What a difference a week can make in early season baseball. Last week, the Rockies had just come off a Coors Field Opening win after a successful trip to Milwaukee. After a great weekend of baseball, Rockies fans had to endure the horror show that is Colorado playing in San Francisco before arriving in the friendlier confines of Petco Park in San Diego last night. After two weeks, this team is definitely showing some early season trends, some to be proud of and some that can hopefully be fixed.
The Good - Leadoff Power
This team can hit. Even with the trip to San Francisco, which cooled down the bats, the Rockies are in the top five of nearly every offensive category and have four regulars hitting over .300. The most impressive of those hitters so far in the season is Dexter Fowler.
With his two home runs last night, Dex has six on the season. To put this in perspective, in his four other Aprils with the big league club, he has a total of seven home runs; also, there are nine baseball teams that do not have more home runs than Dex. He is also hitting for a good average and has taken four walks, all of which leads to a stat line of .325/.386/.825. I don't expect his bat to stay this hot, but it has been fun to see this 27 year-old grow as a batter over the past few years.
This surge in power brings up an interesting question and a difficult decision for Walt Weiss. Does it still make sense to bat Fowler in the lead off spot? Even with his six home runs and two doubles, Dex only has nine RBIs as he rarely comes up with runners in scoring position (11 plate appearances with RISP vs. 37 without). However, he has not done well with runners in scoring position, .273/.273/.636, so he may not have the patience/confidence to bat in an RBI position. However, digging deeper into the stats, in every other season, Dex has actually done better at the plate with runners on than with the bases empty. So perhaps he could do well in an RBI lineup spot and the early season numbers are just a small sample size aberration.
This is similar to the conundrum that the Rockies faced with Carlos Gonzalez in 2010. The team eventually moved Cargo from lead-off to the 3 spot in the lineup where he has been a regular ever since (occasionally hitting fourth). While Fowler runs well, he does not have the speed of Cargo for stealing bases so moving him makes even more sense, except for two issues.
The first issue is that the Rockies don't have anyone else better suited for the lead-off role in the regular eight fielders. When Eric Young Jr. plays, he already takes over the spot, moving Fowler to second in the lineup. I think that Dex is a little too much of a free swinger to hit second, especially if the team is looking for EY to create havoc on the bases. When Young isn't in the lineup, probably the next best option would be Josh Rutledge. Hitting the youngster first would be an interesting move and could take advantage of his best attributes. If this happened, Michael Cuddyer or Todd Helton could be a good fit for the second spot, leaving Dexter to fill one of the RBI spots.
The second issue with taking him out of the lead-off spot would be where to put him in the lineup. The lineup has power throughout and many veterans already have their spots fixed. I would argue that Fowler has earned the chance to be looked at as a five hole hitter (at least while his bat is hot) and that Helton should hit second against right handers with Cuddyer filling the number two spot against left handers. If number five is too much of a leap, then Cuddy/Helton can fill the second and fifth spots, Rosario could move to six and Fowler could hit seven which would give him RBI opportunities and also allow him to act like a lead off hitter for the back of the lineup.
Regardless of where he ends up hitting, the front office did well to show faith in Dexter Fowler with the two year contract they gave him this winter. The Rockies have many outfield prospects knocking on the door of the big league club, but none of them have the combination of switch-hitting ability that Fowler has shown this year and his defensive abilities in center field. I, for one, am hoping he stays in Colorado well beyond 2014.
Honorable Mention - The Starting Rotation: These five have been solid in nine out of ten games so far. Seven quality starts and a 4.14 ERA (3.44 without the last start by Francis) is much better than last year's 1 QS and 6.66 ERA through 10 games. This is not just because of easier competition either, the 2012 club started the season with a very similar schedule, with their first four series against Houston, SF, Arizona, and San Diego. The difference for the team in the early going: a record of 6-4 vs. 4-6.
