Left-handed comebacks: How good will Francis, De La Rosa, Smith and Morales be?

So the direction my NL West preview posts have been taking me leads me to believe that a good part of the Rockies fate in 2009 lies largely in four left arms, namely those of starters Jeff Francis, Jorge De La Rosa, Greg Smith and Franklin Morales and how well they are able to fill three slots in the rotation. The question is what needs to be expected of them to make the Rockies competitive? My assumptions that have led me to this point are that:

  1. The Rockies will lose ground in their rotation to the D-backs and Dodgers
  2. The Rockies will gain ground on the Dodgers and Diamondbacks on offense
  3. The Rockies bullpen will gain ground on the Diamondbacks, but lose ground to the Dodgers
  4. The Rockies have no need to worry about the Padres, and should only worry about the Giants conditionally, so for the moment we won't focus on them.
  5. Ubaldo Jimenez and Aaron Cook are likely to be positive contributors to keeping our total rotation loss to a minimum.
  6. There is uncertainty with the other three rotation slots, but an opportunity exists to make further cuts into our two primary rivals' advantage.

Follow me after the break for a long dissection of the why's and how's that could make these four southpaws crucial components to our 2009 playoff hopes.

The goal is to be as close as possible in contribution from the pitching staff, so the offense has a relatively easy task of clearing the bar to the divisional title (later this week we'll review the dirty secret that it was actually Rockies hitters that were their bigger impediments to success in 2008). With Arizona, we have a pretty good idea of what their rotation will be like in 2009, with Los Angeles, we have an idea minus one, possibly two, major additions, but we know that their added pitchers are not likely to meet the Diamondbacks standard as far as the rotation is concerned. We also know that if the Rockies had the Diamondbacks starters, they would easily be the favorites in the division. Finally, we know if the Rockies get starting pitching like they had last season again, they'll lose. So let's set up a spectrum:

Rockies 2008 rotation --------------------------------------- Diamondbacks 2009 rotation

The closer the Rockies 2009 rotation is to the right side of this line,  the more chance the team has to win the NL West, somewhere along that line is a point that tips the balance in the division in our favor. So I guess the first, most basic question I should ask is, will the Rockies rotation be better in 2009 than it was in 2008? Because if the answer to that question is no, we might as well bail out on this post right now.

This is a trickier standard to reach than you might realize. Last season the Rockies rotation had a tRA of 4.79, which was just slightly below league average, believe it or not, and actually better than the 4.89 tRA the team had in 2007. I know this doesn't exactly jive with our actual ERA of 5.14, but that discrepancy indicates how bad the Rockies defense was last season, and the adjusted stat is a better indicator of our rotation's true talent level. Of course, scoring was down everywhere last year, so while 2008's tRA was just below average, 2007's was just a little above. The main thing is that our rotation looks pretty bad in comparison to our divisional rivals in Phoenix, who had some scary good contributions from their starters last season (a tRA of 3.67). So let's look at the Rockies projections for 2009 and see if we're likely to have a better rotation than we did in 2008. 

Projected 2009 ERA (M = Marcel; Ja= Bill James, Z = ZiPS

  • Ubaldo Jimenez:  M 3.96 Ja 4.49
  • Aaron Cook:  M 4.10  Ja 4.34
  • Jeff Francis:  M 4.41  Ja 4.56
  • Jorge De La Rosa: M 4.92 Ja 5.26
  • Greg Smith: M 4.06 Ja 4.32 Z 5.03
  • Franklin Morales: M 4.21

It's interesting how comparatively low the Marcel projections are for our pitchers, given that there is no park adjustment made to the figures that are input or that subsequently come out. Despite this, I'm actually inclined to trust them a little more for the pitchers that have spent their entire careers in Denver who shouldn't really require a park adjustment in the first place. I don't have last season's Marcel projections for Colorado, but I can see the discrepancy between Cook's (3.96 vs 4.43)  and Jimenez's (3.99 vs 5.45) actual 2008 seasons to what my park adjusted THT Season Preview Book projected, so I'm leaning to the idea that keeping things simple is best. With Smith, I hate to say it, but the ZiPS projection that has him clocking 5.03 will probably be the most accurate, or may even be optimistic, since the other two projections were based on where he was a month ago. If you remember the role that Josh Fogg played a couple of seasons ago, you'll know that's still decent for the bottom of the rotation in Denver provided we get enough production from the other four slots (BTW, I've got to differ with Russ on signing Fogg, that's too much money to be spent for too little purpose, Smith has enough competition to keep motivated as is).

