There are a lot of good things that can come from the presence of a pitch-to-contact philosophy.
Overly aggressive lineups -- and there are a lot of them in this day and age -- have the tendency to be eaten alive by pitchers who possess the ability to let hitters hit. We see this with guys like Doug Fister, Tim Hudson, Rick Porcello, Henderson Alvarez, Kyle Lohse ... the list goes on and on. All of those hurlers are low-strikeout guys who have a knack for inducing weak contact. And, in the case of Hudson and Lohse, pitchers whose careers have been extended by taking a few ticks off of their fastballs in exchange for better location.
By all accounts, this is what the Rockies organization is trying to accomplish. And at various points over the last couple of seasons, it has worked. In 2013, Jhoulys Chacin, Jorge De La Rosa and Tyler Chatwood finished with a combined 3.40 ERA despite striking out fewer than six batters per nine innings. This season, Colorado built its roster around the rotation's ability to pitch to contact, and for the better part of two months, the plan appeared to be a work of genius. Opting for the light bats of DJ LeMahieu (and, at the time, Charlie Blackmon) over better offensive options because of their defensive ability helped the Rockies jump out to a fast start.
Unfortunately, that fast start masked some major problems the Rockies -- and particularly, the pitching staff -- displayed in the early going, and those same issues are the cause of the team's 20-game swing since May 7.
Before the Rockies' slide, they were among the worst teams in the National League at issuing walks. That's still the case; Colorado allows free passes at the second-highest rate in the NL. The staff is also worst in the NL in first-pitch strike percentage, meaning that often times Rox pitchers find themselves at an immediate disadvantage considering the league-wide OPS on 1-0 counts is more than 200 points higher than it is after 0-1 counts.
Rockies pitching staff, by the numbers
|GB%||48.8 (4)||49.0 (4)|
|LD%||25.2 (27)||26.5 (30)|
|HR/9||0.85 (7)||1.25 (30)|
|BB/9||3.24 (23)||3.39 (26)|
|1st-pitch strike %||60.7 (13)||58.9 (27)|
|ERA||4.44 (28)||5.01 (30)|
MLB rank in parentheses
So, yes, the Rockies could start by throwing more strikes. But there is a huge difference between simply getting the ball over the plate and throwing actual quality strikes. The Rockies clearly did that more often last year, and one of the positive results was the staff's home run rate. It's not easy to prevent the ball from leaving the yard for a team that plays half of its games at Coors Field, but Rockies pitchers were seventh-best in baseball in home runs allowed per nine innings at 0.85. Getting in better pitcher's counts (the Rox were 13th in MLB in first-pitch strike percentage) and better location of pitches (as evidence by better walk and ground ball rates) were a large reason for this.
In 2014, the club's success at limiting long balls has gone completely out the window. Colorado surrenders a league-worst 1.25 home runs per nine innings. We've already been over the inflated walk rate, and though the staff's ground ball rate is similar to the 2013 figure, Rockies pitchers also allow more line drives and induce less pop-ups than any other team in the league. Weak contact has not been Colorado's specialty this year.
Going forward, what do the Rockies do to correct the issues? Acquire more pure strike throwers? Focus solely on ground balls? Abandon the over-reliance on pitching to contact completely? It would be ill-advised to change course on what the organization has been trying to put into place since the hiring of Mark Wiley as pitching coordinator. However, it would serve the team well to avoid continually trying to put a square peg in a round hole.
Tyler Chatwood, Brett Anderson and Jhoulys Chacin -- injuries aside -- are pitchers who fit the Rockies' mold. When healthy, all three have sharp downward movement on their fastballs and have good enough secondary offerings to keep hitters slightly off-balance and even out on their front foot at times. However, there are also pitchers at or near the big league level in Jorge De La Rosa, Juan Nicasio and Tyler Matzek -- and soon, Eddie Butler and Jon Gray -- who don't have the same repertoire. Those guys have powerful fastballs in their own right, but some or all might be better suited throwing hard and looking to strike batters out. However, it seems like the Rockies are hell bent on making sure everyone can get outs in a manner they feel is more efficient, and it's this type of stubbornness that could be contributing to their struggles in developing pitching.
It's tough to put too much stock into the numbers that Yohan Flande, Franklin Morales and Christian Friedrich are putting up considering none of the three should be anywhere near a big league rotation. But it gets infinitely harder to give the Rockies a pass on the injuries when one of the selling points of their method of pitching is to help prevent injuries. Granted, broken hands and fingers and strained hamstrings from running the bases aren't going to be helped one way or another by pitching mechanics and level of effort in a pitcher's delivery, but Chacin -- who became less of a strikeout pitcher and more of a ground ball guy after taking a few mph off of his fastball -- is on the shelf with a shoulder injury. Chatwood is also a guy who has sacrificed some power for the sake of better location, and he's dealing with elbow problems. Butler has also backed off of his fastball a bit to focus on inducing more weak contact, and he, too, is working his way back from an arm injury.
That's to say nothing of the sheer failure of the bullpen. There is a lack of talent there, given that the best pitcher in the unit is a 41-year-old closer who is probably benefiting from a lot of extra rest lately. But arguably the best reliever in terms of sheer stuff is Chad Bettis, and he too is struggling badly as a result of a change of approach. A shoulder injury two years ago is likely partially responsible, as well, but the 25-year-old Texan's numbers have not at all translated like a typical high-strikeout, low-walk minor leaguer's usually do.
I guess I should end by saying that I give the Rockies' front office credit for trying to implement a pitching plan. I really do. And in theory, it's one that should work, given the team's strong defense (again, when healthy) combined with the extra pain that walks cause at their home ballpark. But the results have truly been disastrous, and I'm not sure how much longer people will be able to show patience with the process.