Remember when the Colorado Rockies started the 60-game season with an 11-3 record? Yeah, me neither. The Rockies would go on to lose 31 of the next 46 games and only win consecutive games on four occasions. Their longest winning streak after Game #14 was three games, all one-run wins. This was a team that got lucky to go 26-34, as Pythagorean Win-Loss and BaseRuns were in agreement at 23-37.
That was on the heels of a 71-91 season in 2019. The Rockies finished one game behind the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2018. And the one game that they lost by was a tiebreaker in Game 163. Since then, it has only been 222 games, but it feels like everything has changed and not for the better. The Rockies seem lost. They seem rudderless. They simply don’t appear to have a plan.
Case in point, the Rockies paid the Cardinals $50 million to take Nolan Arenado. Arenado was unhappy in Colorado, basically demanding a trade prior to last season’s 60-game sprint. It is hard to blame Arenado for his discontentment. This is a Rockies team with two playoff appearances on his watch and he only has 23 postseason plate appearances to his name. Ownership is unwilling to spend money internally and the team has never quite figured out how to master a unique set of circumstances.
While teams around Major League Baseball are hard at work in their respective analytics departments to find edges or ways to improve at the margins, the Rockies have one of the smallest analytics departments in baseball. You would think that playing at elevation would force a team to have a lot more eggheads capable of figuring out how to counterbalance the “Coors Field Effect” on the road or how to help the pitching staff perform better at home.
The problems run extremely deep with the Rockies. The big offensive splits are inevitable. So are the pitching ones. This is just a bad baseball team and its best player finally got out of Dodge. The other one could go soon, too, in shortstop Trevor Story.
This is the last season in which Story is under contract. In other words, there is a very good chance he gets traded prior to the end of the season. Jon Gray is a free agent, too. Any win total wager needs to take the Trade Deadline and the contract situations into account. The Rockies have a lot of players that could be attractive to suitors and might as well get younger and try to infuse some talent into the system while the reign of terror for the Padres and Dodgers lasts at least a few more years.
None of this is earth-shattering analysis. The season win total line suggests just how bad this team could be. The Rockies spent exactly zero guaranteed dollars on the projected 26-man roster. The Monforts signed Arenado and almost immediately looked to trade him and shed the cost. Imagine having buyer’s remorse about one of the best players at his position in the game.
I feel bad for Rockies fans and for the players left having to endure this fiasco, but the front office and ownership have gotten exactly what they deserve.
The question is, will this season be, ahem, Rockie bottom?
2021 Over/Under Season Win Total Odds
Odds To Win NL West
|Team||Odds To Win|
|Los Angeles Dodgers||-250|
|San Diego Padres||+200|
|San Francisco Giants||+4000|
|BaseRuns Run Differential||-80 (4.45/5.79)||-123 (5.10/5.86)|
|3rd Order Win%||24.0-36.0||69.8-92.2|
|Record in One-Run Games||9-8||22-21|
Additions: CJ Cron, Greg Bird, Nick Longhi, Connor Joe, Jose Briceno, Brian Gonzalez, Dereck Rodriguez, Elehuris Montero, Austin Gomber, Tony Locey, Jake Sommers, Mateo Gil, Yoan Aybar, Jameson Hannah, Robert Stephenson, Jordan Sheffield
Losses: Tony Wolters, David Dahl, Joe Harvey, Drew Butera, Matt Kemp, Kevin Pillar, Tim Collins, AJ Ramos, Daniel Murphy, Nolan Arenado, Christian Koss, Jeff Hoffman, Case Williams, Ashton Goudeau, James Pazos, Ian Desmond (opt out)
CJ Cron provided a little bit of spark to what was an otherwise brutal offseason for the Rockies. Not much happened, but the one big thing that did happen was quite significant. The loss of Nolan Arenado not long after he signed a mega extension to stay in Colorado had to be an extremely tough pill for fans to swallow.
Arenado’s departure doesn’t just leave a big hole in the lineup, but also a big hole defensively at third base, as he was a perennial Gold Glove candidate.
