The Colorado Rockies forced Game 163 against the Los Angeles Dodgers for the National League West crown and then found a way to go on the road to Wrigley Field and beat the Chicago Cubs the next day to get into the NLDS. The tremendous individual growth by guys like German Marquez and Kyle Freeland spearheaded a Rockies team that had a relatively poor offensive profile.
That is why this is such a polarizing team going into 2019. It has been really hard to think of the Rockies as a pitching-first team. Coors Field is relentless in its pursuits of driving up pitchers’ ERAs and the Rockies, by and large, have had to win with offense when they have had good seasons.
From a total runs standpoint, the Rockies were actually down 44 from last season and down 65 from two seasons ago, but allowed the fewest number of runs since 2010 and the fourth-fewest runs in franchise history.
Forgive me for being naturally skeptical. While it is true that the Rockies have dramatically improved on the pitching side in two years under manager Bud Black, this is a still a very difficult pitching environment. Rockies pitchers did allow 63 more runs at home than on the road, but the offense contributed 110 more runs at home than on the road to balance things out.
You’ll have to read on to see if I’m putting the cart in front of the horse here, but it would be disingenuous not to mention some of the concerns that Rockies backers should have going into the new season. Colorado won 44 road games last season. It was the most in franchise history and the first time ever that the Rockies did better than 41-40 on the road. They were -6 in run differential in those 82 games.
While some of the numbers and metrics do show reasons to believe in regression, Coors Field and its effects at home and on the road have to be graded on a dramatically different scale. Overall, Colorado is a tough team to peg year in and year out. Last year’s starting pitching dominance from Freeland and Marquez overshadowed how bad Jon Gray, Tyler Anderson, and Chad Bettis were as a group. Is that sustainable? Can that continue?
The Rockies are a complex handicap. There are some notable losses on offense, but this is also a park that allows marginal offensive players to play up to a different level than they would elsewhere. There are some losses in the bullpen as well and those could be the kiss of death. But then there’s also this idea that the team is in a much better spot with Bud Black and maybe, just maybe, has gotten a better grasp on how to pitch in the thin air.
There will be a fair amount of people writing the Rockies off because of some of their alternate standings metrics and personnel losses. Sometimes we can find value in going against the grain with those teams.
Season Win Total Odds
2018 Standings Data
Actual Record: 91-72
Run Differential: +35
Pythagorean W/L: 85-78
BaseRuns Record: 85-78
BaseRuns Run Differential: +34 (4.70/4.49)
3rd Order Win% Record: 87.6-75.4
Record in One-Run Games: 26-15
Additions: Daniel Murphy, Mark Reynolds, Brett Nicholas, Chris Rabago, Peter Mooney, Michael Saunders, Chi Chi Gonzalez, Jordan Foley, Alec Asher
Losses: Drew Butera, Matt Holliday, DJ LeMahieu, Carlos Gonzalez, Gerardo Parra, Adam Ottavino
It was a quiet winter in the Mile High City. The Rockies grabbed Daniel Murphy and a few depth pieces and that was about it. It is time for some prospects to graduate to the big leagues, as the Rockies are hoping that David Dahl can stay healthy, that Garrett Hampson or Ryan McMahon can handle an everyday workload, and that Brendan Rogers forces the coaching staff to find a place for him.
All five Rockies starters are under 30 and are back in the mix, so there wasn’t a whole lot of need for starting pitching, although some depth would have been nice. I’m a big proponent of acquiring insurance policies and the Rockies didn’t do a whole lot of that.
It’s hard to fault a GM for having confidence in a team that won 91 games and advanced to the NLDS, but underwhelming offseasons generally worry me.
BA: .256 (6th)
OBP: .322 (13th)
SLG: .435 (5th)
wOBA: .325 (8th)
wRC+: 87 (25th)
BABIP: .304 (6th)
K%: 22.6% (18th)
BB%: 8.2% (20th)
As you know by now, the Rockies are graded on a very different offensive scale because of Coors Field. That’s how you get a team that ranked sixth in batting average, fifth in slugging percentage, eighth in wOBA, and then 25th in wRC+, which is adjusted for park factor. As we perennially see with the Hall of Fame cases for guys that spent time in Colorado, for better or worse, it is held against the players.
