The Rockies announced that Kyle Kendrick would be their Opening Day starter in Milwaukee and that Jorge De La Rosa would get the ball in the home opener, which falls on the fourth game of the season, On Wednesday. This news was not received kindly by many fans, to say the least. Here's just a small sample from the Twittersphere.
Not sure what to make of Kyle Kendrick as Colorado's opening day starter. Not sure whether to laugh or cry.— Andrew Dill (@PurpleRocktober) March 19, 2015
Kyle Kendrick was 10-13 w/ 80 ERA+ in both 2013 & 2014. And now he's the Opening Day starter! Going to the Rockies makes everything better.— High Heat Stats MLB (@HighHeatStats) March 19, 2015
Kyle Kendrick, Opening Day starter isn't much of an endorsement for Jhoulys Chacin.— Paul Swydan (@Swydan) March 19, 2015
Kyle Kendrick was named opening day starter. The joke continues in Colorado... #Rockies— TWP (@TWPolhill) March 19, 2015
Of course, these views completely overlook three very seasonable if not downright beseeching reasons for the Rockies to set up the rotation this way. Let's explore them.
1) Jorge De La Rosa is King of the Mountain
The first is the most obvious and has already been well documented in this excellent piece from last weekend by our own Ryan Freemyer. The CliffsNotes version is that the Rockies are 48-9 as a team in De La Rosa's last 57 starts at Coors Field, and the Rockies should be doing everything they can to give De La Rosa as many starts as possible in that building.
Not surprisingly, handing him the home opener does just that. In the first ten series of the season, De La Rosa will now make four starts at home and just two on the road instead of three at home and three on the road which he would have done if he got the ball opening day.
We'll be looking at those first ten series of the season a lot more in just a moment.
2) The Art of War Theory
I started to get into this in the comments of Bryan's Wednesday piece. Here's the basic idea:
I always like to think of starting pitchers as a deck of cards. In a standard 52 card pack, only about 7.7 percent of the cards are aces, which is in my mind a pretty good representation of how often a true ace is sent to the mound to start an MLB game. If every team had an ace, 20% of the starts in MLB would be made by an ace, and I just don't think that's the case. Every team has to name somebody their No.1 starter, but not every team has an ace.
The Rockies don't have an ace when they go on the road, but as Ryan Freemyer pointed out with his brilliant piece over the weekend, they very well might have one at home in Jorge De La Rosa, and they're doing what they should do in making sure they get to play that ace as often as possible.
Since the Rockies now don't have a pitcher that can matchup with No. 1 pitchers on other squads when they get on the road, they're making the same logical choice that any card player would in this situation. They're throwing the worst card in their hand while their opponent is burning their best. As the rotation spins / the hand is played, they're hoping to scoop up some tricks / steal some games while getting queen, jack, ten, or nine like performances out of others in the rotation as they match up against something other than the opponent's best card / pitcher.
It's not a strategy most teams employ, but logic suggests that it's a good idea, particularly in Colorado's situation.
This is a concept everybody seems to be able to understand when they're playing cards, but for some reason, many struggle when trying to apply it situations in the real world. If your opponent throws an ace on the first trick, and you don't have an ace / trump card, what card are you going to throw? Certainly not a face card if you have one. No, you're dropping a deuce right on the middle of the table.
For the record, I don't think Kyle Kendrick is crap. He's probably a five or a six in this metaphor, which leads nicely into another important point I'd like touch on.
Some folks, including Bryan and Paul Swydan, think Kendrick starting on opening day is a bad signal on the Jhoulys Chacin front. If the Rockies really are trying this strategy, then this is actually good news on the Chacin front in my mind. If the Rockies are throwing Kendrick in this spot for the reasons outlined above, then that means they think he's their fifth best pitcher, which by default means they believe Chacin is healthy, De La Rosa is a master of Coors Field, the Tyler Matzek we saw in the second half of the year is the guy we should expect to see going forward, and that Jordan Lyles is young enough and talented enough to make strides on his numbers from last season.
I'm sure it all won't work out this way, but it's a very good thing if that plan is still on track with two and a half weeks left in spring training.
3) The Rockies are playing platoon games again
This shouldn't be too surprising with the way the Rockies have setup the rest of their roster, but it seems to be a theme most observers outside of Purple Row are overlooking. In any case, the have an obvious platoon split at first base with Justin Morneau and Wilin Rosario, they have another in center field with Drew Stubbs and Charlie Blackmon, and they're likely to break camp with three lefties in the bullpen which should allow them to have the platoon advantage through much of the late innings.
If they're going that far down the platoon path, we shouldn't be surprised if they're going to try and exploit this in other areas as well. For a deeper understanding here, let's take a look at the three right handed starters the Rockies are likely to open the season with, specifically how they fair against left handed batters for their career.
