "Our pitching's just really good, they're young and they're hungry and they're competing, and our bullpen has really improved too."
Over the years, Coors Field had produced so many 10-8 horror-show losses, management could be forgiven for wondering if any Rockies player would ever speak that confidently and optimistically about the team's pitching. At Coors, breaking balls didn't break as sharply. Singles that could be cut off by outfielders rolled to the wall for doubles and triples. Routine fly balls at 29 other parks flew over the fence for home runs.
When Jeff Bridich took over as the team's general manager after the 2014 season, he didn't talk about finding pitchers who could overcome the Coors Curse with trick pitches or a never-before-seen approach. He just wanted good pitchers. Three years later, the common denominator for all of those talented young pitchers is achingly simple.
"Arm strength," he said. "If you're looking for any sort of pure common trait, arm strength is it."
The Rockies' road to finding arm strength, and to pitching redemption, took years of scouting, draft, and player development success. It also required a few well-timed trades that are now starting to bear fruit. Never before in franchise history have the Rockies had a "talented young group of major league-ready pitchers coming together at the same time" like the 2017 group has, said Bridich. "That's a cool thing."
It all started with a simple approach: Lose a bunch of games, get a high draft pick, then don't mess it up. That pick was Jon Gray, a 6-foot-4, 235-pound right-hander, taken third overall in 2013 right off the assembly line of prototypical aces. Gray developed into one of the hardest-throwing starters in the league, firing a fastball that sits at 96 mph and touches the high-90s. By firing that heater about 60 percent of the time, Gray sets batters up for his nasty slider. Last season, Gray generated more value from his slider than all but seven other pitchers, delivering results on par with the slide pieces thrown by all-world arms like Madison Bumgarner and Noah Syndergaard. Gray missed two and a half months earlier this season with a foot injury, and has only recently started thriving. But he's punched out 18 batters and walked only two over his past three starts, riding nothing fancier than that fastball-slider combination to a 2.84 ERA.
The Rockies' first pick the next year was another high-pedigree pitcher, left-hander Kyle Freeland. Drafted eighth overall in 2014, Freeland offered a similar no-frills approach that consisted mostly of, you guessed it, fastballs and sliders. A tick slower than Gray with an average fastball velocity of about 93, Freeland essentially throws three different kinds of heaters, alternating a four-seamer with a sinker and a cutter. While Gray's struck out about a batter per inning in his young major-league career, Freeland actually misses fewer bats than almost any other starter in the league, with a K rate of just 14.6 percent. Having hitters put that many balls in play would normally be a death knell at Coors. But trying to hit Freeland's various bedeviling fastballs is like trying to hit a bowling ball; his 56.1 percent groundball rate ranks third among all ERA title-qualified starting pitchers.
On July 9, the White Sox discovered just how hard it is to hit Freeland. The rookie took a no-hitter into the ninth inning, coming within two outs of becoming the second Rockies pitcher ever to throw a no-no -- the first at Coors. Even after recently hitting the DL with a groin strain, Freeland leads all Rockies starters in innings pitched, ERA, and (for those who still care about such things) wins. He's also a sometimes spectacular fielder, matching the be-an-athlete criterion that Bridich looks for to go with arm strength. Not bad for a Denver kid whose earliest days were spent swaddled in Rockies gear.
In 2011, the Rockies made a far less splashy move than those two top-10 picks, signing a 16-year-old right-hander out of Venezuela named Antonio Senzatela. Few pitchers in franchise history raced through the minors more quickly or more successfully: Senzatela dominated for seven starts at Double-A Hartford as a 21-year-old last season, then jumped straight to the big-league roster this year. On one hand, he's been one of the least successful Rockies starters, flashing a 4.78 ERA and unimpressive ratios underneath it. On the other hand, for a pitcher with just 34 2/3 innings above Single-A ball to jump straight to the majors, stick in the rotation nearly all season long, and deliver usable innings and roughly league-average performance every fifth day as a 22-year-old at Coors Field is still a helluva thing. Senzatela's calling card on the mound? He's yet another young Rockie who fires a ton of fastballs, with 75 percent of his repertoire coming in heater form.