It is really hard to hold anything against Nolan Arenado, who posted a .297/.374/.561 slash with a .391 wOBA and a 132 wRC+ in another standout season for the third baseman. He’s also an elite defender, which helped him to 5.7 fWAR. The bigger story, pardon the pun, was Trevor Story last season, who stayed healthy and slashed .291/.348/.567 with 27 stolen bases to go along with 37 HR. Story also cut his K% from 34.4 percent to 25.6 percent, which was an exceptional feat for him. You really have to like him heading into this season if the K% improvements are legit. With a big drop in swinging strike percentage and a big increase in zone-contact, they appear to be.
What happens after Arenado and Story is another, well, story. Charlie Blackmon went from a .414 wOBA and a 141 wRC+ in 2017 to a .368 wOBA and a 116 wRC+ in 2018. He’ll move to right field, which will help the Rockies because he was -28 defensive runs saved with a -12.6 UZR/150 in center, but the soon-to-be 33-year-old could be in the throes of the aging curve. Ian Desmond, who slashed .236/.307/.422, is expected to take over in CF.
David Dahl played well in 271 plate appearances with a .273/.325/.534 slash, but he was limited to 96 games once again across two levels. He played 19 games in 2017. Injuries are always going to be a concern with Dahl. If he stays healthy, he can be a league average player.
The Rockies have to replace DJ LeMahieu, who was decent with the bat and even better with the glove. They also have to replace Carlos Gonzalez, who slashed .276/.329/.467. Daniel Murphy should be a nice addition as a recent launch angle disciple. He’s projected for a pretty big offensive year, but the move from second base to first base will show up in his positional adjustment in terms of WAR. He’ll be worth more in a practical sense than a statistical sense. As long as he’s healthy, he’ll be a big help. He looked pretty healthy in the second half after knee problems in the first half. After shaking off the rust, Murphy slashed .315/.346/.498 in the second half with 11 of his 12 homers.
Ryan McMahon and Brendan Rogers are the most likely depth guys to make an impact, but Rogers is blocked by Story and McMahon doesn’t really have a position. He’ll battle Garrett Hampson for the spot at second base.
Overall, this is a rather underwhelming position group behind the two stars. Blackmon needs the aging curve to slow down and the other guys in the corners need to stand out in some way. The Rockies had a tremendous defensive infield and one of the worst defensive outfields in baseball last season. That will be worth watching this year as well, especially with the Desmond experiment in center.
ERA: 4.33 (20th)
FIP: 4.06 (16th)
xFIP: 3.96 (8th)
K%: 22.9% (13th)
BB%: 8.5% (19th)
LOB%: 71.3% (21st)
Bud Black got a contract extension the day I started writing my Rockies preview and this part of the ballclub is a big reason why. The Rockies haven’t had pitching numbers like this in quite some time. Finishing in the top half of the league in FIP, with that pitching environment, is not easy, but the Rockies did it in 2017 and fell just a couple decimal points short in 2018.
Jon Gray was thought to be the guy with the most upside in this Rockies rotation, but it turned out that there were two other heroes. While Gray got laughed at by the baseball gods with a 5.12 ERA and a 3.47 xFIP, German Marquez and Kyle Freeland were busy posting four-WAR seasons. Using FanGraphs’s WAR calculation, which is FIP-heavy, Freeland and Marquez turned in two of Colorado’s six four-win seasons since 2005. The others belong to Ubaldo Jimenez, Aaron Cook, and Jason Jennings.
It’s hard to figure out which one was more unexpected. Marquez was solid in 2017 with a 4.39/4.40/4.18 pitcher slash, which looks a lot better when you consider he’s forced to pitch at Coors Field approximately half of the time. On June 24 of this past season, Marquez allowed six runs on nine hits to the lowly Marlins. He had a 5.53 ERA with a 4.74 FIP and a 4.22 xFIP in his 83 innings after that outing. From June 30 through the end of the season, Marquez posted a 2.47 ERA with a 2.42 FIP and a 2.28 xFIP. There’s the “light coming on” and the “light shining so brightly that it burns the retinas of everybody that can see it”. This was the latter. Marquez turned in an unbelievable run from June 30 onward, including a 146/22 K/BB ratio.