The tOPS+ number at the bottom of the table represents how well batters did against these pitchers compared to how well batters normally do against these pitchers, with higher numbers indicating a more significant gap and therefore a more significant split.
The Rockies have an interesting situation here because they have two right handed pitchers in Jordan Lyles and Kyle Kendrick who have been equally poor against lefties and anther guy in Chacin who has a large platoon split but is so good when he's on that he's still significantly better against lefties than the other two guys.
The pitcher here who for his career combines struggles against left handed hitters and a large / larger platoon split that the others is Kyle Kendrick. This means that if at all possible, he's the guy you want to keep away from heavy left handed hitting lineups.
Knowing this, let's look at the first ten series for the Rockies this season:
3 @ Brewers
3 vs. Cubs
3 @ Giants
3 @ Dodgers
4 vs. Padres
3 vs. Giants
3 @ D'Backs
3 @ Padres
3 vs. D'Backs
3 vs. Dodgers
(The first ten series stretches 31 games and through the first week of May. At some point baseball will jumble things up like it always does with rain outs and injuries, and when that happens the rotation will get thrown off. We don't know exactly when that's going to happen, but if it doesn't happen during the first month, the Rockies are set up well)
The 25 consecutive games against divisional rivals really jumps out at me, but that's a topic for another post. What we're looking for here is teams who lean heavy towards one side of the plate or the other. Here's how I see them.
Brewers: This is a very heavy right handed hitting team, especially from the power department. Six of the eight guys they want to run out there on a daily bases are Jonathan Lucroy, Ryan Braun, Khris Davis, Carlos Gomez, Jean Segura, and Aramis Ramirez. Their left handed power includes the likes of Scooter Gennett, Adam Lind, and Gerardo Parra.
Cubs: This is a much more balanced team. Shouldn't matter too much either way.
Giants: The Giants will lean left handed most of the season, but that will be especially true during the month of April with Hunter Pence on the shelf with a broken arm. Last year, the Giants brought power from the right side with Michael Morse and Pence. This year, they will throw out a lineup that could have six of their eight position players batting from the left side with Nori Aoki, Angel Pagan (switch hitter) Gregor Blanco, Brandon Crawford, Joe Panic, and Brandon Belt when they face a righty on the mound.
Dodgers: Not only is this a well balanced team, but they can naturally burn you with platoon advantages as both Yasmani Grandal and Jimmy Rollins are switch hitters. No matter how the Rockies line things up here, it will be a tough match up.
Padres: This team might be even more right handed than the Brewers. The Padres have ONE player on this roster who can bat from the left side and has hit more than ten home runs in a season in his career (Will Venable), and he's the fourth or fifth outfielder trapped behind Justin Upton, Wil Myers, and Matt Kemp. If Will Middlebrooks makes the team over the switch hitting Yangervis Solarte at third base - And I really hope he does because I want the Padres to feature a lineup with four guys named WIL(L) in it at some point this season - it further increases their right handedness.
D'Backs: Yet another right handed heavy team. Their entire starting infield is right handed including their catcher and then they also have the right handed A.J. Pollock and Mark Trumbo starting in the outfield. They can transform into a more balanced team if they use their lefty heavy bench, but boy will they lack power outside of Paul Goldschmidt if they do that.
So looking at that group of teams, the opponent you want to go out of your way to keep Kendrick from facing is the Giants, and the opponents you want to go out of your way to make sure he faces if possible are the Brewers, Padres, and D-Backs. Knowing this, let's see what happens when you slot him into each of the five spots of the rotation.
To make it easy, I've sorted each of the five rotations spots into this nifty chart that notes home and road games (for Jorge De La Rosa) as well as color coordinates the starts where the team will face a heavy left handed hitting lineup (red) or a heavy right handed hitting lineup (green). Let's see if we can spot where Kyle Kendrick belongs in this rotation?
Well now, would ya look at that? Clearly the best spot for Kendrick is as the Opening Day starter. That completely avoids the Giants and gives him four starts against right handed heavy teams. Along the same lines, the home opener is clearly where you want Jorge De La Rosa as that's the only one of the slots that allows for four home games.
From there the Rockies will have to make some sacrifices as none of the other match ups are perfect when it comes to mixing handedness and home/road numbers. Tyler Matzek clearly belongs in either the two or three slot as you want a lefty facing the Giants in four of the six April games, but that will require him to either make make four starts away from Coors Field (where he was excellent last season) or four starts against the right heavy lineups. Neither of those options are ideal.
One thing is clear however, there are two pitchers who fit perfectly into two of those slots, and those are the pitchers the Rockies have announced for opening day and the home opener. It's almost as if they know what they're doing.