A Critical Look at the Rockies' Starting Pitching

Purple Row's own Bobby DeMuro asks if the "experts" who follow the Rockies closely and write about the team have fallen victim to a"soft bigotry of low expectations" where, after years mediocrity, they have started to judge Rockies players by a lower standard and thus have lost sight of just how sorry the state of this team really is. I think this phenomenon is real, as I myself have fallen victim to it at times. I was somebody who felt excited when Chris Rusin started a game. I'll say it again. I was excited whenever Chris "5.33 ERA" Rusin took to the mound. If that isn't evidence of lowered expectations, I don't know what is.

So, in the interest of regaining perspective on the Colorado Rockies, I have decided to turn to the cold hard numbers to help me gain a more realistic perspective on this team's starting pitching. I compared the Rockies' starters this season to those of the five National League playoff teams: the Cardinals, Cubs, Dodgers, Mets, and Pirates. I wanted to see, numerically, what the starting pitching of a playoff team actually looks like, and how it compares to the Rockies' starting pitching.

For the purposes of this comparison, I included only pitchers who started at least five games this season because I wanted to filter out spot starts from prospects and AAAA players that are probably more statistically variable and whose talent level doesn't reflect much on the state of the organization. Here's the results:


And yeah, it's bad guys. Really bad. I knew it was bad at an intellectual level, but having it laid out here really made it viscerally clear how poor Rockies starters were this year. I cannot maintain any of what was left of my low-expectations-fueled optimism after looking at this.

But, before digging in further, let me quickly provide a brief overview of the stats listed. The first three stats should be self explanatory. Next, there is ERA-, which takes ERA and then adjusts it for league and park factors, and then puts it on a scale relative to the rest of the league where 100 is average. Lower is better. SIERA is a version of ERA that adjusts for park and tries to isolate pitcher performance from fielding, but in a more sophisticated way than FIP. SIERA correlates really well with future ERA of a pitcher, and so can be thought of as an indicator of a pitcher's "true talent". Finally, there is RA9-WAR, which is a version of WAR based on how many runs a pitcher allowed, and thus is a measurement of how valuable the pitcher was in a given season.

For emphasis, note that the last three stats are park adjusted, so that excuse won't be valid when looking at these numbers.

Right away, the RA9-WAR should leap out at you. It is, after all, a measurement of what actually happened. At the top you have the Cardinals who, through quality defense and a bit of luck, were historically good at preventing runs and won 21 (!) more games than they would have with a replacement-level rotation. The worst National League playoff starting pitching was that of the Pirates, by this measure, but even they provided 12-13 more wins than replacement level. And then, way way down, there is the Rockies, whose starting pitchers only provided only 4 more wins than replacement-level. The Rockies starters only caused the team to win 4 more games than a hypothetical rotation of 5 Christian Bergmans would. Ouch.

Things aren't any more reassuring when we turn to the peripheral stats. All the playoff teams had starers provide, on average, more than 8 K/9 and at worst 2.7 BB/9. The Rockies meanwhile? Their K/9 and BB/9 are 6.6 and 3.5, respectively. We live in a pitchers era with unprecedented quantities of strikeouts and control. Numbers like that just don't fly in modern Major League Baseball.

SIERA, too, the measure of "true talent", also shows a large gap between the Rockies and the rest. All the playoff teams are solidly in the 3's, while the Rockies are in the mid-4's here (interesting side-note, SIERA suggests the Cardinals starters had some luck this year, and that they had the worst "true talent" starters in the National League playoffs this year). That's the difference between a #5 starter and a #3 starter. In other words, the playoff teams could expect a Jason Hammel-like performance from their starters, on average, while the Rockies could expect a John Danks-level performance on average (which means half the starts are worse than John Danks, ugh).

So, it's clear that the Rockies' starting pitching was just a disaster this year. But I'm not satisfied with this broad overview. I want to look at the details. So, I decided to compare all the individual Rockies starters with all the individual starters of the playoff team with the worst rotation this year (by RA9-WAR), the Pirates. In my mind, something like the Pirates starters this year is a reasonable standard by which to measure the starters of the Rockies. Something like this, ~12 RA9-WAR, is the minimum of what I'd expect from a contending Rockies team. Here's the stats:



There's so much to go into here, but if I went into all of it I would end up writing a 3000 word post. So, I'll just point out what I think are the most important contrasts between these two sets of players.

First, while I really like Jorge De La Rosa as a pitcher and admire his ability to pitch at Coors, the fact of the matter is that it is fairly damning of this team to note that he was our "ace" this year. On the Pirates squad, Jorge would have been at best their #4 starter, and more realistically their #5 starter. The K/9 is good, but the walk rate is rather alarmingly high.

Second, while Chad Bettis' season was encouraging relative to the rest of the Rockies rotation, this year he was at best a #5 starter. At the level of peripherals and true talent, he was about at the same level of Jeff Locke, maybe a tick better. His progress is encouraging, but right now he's a supporting piece unless he takes another huge step forward.

Third, this comparison makes Jordan Lyles look like a AAAA pitcher. His peripherals were comparable to Worley's, and Worley DFA'ed by the PIrates this year. The one thing in Lyles' favor is his age. At 24, Lyles can still make a jump forward, whereas the 28 year-old Worley may just be what he is at this point. However, we shouldn't count on Lyles become more than a bottom-of-the-rotation starter at best.

Fourth, the numbers put up by Eddie Butler are really really worrying. Nobody who pitched for the Pirates had numbers even remotely as poor.

Finally, one point of optimism. Jon Gray's peripherals are comparable to those of the young pitchers on the Pirates. He seems to be in the range of Liriano right now, and given his age he could approach Cole levels if all goes well. If he merely maintains his peripherals, he should be a #2/#3 starter as a 24 year-old.

So, to meet my minimum standards of acceptability for a contending rotation, the Rockies will need Bettis and De La Rosa to maintain their production (no guarantee for that for either of them) and add two or three pitchers in the 3-5 WAR range, which seems like a pretty daunting task. And that's not even factoring in injuries, which will necessitate guys who can come in from AAA and provide better than replacement-level pitching, even if only slightly. If they want to approach the levels of the Dodgers, Cubs, or Mets, they'll need a true ace who can put up 7-10 WAR in a season as well as a couple of guys who can be 2-3 WAR pitchers.

If they can get to even the Pirates' level, they could well be on their way to the playoffs.

We need to recognize that the Rockies starting pitching is just not good--the two best pitchers are bottom-of-the-rotation guys on a contender--and grasp this at visceral level. We need to stop having such low expectations for the team's pitching and see what is right in front of us. Otherwise, we'll continue to giddily await the next Chris Rusin start while the rest of the league shakes their head at our delusions.

Eat. Drink. Be Merry. But the above FanPost does not necessarily reflect the attitudes, opinions, or views of Purple Row's staff (unless, of course, it's written by the staff [and even then, it still might not]).