So, in a sense, you could use the Marcel projection as a sort of optimistic lean for what to expect from the rotation in 2009. If we take the Marcel projections for U-ball, Cook, Francis and JDLR, with the ZiPS projection for Smith, that gives a rotational average of 4.49. Coversely, the Bill James projections might be seen as a realistic glass half-empty look, not as pessimistic as they could be, however, and certainly reasonable given what we've seen of these pitchers in the past. Using the James projection for the four holdouts from last season and the ZiPS projection for Smith gives a rotational average of 4.76, which is disturbingly close to our 2008 tRA. 4.49 to 4.76, that seems to me to be a decent starting range of expectations for the staff next season, and which will put us over that first necessary threshold of "better than 2008".

Okay, let's do the same exercise with the D-backs, to try and figure out where the other side of that spectrum sits:

Diamondbacks Projected 2009 ERA:

  • Brandon Webb: M 3.34 Ja 3.37 Z 3.08
  • Dan Haren: M 3.59 Ja 3.60 Z 3.41
  • Max Scherzer: M 3.84 Z 3.70
  • Doug Davis: M 4.41 Ja 4.62 Z 4.58
  • Yusmeiro Petit: M 4.32 Ja 4.05 Z 5.07

While for four of Arizona's starters there seems to be some general consensus, that Yusmeiro Petit range shows real disagreement. The Hardball Times preview will agree with ZiPS and have him at 5.08 for 2009, so that's not exactly an outlier. Still a lot of 3's on that board compared to the 4's we saw for Colorado. ZiPS' ERA for D-backs starters averages 3.97, Marcel averages 3.90, the Diamondbacks tRA in 2008 was 3.67, so there is some regression seen in the 2009 projections back towards league average, which should probably be expected.Still, it's going to be a challenge for the Rockies when their best single projected starter's ERA is higher than the projected rotational average for the D-backs. Where is the opportunity to make some inroads that I spoke of above? In order for the Rockies to really be competitive here, it's clear to me, as I'm sure it is to most of you, that there needs to be some contribution above what's currently projected from our rotation. It looks like we could stand to lose one of our two five-ish ERA starters and replace them with another Cook or Jimenez level starter to be close enough for the offense to bridge that last gap (three 4.00 ERA starters, a 4.50 ERA starter and a 5.00 ERA starter would . I, and many others, have said before that the easiest way to accomplish this would be to sign an upgrade, but we all know that the Rockies are taking the trickier route and the upgrade has to come from the hand that's already been dealt.

That finally brings me to my titular question, as we have four LHP's who are each, in some way or another, capable of being a third high grade, sub-4.00 RA, starter on the staff or at least otherwise beating their projections. Let's break down how each might accomplish this:

Jeff Francis

  • Reason to expect he could: Because in 2007 he was that grade of a pitcher, or at least near it given the leaguewide scoring, compiling a 117 tRA+. From August on in 2008, he seemed to have recaptured that level of performance.
  • Pitfalls: For a start, Francis rebounding by himself won't address the two expected subpar performers in the rotation and may not be enough to get the Rockies close enough. It would likely have to happen in conjunction with a Smith or De La Rosa rise to at least Francis' projected 4.50 RA level at the same time, or Jimenez or Cook becoming an ace level pitcher. The reasons behind Francis' struggles early in 2008 were never fully elucidated and that worries me. It became clear he was pitching sore, and the second stint on the DL preceded his rebound, but what was done to address how he got sore to begin with? Who's to say that problem won't recur?
  • How we'd know, one way or the other: Watch Francis' early K/BB numbers in 2009, at his best, he will have close to a 3:1 ratio (in 2007 it was 2.62:1), early last season, he was well under a 2:1 rate before turning it around late in the year.