Two other names have turned the Rockies group of rookie pitchers into one of the most successful groups in recent baseball history for any team, let alone one with such a star-crossed track record when it comes to young pitching.
Jeff Hoffman was the prize in the July 2015 blockbuster that sent franchise player and fan favorite Troy Tulowitzki to Toronto. He got his first exposure to the Show last season and struggled badly, putting up a 6.17 ERA in 31 1/3 innings. When the Rockies brought him back for another go this year, Hoffman started to make good on the promise that made him the ninth overall pick in the 2014 ... the next guy off the board after Freeland. We can chalk up Hoffman's 5.03 ERA largely to one of the lowest strand rates in baseball -- more than one-third of the runners he's put on base have come around to score this year, a condition far more attributable to bad luck than lack of skill. Unlike the rest of his rotation mates, Hoffman squeezes the most value out of his curveball, a nasty, biting pitch that's held opponents to a microscopic .118 batting average in 2017. Still, he's no finesse guy: Hoffman fires his own heater about two-thirds of the time, sitting in the mid-90s and showing off the arm strength that the Rockies love.
Finally, there's the pitcher who's been the best of the bunch by advanced metrics ... and also the guy nobody saw coming. On Jan. 28 of last year, the Rockies made a four-player deal that seemed to boil down to two protagonists. Headed to Denver was Jake McGee, an excellent lefty reliever who Bridich hoped would solidify a bullpen that had been nothing less than awful for several years running. Going the other way was Corey Dickerson, a talented left-handed hitter with two more years of controllable service time but also some major defensive deficiencies, a poor fit at doubles- and triples-happy Coors Field. German Marquez was the apparent throw-in whose name nobody figured to remember.
So much for that. Marquez has struck out more than three batters for every one he's walked this year, showing exceptional command far beyond his tender age (22) and limited experience (he'd hurled just 20 2/3 innings in the majors before this season). He's been particularly excellent over his past nine starts, whiffing 54 batters while allowing just five home runs over his past 60 1/3 innings pitched. Marquez leaving the game with a 1-0 lead Tuesday in Cleveland, after six innings dueling against defending AL Cy Young winner Corey Kluber, might be second only to Freeland's near-no-no for celebration-worthy moments by the 2017 Rockies rotation. And once again, if you're looking for any top-secret pitching spy tactics, you won't find it with Marquez: 95-mph fastball, plus a curve that's limited opposing batters to a .203 batting average.
The maturation and success of the no-magic-tricks rotation has been a boon for first-year Rockies manager Bud Black. A 15-year-year major league pitching veteran in his own right, gets some credit for applying the right mix of patience and motivation with his young arms. A talkative, outgoing personality, he's offered a more upbeat approach than his predecessor, the intelligent but reserved former manager Walt Weiss. But Black mostly deflects the plaudits hurled his way. Through years of successful player acquisition and development (Bridich served as the team's director of player development from 2011 to 2014), the Rockies produced a crop of talent that had the potential to thrive eventually ... it's just a bit surprising that it's happened this soon.
When Black took the Rockies managing gig, he saw "a position player group that had solidified itself as good, young major leaguers. But what really excited me is when Jeff started talking about the pitching talent they'd assembled. To have that many younger arms capable of big things, that's what got me excited. Freeland, Hoffman, Gray, [Tyler] Anderson, [Chad] Bettis, and so on. I thought, 'This team has a chance to be pretty good!'"
Something terrific often happens when starting rotations fare well -- bullpens often follow right along with them. Rockies starters rank a respectable 15th in the majors in innings pitched, a figure that looks much more impressive when you consider how taxing pitching at altitude can be ... so taxing that the Rockies five years ago used a four-man rotation with tiny pitch count limits in an effort to beat the Coors beast. All those innings logged by Colorado starters have enabled Black to avoid overusing his bullpen, thus keeping his best relievers fresh. More innings for the starters have also allowed Black to avoid overexposing the sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-best arms in the pen who can torpedo a team's chances when given too many opportunities in important spots.
