Monday Rockpile: Identifying the sinkholes

Tom Szczerbowski

The Colorado Rockies have to address three major sinkholes if they want there to be a Rocktober in 2014

Last Wednesday, Jeff Aberle posted a detailed breakdown of where the Rockies stand. I'd encourage you to read the whole piece if you have not already, but Jeff's overall position can largely be summed up in these two passages....

During my scant experience as a member of the credentialed baseball media, I heard a variation of "This is a really talented ball club, we know we have the ability to contend" many times from players or coaches. And they're not wrong: there is a considerable amount of talent on this team. The problem is that it's almost completely concentrated on a few players.

I'm not sure how the current big picture I'm seeing gets the Rockies from a 75 win team into the playoffs and back to the World Series.

I completely agree with the first clip, but not so much with the conclusion. The reason for this is that I believe it's much easier for a team in Colorado's situation to fix a roster with a strong core and a weak supporting cast than it is to fix a team with only a few holes and a lack of star power.

Sinkholes on a roster are maddening for fans, but they also provide obvious paths to improvement if filled properly by the front office. For me, there's three categories of massive sinkholes this team needs to take care of between now and April which I'm going to touch on in the rest of this piece. None of them should be new to you if you've read Purple Row all summer, but I want to pull them all together here to illustrate the large spectrum of possible results 2014 could bring depending on how successful Colorado is at filling them.

(The more specific details of how to fill them will come when we hit the off season as more questions surrounding the current rosters in Denver and Tulsa are answered. This, along with a free agent and trade market that has yet to crystallize should all play key roles for this franchise in the coming months)

* * * * *

1) The negative contributes on offense

As I have many times this season, I'm going to pull the "Drag Factor" charts out. Here'e the equation we use to get it....

Drag Factor = ((100 - wRC+) * Plate Appearances) / Team Total Non-Pitcher Plate appearances

A) An individual's Drag Factor can be calculated with the equation above.

B) A team's Drag Factor (which is more useful) can be calculated by adding the Drag Factors of everyone on the team together.

(If you are not familiar with wRC+, here's a link that explains the metric.)

In a nutshell, we are looking for players who have a very low wRC+ and a very high number of plate appearances. The more extreme the combination of each of these two factors are, the higher a player's Drag Factor score is going to be.

To drive home how much negative production (or "Drag") there is in the Rockies lineup this season, let's compare their "Drag Factor" scores to the top four teams in the NL since that's where Colorado eventually wants to get to.

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Rockies

Rox_medium

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Braves

Braves_medium

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Cardinals

Cardinals_medium

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Pirates

Pirates_medium

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Dodgers

Dodgers_medium

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I've heard Colorado fans say over and over again, "how can a team with as much talent on it as the Rockies look so bad?". Well, here's a large part of your answer. The difference between the Rockies lineup and the lineups of the teams going to the postseason in the NL has less to do with the good hitters on the roster and more to do with minimizing the "Drag" created by the less successful players.

Perhaps what's even more frustrating about the Rockies "Drag Factor" score of 20.07 though is the fact that they have Troy Tulowitzki and Wilin Rosario manning the majority of the games at the shortstop and catcher positions. This should make it significantly easier for the Rockies to have a low "Drag Factor" score since those two positions are usually going to be a likely source "Drag".

Unfortunately, the 2013 Rockies have "Drag" coming from so many other places that it really didn't matter. Many of these names were cut from the roster or sent down to AAA, but despite 20 different position players taking a plate appearance for the Rockies this season, only five of them (Troy Tulowitzki, Michael Cuddyer, Carlos Gonzalez, Dexter Fowler, and Corey Dickerson) have posted a wRC+ of 100 or higher.

It's not hopeless however, and here's why. Since the humidor was installed back in 2002, only one other Rockies team has a "Drag Factor" score close to being as high as the 2013 Rockies, and that was the 2006 Rockies. As we learned first hand six years ago, the bottom part of your roster can have fortunes that change rapidly if the right buttons are pushed. Take a look at improvement in Colorado's "Drag Factor" score from 2006 to 2007.

* * * * *

2006

2006_medium

* * * * *

2007

2007_medium

2) The bottom of the rotation

I don't think we need to spend too much time on this one. The hole here has been a joke! Colorado has now lost a staggering 13 games in a row not started by Jhoulys Chacin, Jorge De La Rosa, Tyler Chatwood or Juan Nicasio and their throw everything at the wall and hope something sticks routine has produced zero answers - Not even short lived ones.

Nicasio (5.05 ERA) is the only pitcher who has started a game for the Rockies this season who has an ERA between 3.41 and 5.81. You have Chacin, De La Rosa, and Chatwood all having excellent years, and then a massive drop off from there. Even though a variation in offensive performances has something to do with the following stat, I feel like it sums up Colorado's bottom of the rotation predicament pretty well: The Rockies are 35-23 in the 58 games started by Chacin, Chatwood, and De La Rosa and just 17-38 in the 55 games started by everyone else.

What the Rockies need too do is find some arms that can bring them to .500 in games not started by their big three. This doesn't mean they have to find an ace, but it does mean that they can't afford the dumpster fire results they've gotten from this part of the team like we've seen this season. Some of this may come from within as prized prospect Eddie Butler could hit the scene and provide meaningful innings in the second half of 2014, but at least one starting arm likely has to come from outside of the organization if Colorado decides it wants to contend in 2014.

3) Losing the close games

In addition to the sharp fall off at the bottom of the roster, there's something else going on with this team. For some reason, they have an inability to take the talent they do have on this roster and turn it into meaningful runs and run prevention. Overall, the Rockies have been much better at scoring runs and preventing them in less meaningful situations than when they really needed them, and that leads me to believe that this team should have a better record than it does right now.