Jorge De La Rosa

  • Reason to expect he could: Because he's essentially already there. De La Rosa's 112 tRA+ in 2008 was equal to Aaron Cook's, and a large reason the team's rotational performance was so close to average overall. A 7-3, 3.08 ERA second half to 2008.
  • Pitfalls: 2008's second half is such a small sample when compared to the rest of De La Rosa's MLB career that it's easy to see why so many of these projections call for skepticism. De La Rosa's walk rate didn't really go down in the second half, instead it went up, and his K rate was what dropped. This isn't exactly what you'd expect to see in a guy who had a breakthrough moment.
  • How we'd know, one way or the other: Given the backwards rate stats, to persuade me that JDLR's 2nd half performance was more than a fluke, I'd have to see some other verifiable measure that there was something different going on. Luckily, we have pitch data that shows just that for JDLR, as 2008 saw a sharp spike in his fastball velocity from 90.8 m.p.h. in May (.347 BABIP), to 93.7 m.p.h. in September (.266 BABIP). August and September showed the highest velocities on his FB as a starter that De La Rosa has seen in his career, and match what he was getting out of the pen for Milwaukee in 2005, the last time he had been nearly as effective as a major league pitcher. Another key difference is an increased use of his slider that along with the harder to track fastball seems to be resulting in many more chased pitches outside the strike zone, despite the fact that he was throwing slightly fewer strikes with the Rockies than he did in 2007 with Kansas City. I think I see a parallel with De la Rosa and the Pirates Ian Snell, who also saw a dip in his velocity early in 2008 which had devastating results. Snell didn't see quite the dramatic improvement if FB velocity as De La Rosa, but then again, he didn't see quite as dramatic an improvement in his effectiveness, either. There seems to be a thin line for this type of pitcher a bit above the 92.0 m.p.h. mark that takes them from bottom of the rotation innings eater to top of the rotation stud. I think the key to look for with JDLR will be that his fastball comes out of Spring training as lively as it was last summer. Also, if he's still getting around a 25% chase rate for pitches outside the strike zone, it will be a very good sign.

Greg Smith:

  • Reason to expect he could: Although the numbers and scouting reports we use to anticipate these things say that Smith's 2007 wasn't at all typical of what to expect from him on the run prevention front, the fact at the end of the day was that he was able to make it through the season with some pretty decent results. Sometimes pitchers come along who can do that consistently. Smith's got somewhat of a track record of doing the same in the minor leagues, however, which is encouraging. Anybody who knows the California League can tell you how impressive his 9-0, 1.63 ERA mark at Lancaster in 2006 was, and he put up a sub 4.00 ERA at Tucson in 2007, which is also nothing to be sneezed at.
  • Pitfalls: Those pitchers are extremely rare, and the odds are very much against Smith. Walking nearly eleven percent of the hitters he faced in Oakland last season does not bode well for a Colorado starter, where in order to keep our bullpen fresh, a necessity if we want to make a late season run, we need starters who consistently go deep into games. Walking a lot of batters isn't really conducive to this goal. Smith had a few starts like this one against the Giants, where he'd barely make it through five innings, if that, even if he was successful at keeping runs from crossing the plate. Smith isn't a stranger to deep games, though, 19 of his 32 starts last season were six innings or longer. There was a little too much predictability to Smith in 2008, if he was ahead in the count, he'd use the slider as his main secondary pitch, if he was behind, it would be the changeup. Being able to sit on FB/SL or FB/CH gave opponents a bit of an advantage beyond just getting used to his pitching in general, and you can see it in his 1st half/2nd half splits. It will be up to Smith and Iannetta or Torrealba to keep batters guessing more this season.
  • How we'd know, one way or the other: I really doubt we should expect, or even hope for, Smith to become our third #2 level starter this season, but a combo of Francis rising to that level and Smith rising to a 4.50 RA (a #3/#4) starter would do just as well, and I can envision this scenario with the right breaks. For Smith, don't look at all at the K numbers or you'll be disappointed, and may be missing what he is accomplishing. Do look at his BB/PA rate, less than eight percent seems to be a good target for him, and as long as he keeps his HR's in check, he should be alright. I know that 8% still seems high, but with his stuff, he's going to have to pick where he's most likely to find his outs, and there will be cases that letting a guy on here and there will be pretty much inevitable. Jamie Moyer comes to mind here, his best work on the season came after he started walking more hitters than the 5% he averaged in April and May. Here's something else to look for, if Smith can generate over 42% GB's on balls in play, he's a much more effective pitcher. If he does this consistently, it would be the only way he himself rises to that #2 level.