Having the best collection of bullpen talent that the team has seen in years doesn't hurt too. Fresh air, breathtaking views, nice people, and Mike Hampton-approved schools haven't been enough to lure any significant free-agent starting pitchers to Colorado, at least not since Hampton and fellow free-agent lefty took a combined $171 million to sign with the Rockies during the stock market bubble-inflated winter of 2000-2001. So when the Rox have opted to hit the open market to acquire pitching talent, they've spent their money on relief pitching. Like they did last winter with Greg Holland.
Holland was one of the most dominant closers in baseball in 2014, anchoring a Royals pen that spurred a surprise run to the World Series by the Royals that year. But Tommy John surgery after the 2015 season knocked him out for an entire year, severely hampering his value on the open market. The Rockies swooped in, stealing him on a one-year, $7 million contract that looks like one of the biggest free-agent steals by any team in years ... or at least it did until his last two appearances. When Holland blew a ninth-inning lead and lost the game Sunday against the Phillies, it was an absolute shocker. After years of committing late-inning arson on a nightly basis, Sunday's glitch marked the first time all season that Colorado had blown a ninth-inning lead. A four-run meltdown Tuesday in Cleveland marked the second time. Still, when you can surrender a game-losing four-spot and still maintain a 2.79 ERA, 54 strikeouts and just three homers allowed in 42 innings, with an MLB-leading 34 saves in 37 chances, you're doing something right.
Holland's bullpen wingman is McGee, the normally stingy lefty whose ERA ballooned by more than two runs last season. The simplest explanation for that implosion would've seemed to be change of venue, with McGee going from pitcher-friendly Tropicana Field to the death zone of Coors Field. Once again, that would be a case of letting the ballpark dictate the narrative, one that's both incomplete and misleading.
"My knee just kind of gave out and just wasn't there" for much of last season, said McGee. "This year my strength is so much better, my knee feels great. And now I can vary my timings, I can push off better, slide-step -- that was a big part of my game, just to be able to mess with a hitter's timing because I mainly throw all fastballs. But if I can't mess with a hitter's timing they are timed up way better. So it's been a big difference for me this year from last year."
The numbers bear out McGee's diagnosis. His fastball averaged 95.6 mph in 2015, then 94 in his injury-wrecked 2016, and is now back to 95.5 this year. In 41 1/3 innings, he's punched out 47 batters, allowing just 33 hits and four home runs. Adjust for Coors effects and McGee's 3.27 ERA is right in line with with the stellar numbers he put up in 2015 with Tampa Bay right before the trade.
McGee sees some similarities between this year's Rockies team and some of the better Rays teams he played on too. A few years ago, Chris Archer, Alex Cobb, and Jake Odorizzi formed the core of a dynamic young rotation, just as Gray, Freeland, Marquez, Senzatela, Hoffman, and Tyler Chatwood have in Colorado this year. The difference, though, is that the Rays had David Price and James Shields at the top of the rotation as their young starters got their feet wet at the Trop.
And therein lies the rub. The Rockies have twin stars in Arenado and Charlie Blackmon. They upgraded their roster at the deadline by acquiring Pat Neshek to bolster the bullpen and Jonathan Lucroy to catch. Even after dropping two straight heartbreakers, they still hold a six-game lead in the chase for the second wild-card spot. But to complete this year's dramatic turnaround and get back to the playoffs, they'll need to continue their run of solid pitching. That in turn means depending on a lot of rookie starters, all of whom will soon run up against innings thresholds they've never seen before, not to mention the threat of the regression monster stomping on their heads.
There's one more delightful storyline afoot in the mile-high city. A few weeks ago, outfielder Ian Desmond tweeted a photo of Tupac Shakur wearing a delightfully 90s "Catch The Fever" Rockies shirt. The shirt dates back to the team's inaugural 1993 season, and was still in circulation two years later, when the Rockies shocked the baseball world by crashing the postseason in just their third year of existence. A week after Desmond shouted out Tupac's Rockies fandom, the whole team was wearing those gorgeous retro threads.
You won't find a more beautiful sky than the one Coors Field offers when the sun sets far in the distance, behind the majestic Rocky mountains. The only thing better would be picturing Colorado's baseball team rollin'...right into Rocktober.
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