Freeland is about as unassuming as it gets. He doesn’t miss bats. His walk rate is nothing special. But he’s a contact management wizard. He posted a 2.85 ERA with a 3.67 FIP and a 4.22 xFIP in his 202.1 innings. Freeland held the opposition to a .297 wOBA in the first half and a .286 wOBA in the second half. This wasn’t like Marquez getting white hot and going on a run. This was Freeland being special all year long.
The purple elephant in the room for the Rockies, though, is how sustainable this is for those two hurlers. Marquez had a 17-start run that seems hard to repeat. Freeland posted an 82.8 percent LOB%, which is virtually impossible without an elite strikeout rate. Nine pitchers had a LOB% of 80 percent or better in 2018. Freeland, amazingly, was one of four with less than a strikeout per inning. Mike Fiers and Jon Lester are viewed as significant regression candidates. The other was Zack Greinke. The others, for what it’s worth, were Blake Snell, Justin Verlander, Aaron Nola, Jacob deGrom, and Max Scherzer. Two won the Cy Young. Two others have won Cy Youngs.
Gray never fully got on track, as he allowed 16 HR over his last 80.1 innings and his strikeout rate dropped. He posted a 4.68/5.49/4.31 in the second half. His improvement is probably a big key to the season with the signs of regression for Marquez and Freeland. Tyler Anderson is a guy I like, but only if he gets back to inducing ground balls, and Antonio Senzatela’s arsenal lacks depth. Chad Bettis is a filler. This rotation really needs Marquez and Freeland to be dynamite and it may not happen.
Adam Ottavino was a two-WAR reliever last season and the Rockies still finished 26th in bullpen ERA. In fairness, they were 16th in reliever FIP, so this was a case of a team that fell victim to some bad luck with a 67.1 percent LOB%, but Ottavino is gone. Wade Davis and Scott Oberg are solid. Seung Hwan Oh was a nice addition for 25 games after his acquisition from the Jays, but he has expressed a desire to return to South Korea for several months, so you wonder where his head is. Bryan Shaw is finished. This bullpen doesn’t look like as much of an asset and there are some injury concerns with Davis and the other over-30 guys.
Positives & Negatives
The NL West is not a good offensive division. The Dodgers stand above everybody across the board, but the Rockies shouldn’t be hurt too much by their counterparts at home or on the road. That is a big advantage for them, as they do have an offense capable of putting up numbers at home.
With the Diamondbacks in rebuild mode, the Giants in whatever the hell mode they’re in, and the Padres waiting on minor leaguers to graduate to the big leagues, the Rockies have a lot of wins available in those 57 games. Somebody has to win games alongside the Dodgers here and the Rockies have the best chance at doing that.
Bud Black really has done well here. He was up against it a little bit because of injuries and front office dysfunction in San Diego, but Denver has been a nice fit for him. Pitchers have to execute, but Black’s fingerprints are all over Freeland and Marquez and it really wouldn’t be a shocker to see Gray or Jeff Hoffman make a leap this season.
Pick: Under 84.5
I can’t lie to you fine folks. I do not like this division outside of the Dodgers. Somebody has to win games, right? What if that somebody is just the Dodgers? This is a no-play for me. This is a pick because every team gets one. I see the Rockies falling somewhere in the mid-80s, so this number is dead on. I could see 82-83 wins and I can see 86-87 wins. The sustainability of German Marquez and Kyle Freeland determines the ceiling for this team. The health of Nolan Arenado and Trevor Story determine the floor.
This is a depth-shy team all the way around. Jeff Hoffman hasn’t tapped into his potential much and position players like David Dahl and Raimel Tapia have to prove that they can stay healthy. A healthy team can make the playoffs again, especially in this division. It just doesn’t excite me from a season-long betting standpoint.