David Dahl put up good numbers when he was actually healthy and Tony Wolters was great with the glove and awful with the bat. Otherwise, most of the losses are not noteworthy. The only noteworthy additions, at least to me, are Cron, Greg Bird, and Austin Gomber, who is the most MLB-ready of the players acquired for Arenado.
|Batting Average (BA)||.257 (8th)||.265 (5th)|
|On-Base Percentage (OBP)||.311 (25th)||.326 (12th)|
|Slugging Percentage (SLG)||.405 (17th)||.456 (6th)|
|Weighted On-Base Avg (wOBA)||.307 (22nd)||.328 (9th)|
|Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+)||76 (29th)||86 (26th)|
|Batting Avg on Balls In Play (BABIP)||.316 (4th)||.321 (2nd)|
|Strikeout Percentage (K%)||24.1% (18th)||23.9% (22nd)|
|Walk Percentage (BB%)||7.1% (29th)||7.8% (23rd)|
The Rockies offense gets a big boost every year from the hitter-friendly environment in the Mile High City. Coors Field has a big, spacious outfield and ranks first or second pretty much year in and year out in terms of BABIP by venue. That stands for batting average on balls in play and you can see that the Rockies have been a top-five team in that department each of the last two seasons.
If you look at the highest team BABIPs from 2010-20, the Rockies have five of the top 10. It is just the nature of the beast at Coors Field. Because more balls fall in and you do get some additional carry on the fly balls that do leave the ballpark, that will inherently increase a team’s batting average, as well as the slugging percentage. Slugging percentage is total bases divided by at bats. You only rack up total bases on hits. Because there are more hits at Coors Field than virtually any other ballpark, the Rockies tend to do well in those two statistical categories.
Where the Rockies almost never do well is in wRC+. Weighted runs created plus is park-adjusted, so it takes into account the fact that the Rockies play half of their games in the best offensive environment in baseball. What it also seems to hold against the Rockies is the opposite Coors Field Effect.
In Denver, pitches don’t do what they will do in other places. Breaking balls break less. Offspeed pitches drop less. Fastballs even have less movement. The lower air density puts less resistance on the ball. As a result, pitchers often struggle at Coors Field because they simply aren’t getting what they want out of their throws. The Rockies are able to thrive in that environment at home and so are most opposing offenses.
On the flip side, when the Rockies hit the road, pitches do what they are supposed to and it is much harder for their hitters to adjust. The home/road splits for the Rockies and for visiting teams in Colorado aren’t simply about the elevation or the park factor. There are a lot of scientific aspects to a pitch and what a pitch does that also factor into the equation.
The story, ahem, pardon the pun, was the same for the Rockies in 2020 that it was in 2019. Trevor Story had 2.4 fWAR. The Rockies, as a team, got 2.6 fWAR from their team on the hitting and defensive sides of the coin. When we checked in last season, Story and Arenado combined for 11.7 fWAR and the team had 10.5 fWAR, so the rest of the team was a collective negative in a big way.
This past season, Story outshined everybody else on the roster. Arenado was worth 0.9 fWAR and Charlie Blackmon was worth 0.8 fWAR. Arenado actually had a horrible offensive season in the short season as his name was bandied about in trade talks. Ultimately, he was traded to the Cardinals, so he won’t be there this season. That leaves the Rockies with Story and not much else.
Story had a big year with a .289/.355/.519 slash with a .370 wOBA and a 117 wRC+. He hit 11 homers and also stole 15 bases. With Arenado’s money freed up, the logical follow-up question is whether or not the Rockies will extend Story a big check. The logical follow-up question to that is whether or not Story will want to take it after seeing how they handled Arenado and the direction of the team moving forward in general.
To some degree, I think wRC+ is a little bit harsh on the Rockies because it doesn’t really account for the Coors Field Effect on the road to the proper degree when the players struggle away from home, but Story was the only player to post something higher than 99. Kevin Pillar had a 99 in 97 plate appearances, but he’s gone. Raimel Tapia rode a .392 BABIP to a .321 average and a .369 OBP that led him to finish with a 96 wRC+. Nobody else really hit to any degree outside of Blackmon, who is now 34 and saw a big decrease in contact quality.
