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Rockies need a new pitching philosophy

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The Rockies fired pitching coaches Jim Wright and Bo McLaughlin yesterday. We don't know who the replacement will be yet, but the bodies can't just change; the philosophy must as well.

Justin K. Aller

Jeff Bridich's first move as the new GM of the Colorado Rockies was to fire pitching and bullpen coaches Jim Wright and Bo McLaughlin. On its face, it was an obvious move. The team's 4.86 ERA trailed the majors by a mile. That's a byproduct of playing at Coors Field of course, but adjusting for Coors doesn't help much; the staff's 113 ERA- was 29th in MLB (second only to the Twins). The Rockies were second to last in K/9, second to last in BB/9, and dead last in HR/9. In other word, by any peripheral you can think of, the Rockies' pitching was godawful.

Except for one! For many years the Rockies have preached the healing powers of the ground ball, as if it were some old-timey tonic that cures rheumatism or bad humours. The ground ball can't be hit out of the ball park. It's rarely a double. It can be turned into two outs. It works at Coors Field.

If that's the case, then last year should have been a ringing success for the Rockies pitching staff. The Rockies had the third highest ground ball rate in the majors last year at 47.7%, behind the playoff-bound Dodgers and Pirates. The Rockies burned worms with the best of them last year. Where were the results?

I guess you could say they evaporated into thin air, or exploded with the various elbows, shoulders, and hands of our injured starters. Fly balls left the yard at a prodigious 12.7% rate last year, 1.1 percentage points more than the next closest team. The Rockies might have allowed fewer fly balls than the typical team, but when they were put in the air, bad stuff happened. That could be Coors's fault.

And as we all know, the projected starting rotation of Jorge De La Rosa, Jhoulys Chacin, Tyler Chatwood, Brett Anderson, and Juan Nicasio didn't really work out health-wise. Chacin's shoulder blew up, Chatwood's UCL snapped, and whoever owns the Anderson voodoo doll must have dropped it into a trash compactor. Our sixth starter Jordan Lyles broke his hand and missed two months during a promising campaign. Our eighth starter Christian Bergman also broke his hand. Eddie Butler, our top prospect call up, made one start before missing major time with a bum shoulder. And I'm sure I'm forgetting some other freak injury. It was, basically, a worst case scenario year in terms of health.

But can we blame the injuries and the high home run rate for the lack of success? No, probably not. Let's look at 2013.

The Rockies were once again third in the league in ground ball rate in 2013. The ERA was a little lower at 4.44 (still third worst in the league, but that's almost inescapable for a team in Denver; the ERA- was 102). But the HR/9 was an abnormally low 0.85 HR/9, 6th best in the game. You can never count on that strong an HR/9 for a Coors Field team; the combination of JDLR, Chacin, and Chatwood had an incredible run of preventing home runs that will probably never be replicated. As for health; they didn't really have the ridiculous bad luck of the 2014 squad. When the Rockies changed starters it was from terrible pitching, not from injury. You might have forgotten about John Garland, Jeff Francis, Roy Oswalt, Jeff Manship, and Colin McHugh, but their exploits will live forever in the box scores.

So to recap. The Rockies had the third best ground ball rate in the majors in 2013. They had an HR/9 that is probably the best that can possibly be accomplished at 20th and Blake. And they still had an ERA- worse than league average.

It's starting to look to this observer that ground balls aren't the panacea that coaches and front offices constantly preach. At best GB% is just a part of the puzzle, and probably not a large part. So what does a good Rockies pitching season look like? Let's look at 2009 and our 8th in the league ERA-. Well, they were second in the league in ground balls, at 47.4%. Hey, that's almost as good as the 47.7% of 2014!

No, the success of 2009 came from the 10th in the league BB/9, the 11th in the league K/9, and another fortunately low 0.88 HR/9. Factor in health to the starters and you have a playoff caliber pitching staff.

I'm not saying anything revolutionary here. Saying that it's good to have low BB/9, high K/9, and low HR/9 is like saying that good pitching is good. The main point is that the main Rockies talking point of the last half decade--emphasizing ground balls and pitching to contact over everything--is not a particularly relevant talking point. Ground balls are preferable to fly balls, sure. But strikeouts, limiting base runners, and limiting hard contact are far, far more important.


Rockies fire pitching coaches Jim Wright, Bo McLaughlin - Denver Post

This is the Denver Post's story on the shake up. Not to be lost in the shuffle is the fact that both Wright and McLaughlin have been parts of the Rockies' organization for years, and are supposed to be stand up guys. Wright in particular showed no bitterness or ill will toward the organization, despite the fact that he probably had the hardest coaching job in major league baseball. Bridich and Weiss are looking at candidates both within and outside the organization to fill the position.

Rockies land three players on the Gold Glove finalists list, led by Arenado - Denver Post

The three were Arenado, DJ LeMahieu, and Justin Morneau, and they were all well deserved. LeMahieu probably won't win it since he didn't hit well enough. According to Fangraphs he led the NL in total defense at second base. Morneau has a solid chance, especially with his shiny new batting title influencing voters. The only thing working against Nolan was his injured finger costing him a month and a half; despite the missed time he was second in total third base defense in the NL to Todd Frazier.


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