The Rockies' unknown identity

Drew Hallowell

The Rockies have posted a .500 record so far this season, and in the process they've kept the direction they're headed in shrouded in secrecy.

There's been some talk on the interwebs recently about what Rockies team is the real Rockies team. The one that started the season 22-14, or the one that's gone just 6-14 since?

This is loaded discussion in many ways, but mostly because trying to figure out who the Rockies really are this season is going to be like chasing a ghost until we get some answers regarding this pitching staff. Let's see what we know about this Rockies team, and more important, what we don't know 56 games into the season.

1) The Rockies are two teams disguised as one

As always, the Rockies are proving to be a much better team at home than they are on the road. So far in 2014, they are 16-7 at home in 23 games compared to just 12-21 on the road in 33 games.  If the Rockies continue at these two current paces, they would win 85 games overall. (40-18 the remainder of the way at home and 17-31 the remainder of the way on the road for a season total of 56-25 at home and 29-52 on the road).

However, there's only one year historically where the gap in the home and road winning percentages for the Rockies is as large for an entire season as it is for the 2014 club right now. That year was 1996 when the Rockies finished with 83 wins overall - One less win at home and one less win on the road from their current pace right now.

The gap between the home winning percentage (.679) and the road winning percentage that season (.346) was .333, which is much higher than the overall average gap in home and road winning percentage we see with the Rockies since they moved into Coors Field in 1995 which is .162 (.557 at home and .395 on the road).

Here's the bad news, other than that 1996 team which won 55 games at home with a winning percentage of .679, no other Rockies team has ever won more than 52 games at Coors. (They won 52 in 2010 and 51 in both 2007 and 2009). This means that 85 wins is likely the absolute ceiling (and even that might be pushing it) the Rockies can win overall of they keep losing games on the road at their current clip; and unlike their current home pace, there are several seasons where the Rockies played this poorly away from Coors all the way through September.

2) The pitching staff you've seen so far is not the staff you're going to see going forward.

Coming into the season, I proposed that the Rockies' formula for pitching success this year would be to get as many games as possible from Jhoulys Chacin, Jorge De La Rosa, Tyler Chatwood, and Brett Anderson. In 2013, the Rockies went 49-32 with the Chacin, De La Rosa, and Chatwood combination, but just 25-56 when everybody else started. I didn't expect this group to maintain a winning percentage that high, but I did expected the now quartet of solid arms to make up significantly more than 50% of the games started Chacin, De La Rosa, and Chatwood represented in 2013. It didn't have to be perfect health at 80%, but anything north of 60% would've been extremely helpful.

That plan has gone totally up in smoke. These four pitchers have only started a combined 23 of the 56 games for the Rockies this season (41%). Worse yet, the Rockies are only 10-13 in the games they've started. Between, Anderson's broken finger (3 starts), Chatwood's elbow (four starts), and Chacin's shoulder (six starts), the Rockies have gotten close to nothing from three of their four best starting pitchers two months into the season.

There's of course two ways to look at this. The optimist will say the Rockies are still .500 despite getting nothing from this huge chunk of the rotation, and from there argue that this team will really start to reel off some wins if they ever get these guys on track. The pessimist on the other hand will say that Chacin is broken and that you can't rely on getting anything from Anderson and Chatwood going forward and that the rest of the pitching staff will then collapse under the weight of the marathon season. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle.

* * * * *

The pitching staff equation is even more complex than the four biggest names entering spring. If the Rockies are .500 overall despite playing less than .500 baseball in the games their "best starters" are on the mound, then we have to ask how the Rockies are winning the other games. The answers come somewhere in the Jordan Lyles and Juan Nicasio starts.

Zach Fogg wrote an interesting piece on Nicasio earlier today regarding the righty's pitch selection which is worth a look, but it may also come as a surprise to many Colorado fans to learn that the team is 7-4 in the games he starts. Part of this is due to the enormous run support he's received at Coors Field (at least seven runs in every home start), but Nicasio has also won a 3-2 game in San Diego and a 3-1 game in Atlanta, so he's earned a decent chunk of this success as well.

The key thing to note here is that Nicasio is quietly having a career year so far. His ERA is down, he's walking fewer hitters, he's lowered his WHIP, and he's ever so slightly increased his ground ball percentage as he tries to buy into the organizational philosophy. He's far from a front line starter, but there's at least a decent possibility he's made the jump into a pitcher who the Rockies can expect to win at least 50% of the games he starts. His journey is still evolving.

The other key aspect to the Rockies surviving without their big guns on the mound is Jordan Lyles. This is the guy who's exceed everyone's expectations. In 11 starts this season, he's held the opponent to two runs or less during his outing.

The scary note on Lyles however is that through ten starts a year ago, he had a lower ERA than he does now (3.22). Then the season exploded on him and he posted a 7.27 ERA the rest of the way. The million dollar question now becomes "will Lyles continue his early season success or implode as he did a year ago?". The good news is that Lyles is getting his 2014 production with more ground balls which is a different source than he was tapping into a year ago signaling that perhaps it's more sustainable, but it must be noted that this is still a well that can run dry for the Rockies at any moment., and if it does, it's going to be an enormous problem.

* * * * *

In addition to the unknowns with the six pitchers already mentioned, there's also the possibility that the Rockies farm gets in on the action. Tyler MatzekEddie Butler, Dan Winkler and Jon Gray are the four major farm pieces I'd list from most likely to least likely to start a game for the Rockies between now and the end of September. However, how many games they will start and how they will fare once they reach the big league level remains a complete mystery.

So when you add it all up, the Rockies rotation is a very fluid situation. They have guys who could come back from injury and add major production,they have guys who could be pitching over their head and on the verge on turning back into a pumpkin, and then they have a group of young pitchers on the farm who could tip the scales one way or the other in the second half of the season.

This is why the Rockies season will remain unpredictable. The best bet is that all this uncertainly will keep the Rockies around .500, but there's potential here for the Rockies to swing dramatically above or below that number if all three groups of unknowns swing positively or negatively.

3) The bullpen has failed to get big outs

So far this season, six Colorado relievers have appeared in at least 20 games. Here's their numbers.

603_reliever_wpa_medium

This piece is already long enough so that we don't have time to comb through each one by one, but it's pretty clear from looking at the bottom row of the table that as a group, the big names in the Rockies bullpen have not had as much success (as indicated by WPA) as their ERA or OPS against numbers suggest they should.

What's going to be interesting is how the bullpen progress for the rest of the season, because right now, nobody is getting the big outs on a consistent basis. If you take the score after seven innings each game this season, the Rockies have led 28 times, trailed 18 times, and have been tied ten times. Yet they are just a .500 team overall. They've lost all 18 games they've trailed after seven innings, posted a 3-7 record in the games they've been tied after seven innings, and have lost three of their 28 leads after seven innings. That's simply not good enough. However, it's also something that tends to swing wildly within seasons.

* * * * *

So here we sit, 56 games into the season and there's just as much we don't know regarding the major aspects of this team as we do know. The lineup as a whole is going to continue score a bunch of runs at Coors, and the pitching depth is better than it was last season, but we still  haven't seen a signal that this Rockies are ready to take that big step forward as a group. A small step yes; a major step no.

With all the unknowns still surrounding this club however, the optimists can still hold out hope that it will come before the summer is out. Either way, this should prove to be an entertaining ride.

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