The Bad - Can't Spell Relief
Other than the blow up by Jeff Francis on Wednesday, the Rockies starters have been solid and have given the team a chance to win every time out. Turning it over to the bullpen, though, hasn't been as successful as Rockies fans have come to expect. The bullpen has lost leads, given the other team the lead in tied games, and failed to keep the team close enough to come back in this young season. It is not one specific reliever, with Ottavino, Belisle, and new comers Chris Volstad and Wilton Lopez all struggling at times.
As mentioned in last week's article, the Rockies starters are doing well if they make it out of the first couple of innings. This trend continued since last Saturday, with the starters having four quality starts in six games. Two of these four times the bullpen was given a lead and, unlike last week in Milwaukee, they kept the lead, only allowing one run in five and 1/3 innings. On Friday night, Wilton Lopez couldn't keep the game tied, giving up two runs in the seventh before the offense came back strong to win the game. The fourth quality start of the week was when Jorge De La Rosa pitched well but left the game down 3-2. The Rockies were battling to tie the game but a run given up by the bullpen in the eighth ultimately put the game out of reach.
The worst bullpen outing came on Tuesday with the Rockies up 6 to 2 on the Giants. While not a quality start, Juan Nicasio pitched well for five innings, but struggled in the sixth, giving up back to back walks to start the inning. Two relievers later, the Rockies finally got out of the sixth, but not with the lead. Adam Ottavino and Matt Belisle combined to let both inherited runners score plus two more batters cross the plate. Adding insult to injury, Belisle allowed two more runs in the eighth, breaking up the tie and giving the Rockies a heartbreaking loss.
The one game that wasn't close, Francis' debacle, still ended up with the bullpen giving up three runs. This time it was Chris Volstad, who gave up the run in De La Rosa's start, who allowed three runners to score. This game was never close for the Rockies, but it is still a disturbing trend when the bullpen only had one clean game this week.
With four of the six games on the road where the offense isn't as prolific, the bullpen needed to be strong. The Rockies could have been 2-2 on this road trip so far instead of 1-3, and were almost 0-4 because of the bullpen. As Charlie Drysdale said in his article on Purple Row Friday, the Rockies have a lot of major league tested arms in the minors and they may be called on to provide bullpen relief. Continued struggles by Volstad, in particular, could lead to a quick release as he has no previous bullpen success (like Belisle and Lopez do) to fall back on.
The Ugly - Giving Away Outs
At this rate, the Rockies base runners should follow softball rules and keep one foot on the bag until the ball is put in play. The stats say that the Rockies have 6 steals while being caught 3 times. But at least one of those outs was pivotal, while the steals have not seemed important for success. On Tuesday, with one out in the third, Eric Young Jr. was caught stealing with Cargo at the plate. On the very next pitch, Cargo sent the ball into the bay on a 415 foot blast that bounced once on the top of the wall before finding the ocean. While the Rockies ultimately lost by two (see bullpen woes above), an additional run at that point in the game could have had a huge effect.
Even more detrimental for putting up crooked numbers on the scoreboard (and tacos in our bellies) have been the base running decisions. In week one there was an overrun stop sign by Chris Nelson to go along with an ill-advised sending of Cargo to home plate that resulted in unnecessary outs. This week, the Rockies twice overran first base, again giving away outs (although Fowler should have been called safe at second).
This team has a potent offense but it can be hard to score when you gift wrap precious outs. Putting teams away early, giving the pitchers a little extra breathing room, or even just increasing the opposing pitchers pitch count by making him face another batter can make the difference in close games. If this team hopes to turn themselves into a winning ball club, they will need to pay attention to the little things like smart base running. With the power in the lineup, it is acceptable for the Rockies to be a station-to-station team, but giving up outs and potential runs will keep that power on the bench and the number in the loss column will continue to rise.
With all that said, the Rockies are 6-4, only one game back in the standings, and getting ready to come back to Colorado for ten games after they finish the weekend in San Diego, so still lots of room for optimism. Until next week, keep watching the games, keep reading Purple Row, and GOOOO ROOOOCKIES!!!!