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Rockies' focus on offensive approach in minors paying off

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With renewed attention being paid in the minor leagues to plate discipline, the Rockies are starting to make some headway in an area that has been a real problem over the last few seasons.

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

On this particular website, there is a rather popular opinion that would seem to run completely counter to the common knowledge in most other baseball-centric circles. That opinion, of course, revolves around the theory that the Colorado Rockies' problems go far beyond pitching.

Yes, the pitching staff, for the bajillionth year in a row, finished with the worst ERA in the National League. Yes, the Rockies have failed to develop a true ace—or even several No. 2 or 3 starters—since joining Major League Baseball in 1993.

But what good is a pitching staff in the toughest park in baseball with an offense that, during five consecutive losing seasons, has struggled to even be classified as average?

The Rockies have ranked 14th or worse in the NL in wRC+ four times since 2010, when they last finished with a winning record. Sure, part of that could be due to some wackiness with how park adjustments are calculated, and some of it can definitely be attributed to the Coors Field Hangover (TM). But, there is some quantifiable evidence as to why the Rockies have been so far below average at the plate:

Year BB% NL Rank
2012 7.3% 15
2013 6.9% 13
2014 6.4% 15
2015 6.4% 14

The Rockies simply don't have a patient enough approach on offense, an issue that negatively affects the club more on the road than at home. But that's where Colorado historically struggles the most, so fixing that problem should be of paramount importance.

The good news is that the foundation for improvement is already being built at the lower levels of the organization.

"Part of our process has been increased concentration on approach, and what each individual player's approach at the plate is and what their plan is," Rockies player development director Zach Wilson said in a recent interview with Purple Row. "It's obvious that, if you do look at the numbers, that plan and process has paid off in results with increased walks and on-base percentage."

More Rockies minor leaguers (25) posted double-digit walk rates in 2015 than in any other season this decade. It's not just AAAA-types who are too good for the minors putting up those numbers, either; young prospects like Dom Nunez, Kevin Padlo, Tyler Nevin, Forrest Wall and others are leading the pack.

"Approach is a big development point for anybody’s minor league process," Wilson explained. "Certainly that is something that Duane Espy, our hitting coordinator, and our hitting coaches—and really our staff up and down—have really continued the process that was started here three or four years ago."

Upper-level minor leaguers Trevor Story and Will Swanner, both of whom should find their way to the majors in some capacity within the next year or two, are good examples of players who have made tremendous leaps and bounds in this area.

In his first two seasons of full-season ball, Story posted a combined walk rate of under 10 percent while striking out in nearly a third of his plate appearances. But in 2014, the shortstop prospect lifted his walk rate to 14.2 percent and last year, maintained that double-digit figure while also getting his strikeout rate under 25 percent.

Swanner did not draw a single walk in his first professional season but has steadily improved in that area since, finishing with a 10.8 percent walk rate while slightly reducing his strikeout rate in 2015.

That said, focusing on walk rates isn't going to work on every player. Some, such as star major league third baseman Nolan Arenado and promising minor league outfielders Raimel Tapia and David Dahl, thrive on being aggressive and making contact. Fortunately, the Rockies are aware of that and aren't trying to pigeonhole every player into one approach.

"We keep drilling down and refocusing their lens and finding out new things about exactly what different players’ needs are," Wilson said. "We keep hammering away at that, and I’m glad to see it’s paying off in results, too."

Of course, minor league results and major league results are two completely different things. And, as players like Nunez and Padlo progress through the system, it will be important for the Rockies to continue focusing on their strengths in order to build what will hopefully be a much more well-rounded group of position players than what we're seeing now on a roster that has problems that, like it or not, go well beyond the guys taking the mound.