Even after this last week in which the Rockies lost four games by four runs or more, the team is still 22-17, a full five games north of .500 in games decided by four runs or more. In other words, they have played 113 games this season, and the opponent has really only outclassed them about 15% of the time. That's a sign that there are some pretty solid pieces on this roster (despite the bottom half of it).

The problem has been that Colorado is 30-44 in games decided by three runs or less. If the Rockies could have gone 37-37 in these games, they would be just a couple of game out of a playoff spot right now. These are the games that should naturally be close to .500 too because of some things evening out, but especially for a team like the Rockies who have proved that its roster is better than it's opponents in blowout games.

Going into yesterday's game, the Rockies had a wRC+ of 90 and a WPA of -10.61 on the season which put them on pace to finish with a WPA of -15.35 if extrapolated out over 162 games. While some of that number certainly has to do with the Rockies being a below average offensive team overall, there's something else going on here as well.

Since the Rockies had a wRC+ of 90 going into yesterday's game, I took all of the teams who finished with a wRC+ of 89, 90, or 91 over the last four seasons and looked at where they finished the season WPA wise. Here's what I found.

Wpa_of_90_wrc_teams_medium

Even with their high "Drag Factor" score, there's just no way the Rockies should be on pace to record a WPA of -15.35. No other team with a similar wRC+ number in the last four seasons comes close to that figure and only the 2010 Cubs come within seven games of that WPA number.

This is a place where the Rockies have to get better in 2014, and actually, right now would be a good time to start. Some of this pace is undoubtedly due to bad luck and just getting hits at all the wrong times, but I also believe that at least some of it is self induced. Just watching this team on a daily basis, I see far too many boneheaded mistakes on the base paths, far too many strikeouts with a runner on third and less than two outs, far too many ground balls rolled over into double plays on pitches sitting on the outer half of the plate, and not enough taking the ball the other way when the pitcher won't throw the ball in the hitter's "happy zone".

This part of the equation I lay less at the feet of the front office, and more on the coaching staff and the guys in the locker room. Talent wise, this is a .500 ROSTER; however, a failure to execute the little things at an appalling rate combined with some poor luck currently has this group on pace to be a 74 / 75 win TEAM. Notice the difference between "roster" and "team".

* * * * *

These are the three things I believe the Rockies have to focus on if they want to take a significant step forward in 2014. All of them have the potential to provide huge boosts alone if they are unlocked, but putting a large dent into a combination of the three is the team's most likely path to success.

They can start working on the WPA problem right now as that's something that will both make for a more enjoyable finish to this season as well as get the team on track for where they need to go in 2014.

The "Drag Factor" improvements should be starting right now too. I want to see Nolan Arenado take more steps towards being a 100 wRC+ hitter next season. He's mostly gotten a pass for his hitting because his glove has been so outstanding, but that part of his game has been a big disappointment so far this season. If the Rockies can take his name off the "Drag Factor chart next season because he's hitting well, that's an enormous positive for the club.

The front office can also use this time to decide who shouldn't be allowed anywhere near this roster next season and create a shopping list of sorts to fill the holes. For instance, the answer to the right field / first base question next season shouldn't be Michael Cuddyer to first and Corey Dickerson to right. It should instead be something along the lines of "acquire another strong option at first base or right field, put Cuddyer at the opposite position, thank Todd Helton for his services, ban Jordan Pacheco from coming within a 50 yard radius of Coors Field, and then having guys like Dickerson and Kyle Parker come up and be your fourth and fifth outfield options". If they prove better than one of the big three or there's injuries, then they get more playing time, but they have to earn it first, and creating a deeper roster like this is the only way the Rockies have any real chance at all of reducing the "Drag Factor" score.

Think of the 2009 situation where the Rockies had Seth Smith as a bench option. Many folks wanted him to play every day over Brad Hawpe (and maybe he should have), but a big reason why that team worked so well is that it had FOUR outfielders capable of hitting well instead of three. You could keep everyone rested and you had an excellent pinch hit option whenever you needed it, which is a heck of a lot more than you can say for the bench of the 2013 club right now.

As far as the pitching is concerned, we'll know more as we head towards the off season. We'll know how Tyler Chatwood finished his breakout season, we'll get another hand full of Juan Nicasio starts, we'll hopefully get a better idea of what caused Drew Pomeranz to take such an ugly step backwards, we'll get to see how Chad Bettis handles his first look at major league hitting, and we'll see if Eddie Butler can cruise through AA Tulsa as well as his did High A Modesto.

As disappointing as things are right now, the Rockies can turn this into a playoff run next season. After all, their three previous playoff births were preceded by seasons similar to this one. The 2008 team won 74 games, the 1994 team was on pace to finish just under 74 wins at the time of the strike, and the 2006 team finished the season with 76 wins. If the Rockies continue on their current winning percentage, the 2013 team will finish right in the middle of this group.

Links

After battling a finger injury for the last couple of weeks, Carlos Gonzalez is likely to land on the DL. If the team does make this move, it's likely that the Rockies will not have a single player reach 140 games played this season.

Nolan Arenado will be in the "Chatting Cage" tomorrow at 12:15 pm (Mountain Time), so have your questions ready for him.

The hammer is likely coming down today for players involved in the Biogenesis scandal, but one player is going to fight this until the very end. Alex Rodriguez will reportedly appeal any suspension MLB tries to give him this afternoon and rejoin the Yankees lineup tonight for what should be a circus in Chicago.

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