This morning, I'd like everybody to step into the wayback machine with me as we journey back to a decade ago.
All the way to THE YEAR 2000
December of the Year 2000 showed the Colorado Rockies desperately attempting to boost their pitching staff, the obvious Achilles heel of the organization, to complement their already potent offense and boost the team from a middling club looking back to a single wildcard appearance 5 years prior to a formidable force in the NL West and a potential World Series contender.
To accomplish this, the Rockies signed LHP Denny Neagle to a 5-year, $51M contract (which was assuredly an overpay, but still not out of question for a pitcher who'd averaged 3.32 WAR per season over the previous 6 years) and soon thereafter LHP Mike Hampton to a 8-year, $121M contract (at the time, the largest contract ever given to a pitcher, and outlandish for a pitcher who'd averaged 3.33 WAR over the previous 6 years). Obviously, at the time, overpays were necessary to get any sort of quality pitcher to risk being destroyed in the batting cathedral that was pre-humidor Coors Field.
If we step back just one year farther in the wayback machine, we can see the publication of Voros McCracken's groundbreaking DIPS concept - the idea that pitcher performance should be rated on their HR, K, and BB numbers, and that most batted ball results were defense-dependent and not really controllable by the pitcher. Aside from that, the SABRmetric analysis suggested that the best pitchers to acquire were pitchers with high strikeout numbers, as they would be the least prone to batted-ball variability as they produce more outs by themselves and rely on their defense the least.
Problem was (and still is) that pitchers with high strikeout numbers have been valued highly for a long time as it is; "strikeout pitchers are good" wasn't really a new concept.
The Rockies figured they had a good idea then. The idea that batted balls = bad worked doubly for Colorado, because any ball hit had a chance of leaving the park. So with strikeout pitchers being at a premium, Colorado figured that getting groundballers and a strong infield defense would be a solid idea. This kind of explains the Mike Hampton contract - it doesn't excuse it, but it certainly explains it. Hampton fit the kind of profile the Rockies wanted: a seemingly healthy 200IP+ pitcher with strong groundball tendencies who had a front-of-the-rotation reputation. The overpay part came because, come on, who wants to pitch in Coors Field?
Just for the record, I have zero explanation/excuse/whatever for Neagle. Glad the Rockies were able to void THAT contract.
So essentially, this whole thing shaped - or in any case, reinforced - the Rockies' organizational philosophy, regarding pitching: Build through the draft and international free agency, and get pitchers that can control a sinking fastball or strong changeup. The first pitcher we saw who really fit the bill in this regard was Jason Jennings. While not an extreme groundballer, Jennings sported an above-average GB% (46.4%) thanks to his sinking fastball. The next guy was Aaron Cook, and there's no doubt that he's one of the most extreme groundballers in the league (57.6%). While he's hardly been Ace-quality, he's been effective at the very least (averaging 2.2 fWAR per season - 1.5 rWAR - where an average starting pitcher is worth roughly 2 WAR).
Clearly, things were working well. The humidor being implemented, making baseballs comply with manufacturer's standards, clearly helped this as well, but the fact is that Colorado pitchers and defense were just getting the job done well.
We get it, Colorado brings up groundballers, this isn't exactly a secret. Here's where things get really interesting.
If you remember back before the jump where we made the claim that strikeout pitchers were still awesome, in that they could avoid some of that BABIP variability? Well, that hasn't really changed. Strikeouts, while fascist, are still sexy, and avoid that whole nasty ball-in-play thing.
The lesson eventually learned by Colorado is that there are two effective ways to get outs in Coors Field: strikeouts and groundballs. If you get enough of one or the other, many of your other lacking areas as a pitcher can be somewhat overlooked, or at least excused. If you look at the aforementioned pitchers, Jason Jennings and Aaron Cook made the tradeoff of strikeouts for groundballs. Now, if you look at the staff, Jorge De La Rosa is doing the same thing, but in the opposite direction: he's a far stronger strikeout pitcher with a lower GB% - although we saw a change in that in 2010 thanks to some heavier sink to his changeup.
While Colorado still works to breed groundballers in its farm system, we're seeing improvements on the other side of the tradeoff, in the form of strikeouts. Take a look at the following graph:
The 2010 Colorado Rockies did indeed accomplish what the above chart is suggesting: they set the highest K/9 in franchise history. What makes this even more impressive is that they did it without scrapping the groundballing concept - I mean, there's obviously not just some dial on Aaron Cook that is turned all the way to "groundball", but you see the point. Getting groundballs is still a fundamental aspect of development of pitchers within the Rockies system, but it says a lot about the coaching staffs at the various levels and their work with Rockies pitchers' secondary pitches to get them to the point of being able to get the punchout when needed.
What we're seeing now is Colorado leveraging both ends of that tradeoff. Aaron Cook is still the primary example of that, being an extreme groundballer, but the fact that pitchers like Jorge De La Rosa and Jason Hammel are able to make it with Colorado despite not being notable groundballers gives the organization more flexibility when working to fill a major league rotation. We know that Jhoulys Chacin is already quite adept in inducing the ground ball, and Christian Friedrich looks to be at least average in that department, but Friedrich's profile is kind of the flexibility I'm talking about. Should he regain form after injury in 2011, we could be looking at another high-K, decent GB pitcher - maybe not EXACTLY like De La Rosa, but as far as the GB/K analysis goes, we're looking in the same direction.
The pitcher who really butters the staff's bread is obviously still Ubaldo Jimenez. We know what Ubaldo's capable of already, and despite a reduced GB% in 2010, he eschews the whole trading-grounders-for-strikeouts concept and just does both.
Last point for this morning: The Rockies' 7.70 K/9 ranked 7th in the NL (and the Majors), and their 46.5% GB% tied them for 5th with the Phillies (thank you Roy Halladay). If we take those ranks and "average" them, the Rockies get a ranking of 6 in a GB+K9. Stacking them against every other MLB team, this puts them at 3rd for GB+K9, behind Atlanta (3.5) and San Diego (4.5). Granted, not every other team needs to have such a strong emphasis on the groundball, but the Rockies know what they need to have their pitchers do, and they're very, very good at it.