Cron is the guy that will have some upside for the Rockies and could very well replace the lost production from Arenado. Cron doesn’t have a guaranteed roster spot, as he only picked up a minor league deal with a non-roster invite from the Rockies, but he fits Coors Field in a fascinating way. Cron pulls the ball a ton and also hits a lot of fly balls. He topped out at 30 HR for the Rays in 2018, but if he plays a full season with Colorado, he could easily top that.
Projection systems are very bullish on him in Colorado and they should be. Cron actually hasn’t been a poor defender at first base either. At this point, anybody with a pulse that can produce offensively represents an upgrade for the Rockies.
We’ve been waiting a while for Brendan Rodgers to make his presence felt. He has only had 102 plate appearances at the MLB level and is only 24 years old, but he’s looked extremely overmatched to this point. Development for the Rockies is so hard. While the hitter-happy PCL has some similar elements, it is a major challenge to prepare guys for Coors Field and then for what they’ll face in away games.
This will be a poor offense again. The Rockies will score runs at home, but so will the opposition. They’ll be among the league’s worst road offenses again. Lather, rinse, repeat. Nothing changes in Denver. Well, except for one thing. For the first time since 2013, Nolan Arenado is not there.
|Earned Run Average (ERA)||5.59 (29th)||5.58 (29th)|
|Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP)||5.14 (28th)||5.23 (29th)|
|Adj. Fielding Independent Pitching (xFIP)||5.13 (30th)||4.75 (22nd)|
|Strikeout Percentage (K%)||16.8% (30th)||19.7% (28th)|
|Walk Percentage (BB%)||8.8% (12th)||9.2% (24th)|
|Left On Base Percentage (LOB%)||66.5% (29th)||68.6% (28th)|
Speaking of that old adage about how the more things change, the more they stay the same, the Rockies were one of the worst pitching staffs in baseball. We can sit here and be as sympathetic as possible because they’re forced to pitch at Coors Field roughly half of the time, but this falls solely on the shoulders of the Rockies front office and analytics staff.
Well, lack thereof. The Rockies were the subject of an article ($) at The Athletic in December highlighting a departure of members of the team’s research and development team. It wasn’t the exodus that stood out to me. It was this line: “According to multiple sources, four of the six members of the Rockies’ research and development team have left since the end of last season, essentially knee-capping an analytics department that was already among the smallest and least effective in baseball.”
SIX F*CKING ANALYSTS.
Six analysts when you have the single biggest pitching disadvantage in all of baseball. I fully realize that you cannot rewrite the laws of physics, but there has to be some sort of way to fashion a plan of attack. Load up on pitchers with elite spin rates so that when they pitch at home, they’ll at least have league average spin rates. Something. Anything.
How you could have one of the three smallest analytics departments in baseball blows my mind. How do you not make the simplest of investments? There are a lot of teams out there capable of playoff contention year in and year out without blowing the bank on free agents. They develop from within. They find ways to level the playing field at the margins. They don’t look for surplus value. They create it.
The Rockies had an overwhelmed, overworked analytics team that clearly hit a breaking point. The pitchers here need all the help they can get. The last thing you want at Coors Field is a ball in play. The Rockies regularly rank in the bottom five in K%, so naturally they rank in the bottom five in ERA, FIP, and xFIP, too. They also get very little help from the defense because it is remarkably hard to cover ground in Denver.
Today’s players aren’t stupid meatheads that only go into the weight room to get gains and then go to the field and just let it all hang out. Players are smarter than ever before. They want data. They want to know ways to improve. Money is on the line. Their careers are on the line. The Rockies provide none of that and seemingly what they have provided hasn’t worked.
Take German Marquez for example. Perennially the best pitcher that the Rockies have, Marquez ran a 3.75 ERA with a 3.28 FIP last season. He had a 5.68 ERA at home and a 2.06 ERA on the road. He had a 21.2% K% at home and on the road. He had a 7.3% BB% at home and on the road. His HR/FB% was actually LOWER at home. What happened? He had a .371 BABIP at home with a 59% LOB% and a .234 BABIP on the road with a 74.3% LOB%.
