The starting pitching is why the Rockies went to the World Series in 2007. The starting pitching is why there was another Rocktober in 2009. Not surprisingly, the starting pitching is the most important part of any team.
The starting pitching is what destroyed the Rockies in 2011. The starting pitching is why the 2012 Rockies were the worst team in franchise history. The starting pitching is why the team felt like two different clubs rolled into one last year, and the starting pitching is what will eventually lead the Rockies back to the postseason.
There's so many things so brutally complicated about baseball. The science of hitting, the depth at different positions and how it impacts certain clubs, the uncertainty of prospects, the streakiness of teams within the season, defensive metrics, how the mental aspects of the game impact results, peripheral stats, park adjusted numbers, and the list goes on and on and on. So sometimes, it's really nice when there's a constant so simple, and so beautiful to base your expectations on. We have that in this game when it comes to the starting rotation.
I'm about to blow your mind. Well, maybe not, but I think what I'm about to show you is pretty cool.
Now let's look at the top teams in the league in terms of runs allowed per game by the starting rotation only (no bullpen stats here). Nothing park adjusted, no fielding independent pitching (FIP) metrics, just straight up runs allowed per games by the starting rotations. Here we go.
1) Braves: 3.38
2) Pirates: 3.56
3) Dodgers: 3.59
4) Reeds: 3.64
5) Cardinals: 3.68
6) Nationals: 3.86
Now let's do it for the American League. Here, there were seven teams that won more than 85 games in 2013. They were the Red Sox (97), A's (96), Tigers (93), Indians (92), Rays (92), Rangers (91), Royals (86). Once again, let's take a look at the top teams in the league in terms of runs allowed per game by the starting rotation.
1) Royals: 3.71
2) Tigers: 3.85
3) A's: 3.86
4) Rangers: 3.90
5) Rays: 3.96
6) Red Sox: 4.05
7) Indians: 4.09
We obsess so much about scoring runs and how good the offense will be at different positions, but at the end of the day, success begins and ends in the starting rotation. If there was a game tomorrow between one team that had the worst offensive player in the league with enough plate appearances to qualify at each of the eight everyday positions and Clayton Kershaw on the mound and another team that included Miguel Cabrera, Robinson Cano, Troy Tulowitzki, Evan Longoria, Buster Posey, Mike Trout, Carlos Gonzalez, and Andrew McCutchen and had Roy Oswalt on the mound, I'm taking the team with Kershaw and the AAAA starters assuming Oswalt has to stay in there for at least 75 pitches.
There's simply no way to cover up for bad starting pitching, and especially not over the course of a 162-game season.
Now the Rockies don't have to have a rotation that ranks in the top five in the league in terms of runs allowed to have success thanks to Coors Field, but they do have to at least be around league average in terms of non-park adjusted stats to get in the conversation. For proof, here's the number of runs the Rockies rotation has allowed over the last ten seasons and where it ranks compared to the rest of the league.
2004: 5.70 (Last)
2005: 5.32 (15th)
2006: 5.01 (13th)
2007: 4.65 (8th)
2008: 5.07 (14th)
2009: 4.41 (7th)
2010: 4.43 (10th)
2011: 4.78 (15th - Houston was still in the league)
2012: 5.49 (Last - BY A LOT!!!)
2013: 4.69 (Last)
Notice that whenever the Rockies get in the top ten in the league here, they are either in the postseason, or playing meaningful baseball with about ten games to go in September. That's not a coincidence. (Also of note, the reason why the 05 and 06 teams gave up so many more runs than last year's team and did not rank last is because runs are trending down sharply across baseball, so when you extend this data out to ten years, you are chasing a bit of a moving target.)
Now here's where I'm once again going to bring up a point I've been bringing up all off season. Last year, the Rockies were half way to an excellent rotation. Jhoulys Chacin, Jorge De La Rosa, and Tyler Chatwood only combined to start 81 games, but together they only allowed 3.39 runs per game and the team went an exceptional 49-32. If the Rockies could have just gotten another group of starters to allow an average of 5.00 runs per game during the other 81 contests, they would have had a rotation that ranked eighth in the NL in runs allowed per game. (That's all they needed, that's how close they were to being competitive, and that's how bad everyone else was here. I can't oversell this point enough!)
Instead the Rockies had Jon Garland (5.82 ERA), Juan Nicasio (5.14 ERA), Jeff Francis (6.27 ERA), Chad Bettis (5.64 ERA), Roy Oswalt (8.63 ERA), Jeff Manship (7.04 ERA), Drew Pomeranz (6.23 ERA), and Collin McHugh (9.95 ERA) start the other half of the slate in which the team went an abysmal 25-56.
This is why Jon Gray and Eddie Butler are so important to the future of this team. They represent not one, but two potential top of the rotation arms that could completely clean out the cesspool that's covered the bottom two slots in the rotation since early 2011. Their ability to add depth and prevent disastrous outings is just as important as their potential to truly dominate the competition.
There's no quicker way to turn a floundering club into a World Series contender than to have young starting pitching come out of your farm and shut down opposing offenses. There's numerous examples of this happening over the last few decades. The Braves going from a last place to the World Series in 1991 with a group of pitchers who would eventually carry them to 14 consecutive division titles is the most famous, the Giants going from a sub .500 team in 2005 through 2008 and then becoming World Series contenders with the emergence of Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, and Madison Bumgarner is a more recent example, and even the Rockies themselves in 2007 and 2009 with guys like Jeff Francis, Aaron Cook, and Ubaldo Jimenez are good indicators of what can happen when a club gets significant rotation help from its farm.
When the turnaround happens, it happens much faster than most fans think is possible. The shine comes on more like a light switch than a sunrise.
Jon Gray and Eddie Butler still have to master AA Tulsa, and they still have to sharpen their games before we can start this party, but if all goes according to plan, there's reason to get excited here. Really excited. The Rockies may be on the verge of their first real golden era as a franchise. It's not as farfetched as you might think.