GB% and ERA by Month in 2008:

April: 43%  2.73
May:  46%  2.97
June: 33% 4.50
July: 29% 6.18
August: 29%  4.96
September: 42%  3.81

Franklin Morales

  • Reason to expect he could: Morales has the tools and the stuff and has shown glimpses of the performance needed to be our rotation saviour this season. There's some reason to expect a strong rebound by him toward his 2007 level of performance, and that 4.21 Marcel projected ERA is indicative of this.
  • Pitfalls: Morales is a Jekyll and Hyde pitcher, where it's just hard to say what we should expect this season. Reports out of Venezuela are good, but his performance record has been somewhat less than awe-inspiring, including a fairly brutal start last Wednesday. Like Smith, Morales is at his best when he's keeping the ball on the ground, but that hasn't been happening for a year now and his numbers in this regard in Venezuela have been pretty bad. Regaining some lost velocity seems a necessity for Morales to be a successful top of the rotation pitcher, I would expect a sign of this to be manifest in an increased K/PA rate, which just hasn't materialized yet.
  • How we'd know, one way or the other: Since Morales is likely to start the season in AAA, getting data on the velocity of his pitches won't be easy until we get some reports back from eyes on the ground there. Although as I said,  the signs to look for that he has gotten his stuff back would be spikes in his K/PA and GB rates. Until this happens, I wouldn't count on much from Frankie Mo', despite any optimistic projections.

I guess if I had to lay odds on the likelihood of each of these pitchers stepping up to a Cook/Jimenez level of performance for the Rockies in 2009, I would give JDLR the greatest chance since he has done it most recently. Even though velocity isn't necessarily a constant, and he could about as easily lose his added heat next season as keep it, I like the odds of him keeping it just a little better than what Francis or Smith have to do, although I've come out of this more sanguine about the chances of those two than I was before I started writing this.

The direct correlation between Smith's GB rates and his effectiveness was probably the biggest surprise I encountered while writing, as a running theme in the Holliday trade commentary was how brutal it would be for a FB pitcher like him to come to Coors. While Smith has some tendency the FB direction, there's a clear delineation in his statistical record of how many flyballs are too many for him and he's shown an ability to stay on the right side of that line. This is encouraging to me, because it's the first indication I've seen that his success last season had a component of skill involved besides his highly touted pick-off move, and he isn't just the "stone fluke" some analysts would have us believe .  With Francis, I think he's probably the second most likely to outperform his expectations behind JDLR, but there's a combination of things that have to stay in place there rather than the simple, "keep your velocity" step for De La Rosa. I've got a hunch that Morales may be the least likely of these four to come into 2009 with a pleasant surprise. I'm just not liking how many flyballs he's been giving up lately, and until I see a turnaround in that, I'm not trusting that he'll be a reliable contributor.

The real conclusion I've been coming to, however, is that while the Rockies (as is the same with any team) could benefit from a sure upgrade in the rotation, pitching for the team is hardly the concern that it's made out to be. Instead, I'd look at the eight guys besides the one on the mound. A fifty or more run swing in our favor over 2008 could be made just by getting league average defense next season. This is a bigger shift than any one starter dropping a run off their ERA, and along with potential hidden upgrades on the offense, where I'm going to be focusing my attention with my posts later in the week.

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