Pitching at Coors Field is such a hellacious disadvantage for these guys. They oftentimes put up decent numbers in spite of what they have to contend with at home. Marquez has some pretty good career numbers with a 5.10 ERA at home in 293 innings and a 3.51 ERA on the road in 341.1 innings. His home FIP is 3.89 and his road FIP is 3.82, but his ERA is so dramatically different because of the natural handicap of Coors.
The solution for the Rockies has been to try and load up on ground ball guys. Marquez had a 50.6% GB%. Antonio Senzatela, who was second in fWAR with a 3.44 ERA and a 4.57 FIP, had a 50.8% GB%. Kyle Freeland was third with a 4.33 ERA and a 4.65 FIP to go with his 51.5% GB%.
New addition Austin Gomber is 27. You’ll never guess what his biggest skill is! He had a 48.6% GB% last season. Of course, he also had a major walk problem that he better fix in a hurry.
The Rockies have basically waved a white flag on trying to find strikeouts and are instead trying to find ground ball guys. The problem with that is the most extreme ground ball starters are typically in that 50% range. That means that the other half of batted balls are going out on a line or in the air. I give this rotation credit for trying. The Rockies were 15th in starting pitcher fWAR.
They were 27th in reliever fWAR with a unit that allowed a 6.77 ERA with a 5.56 FIP. Rockies relievers had the second-lowest K% at 18.6%. If the ground ball strategy at least sort of worked with the starters, it didn’t carry over to the relievers, who were 20th in GB%.
Then the Rockies add a guy like Robert Stephenson from the Reds. He has a 34.3% GB% in his career. They added Mychal Givens, another fly ball guy. Both guys have strikeout upside, but the wrong batted ball distribution if they’re not getting strikeouts.
Maybe there is no solution. Maybe every stone has been turned. I’d argue that it very much has not and that the Rockies have no idea what they are doing as an organization on the pitching side right now. They don’t embrace analytics enough. They don’t develop enough impact talent because the learning curve to the Majors is hard enough without having to work the weather and atmospheric conditions into the equation.
All I know is that I’m not even a Rockies fan and I want to pull my hair out from all of this.
Positives & Negatives
The Arenado domino has already fallen. If I’m Story, I want no part of this. He’s a free agent at season’s end and I’d test the waters. That means that the Rockies will probably trade him at the Trade Deadline. The Rockies wouldn’t be lucky enough to get out from Blackmon’s deal, so they’ll have to contend with that, but Givens and Gray are free agents on the pitching side and somebody might be interested in Kyle Freeland given that he’s under team control for two more seasons.
This is clearly, decisively the worst team in the NL West in my estimation. We all know how good the Padres and Dodgers are. I happen to like the Diamondbacks and also appreciate what the Giants are doing with how much they have embraced analytics since Farhan Zaidi took over. The Rockies have 76 out of 162 games against those four teams and they might be lucky to win 25 of them. That would be 51 of their losses right there.
Two years ago, the Rockies went 43-38 at home. They were outscored by 44 runs, so they got really lucky there. They were 28-53 on the road. They lost by five or more runs 32 times. Not only are they not any better from two years ago or even last season, but the division is much, much stronger.
Colorado Rockies Pick & Prediction: Under 64.5
It will be an upset in my opinion if the Rockies avoid 100 losses. Due in large part to Coors Field and more familiarity with the venue, the Rockies have never lost 100 games. They lost 98 in 2012. They also have eight seasons with 90+ losses compared to three seasons with 90+ wins.
Trevor Story is halfway out the door. He could have an Arenado-esque season here while wondering about where he goes next. His Coors Field production won’t have much bearing on his next hometown. He won’t be the only one whose name is bandied about on the trade markets.
I couldn’t bet on the over. I can’t really bet on an under of 64.5 either, especially when the Rockies have only finished under this once in a full season, but for the purposes of making a pick on every team, I can definitely look under with the Rockies.