The issues plaguing the Colorado Rockies have been dissected six ways to Sunday not only in this space, but in many others on the Internet and in print.
Refrain No. 1: "The team can only go as far as its star duo, Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez." Sure, it's hard to argue with that, although one can point to 2011 -- a season in which both players were relatively healthy while the team still struggled -- as evidence to the contrary.
Refrain No. 2: "The pitching staff was so decimated by injuries last season that 15 different guys started a game." Yeah, that certainly doesn't help. However, what about in 2013, when Jhoulys Chacin, Tyler Chatwood and Jorge De La Rosa were healthy and performed well, but the team team still limped to a 74-88 record?
Refrain No. 3: "All those things need to come together in the same year. Then, we'll be set!" Maybe you're right, dude. But it's possible that there's another issue entirely that is preventing the Rockies from winning games:
Forgive me for playing into the whole "the Rockies can't hit on the road" narrative, but hear me out ...
Too much aggression
It's no secret that the Rockies' offensive production on the road is significantly worse than it is at home. That was covered brilliantly last season by Matthew Gross, who wondered if the Rockies are destined to be screwed forever by home/road splits. What wasn't covered, though, is that the team is responsible for its own offensive issues in at least one area.
Rockies offensive walk rates
|Year||Walk rate||MLB rank||Diff. from No. 1|
Colorado, in its successful years, was one of the best teams in baseball at drawing walks. The approach was similar at home and on the road, too; in 2009, for instance, the Rockies' walk rate on the road was 10.3 percent, not much of a deviation from their total figure. That has gotten away from the team in recent years, though. Not surprisingly, the difference between home and road walk rates hit rock bottom in the Rockies' 98-loss 2012 season, when the club finished 29-52 on the road for the first of two consecutive years.
The Rockies' approach has leveled off a bit the last two years, but that's been canceled out by the fact that the team's hitters are drawing walks at their lowest rate since 1993. That's not a big problem at Coors Field, where the batting average on balls in play is routinely higher than at any other park (and was a league-leading .338 in 2014). The Rockies themselves had a .361 BABIP at home last year. The problem comes on the road, where the Rockies managed just a .285 BABIP in 2014. Unfortunately, it wasn't an isolated incident:
|Year||Home BABIP||Road BABIP|
Perhaps not surprisingly, the biggest differences in the Rockies' win-loss record have come in seasons in which the largest gaps in BABIP occurred. Colorado won 24 more games at home than on the road last year and 21 more in 2010.
It's probable the the Rockies simply suffered from bad luck after making contact in some of those years, last season included. But the best way to mitigate bad luck with contact is to be able to reach base in other ways. From 2007 through 2011, the Rockies did a good job of that. But they've been awful at getting on base by means other than hits ever since the dreadful 2012 campaign.
Reasons for hope
The good news is that Colorado's walk rate could begin improving as soon as this year. Colorado lost Michael Cuddyer (8.8 percent career walk rate), but having a full season of Carlos Gonzalez and Corey Dickerson, both of whom should approach that number given their career totals in both the majors and minors, will help. The real gain the Rockies will see is on their bench (which, as we all know, has a chance to get a lot more playing time than we'd like):
|2014 player||Career walk rate||2015 player||Career walk rate|
|Josh Rutledge||5.8%||Daniel Descalso||8.3%|
|Charlie Culberson||4.4%||Rafael Ynoa||9.2% (minors)|
|Brandon Barnes||4.8%||Nick Hundley||6.9%|
The Rockies will replace four aggressive hitters with below-average production with three players who have shown the ability to take a walk every once in a while. Descalso, Ynoa and Hundley (he's a starter, but will still probably get some pinch hit opportunities with the Rockies' three-catcher situation) might not be world beaters, but their ability to get on base without luck being involved will help the Rockies' road offense. Michael McKenry belongs in this category, as well; part of the reason the Rockies were hesitant to part with him this offseason is likely the 11.5 percent walk rate he posted last season. It still might be ugly if Descalso and Ynoa end up starting a slew of games (please stay healthy, Tulowitzki and Nolan Arenado), but not to the degree of their bench predecessors.
The starters will have plenty of work to do, though. Arenado, Charlie Blackmon, DJ LeMahieu and Wilin Rosario (not a starter but figures to get plenty of plate appearances) all have career walk rates right around five percent or below. Arenado is still developing and could improve in that area as the rest of his offensive profile does, but the other guys might be who they are, so to speak. As such, getting back to a 10 percent walk rate as a team isn't plausible right now, but some improvement should be expected, and perhaps the Rockies can pull themselves near the league average of 7.3 percent.
The next wave
Among prospects that are within reasonable distance to the big leagues (Double-A and Triple-A), utility infielder Trevor Story has the best walk rate. Story drew free passes at a 13 percent clip last season, ranking seventh in the organization and behind only one big leaguer (Tulowitzki). Unfortunately, Story also struck out in 31.1 percent of his plate appearances, but that's a little easier to deal with if he proves to have decent on-base skills once he reaches the highest level, where it seems everyone has a strikeout problem these days.
Tommy Murphy (12.8 percent), Jayson Langfels (11.6 percent) and Ben Paulsen (11.2 percent) are the only other Rockies prospects within close proximity of the majors who posted 10 percent or better walk rates last season.
Down the ladder a bit, Rookie-level prospects Kevin Padlo (15.7 percent) and Forrest Wall (14.4 percent) were among the top five in the organization and drawing walks. The remainder of the top five players spent the entire season at Grand Junction, as well, suggesting the environment might have something to do with the elevated walk rates.
Michael Tauchman established himself as an interesting under-the-radar hitting prospect while at Tri-City and Modesto. In his age 23 season, the lefty-swinging outfielder posted a .294/.386/.452 in High-A. His solid line was buoyed by a 12.7 percent walk rate, which ranked fourth among all non-Rookie-level players in the organization.
Somewhat of a concern is that top position prospects David Dahl (5.1 percent) and Raimel Tapia (6.5 percent) posted subpar walk rates in 2014. Both players have flashed above-average to elite contact skills, but as they climb the ladder and begin playing in more neutral parks, they might have to adjust their approaches in order to continue dominating the opposition.
The Rockies are likely never going to come close to matching their Coors Field production when out on the road. But adding the type of complementary pieces that they did this offseason can only help. Going from a lineup and bench full of overly aggressive hitters to a more well-balanced group of hitters will be beneficial regardless of where the Rockies play. Sure, hitters jumping all over the first decent pitch they see at Coors Field is often advantageous, but imagine how much more of a boost it would be (more runners on base, fatigued opposing pitchers, etc.) if the guys in purple exercised a little more patience.