Baseball is just a week away, but a long offseason might just be the proverbial calm before the storm to the regular season. The Rockies limp into the beginning of regular season ball already beset by the hated injury bug and, to carry the metaphor a bit further, storm clouds of doubt gather above the team for a number of other reasons.
As a quick disclaimer, I am very excited about the start of baseball, and you should be as well. Check out Carolyn's great article giving you a number of reasons to get stoked for baseball if this article gets you too down!
1. The Division
Competition is good. Competition is fun. But can the NL West really be described as competitive?
The Dodgers made a host of offseason moves, just a few of which were acquiring Brandon McCarthy, Brett Anderson, Howie Kendrick, Yasmani Grandal, and Jimmy Rollins. The D-backs brought in Jeremy Hellickson, Rubby De La Rosa, Robbie Ray, and Yasmani Tomás. The Giants replaced everyone's favorite panda with Casey McGehee, but otherwise return a squad that looks pretty similar to the one that won the World Series last year with the exception of an injured Hunter Pence, who'll be sidelined for at least a couple weeks. The Padres made a flurry of seemingly never-ending moves that brought in a number of new players: Will Middlebrooks, Clint Barmes, Derek Norris, Matt Kemp, Justin Upton, Wil Myers, and Tim Federowicz.
Not to be outdone, the Rockies broke the bank for a number of massive free agent signings. Daniel Descalso, John Axford, Nick Hundley, and Kyle Kendrick were among the number of former All-Stars that were acquired in addition to those brought in via trade, such as Austin House, David Hale, Gus Schlosser, and Jairo Diaz. To be fair, the sarcasm is probably too much. Hundley is a solid veteran who should provide value in a) limiting the amount of time Wilin Rosario spends looking confused behind the plate and b) helping our younger pitchers develop. Axford, Kendrick, and Hale are solid pickups to provide depth, while Austin House and Diaz are promising young arms. But for a team that's won just under 43% of its games over the past four seasons, this doesn't seem like enough.
Depending on how you feel about the rest of the division's moves and whether their dealings will improve them at all, you might not be any more nervous about the division this year than you normally are. There is reason to believe, however, that the Rockies did a lot of nothing while the rest of the division got better.
2. Injuries Testing Depth
The Rockies limp into the regular season with a host of injuries affecting the team. Eddie Butler, who has been shutdown with shoulder fatigue, will not be available for the opening day rotation. David Hale has an oblique strain, Jorge De La Rosa is recovering from a groin strain, and Chatwood is coming back from Tommy John surgery. With the release of Chacin, the Rockies are down to just three of the previously anticipated starting rotation: Tyler Matzek, Jordan Lyles, and Kyle Kendrick. The other options to round out the rotation are dwindling away, with Butler's injury leaving just Chad Bettis, John Lannan, Jon Gray, and Christian Bergman as realistic options to fill in.
Because of issues already mentioned with service time, it would behoove the Rockies to keep Gray in the minors to start the season. Bergman has been hit hard over his past two starts and while Bettis has looked good recently, through just 69.1 innings pitched with the Rockies he's been murdered to the tune of a 6.88 ERA, 4.75 xFIP, -0.3 WAR, 1.43 K/BB, 159 ERA-, and has three pitches below average according to PITCHf/x data. Bettis is just 25, so there's no reason to think that he can't succeed at the highest level, but it's kind of frightening that he's one of the Rockies' better options in the rotation at the moment.
Lannan pitched 56 innings for the Mets' A+ and AAA teams in 2014, accumulating a 6.75 ERA. He gave up 8 homers, walked 21, and struck out 30. Not really what you look for in a major league rotation candidate, especially considering that 21.1 of those 56 innings pitched came at the A+ level. He was recovering from a rash of injuries, which certainly account for a good portion of those poor numbers, but he's still not a guy that inspires you with a lot of confidence.
As always, injuries to our starting lineup are going to hurt if/when they happen. Hundley's signing definitely improves the depth behind the plate and at first, and the outfield looks solid. But if Tulo or Arenado go down for any decent period of time, Descalso isn't a guy you want playing a ton of games for you. We've had much, much worse options than him in the past as our utility guy, but he still owns a career wRC+ of 81, 17.6% K rate, a slash line of .243/.313/.341, -22.7 UZR/150, and -19 DRS. He's not awful, and it's obviously unreasonable to expect anyone to just step in for Tulo or Arenado, but their absence is going to really start to hurt the more Descalso is starting.
3. Organization's Attitude
Back in early December, I wrote an article regarding the Rockies' lack of organizational direction. Monfort and the rest of the front office publicly say that they believe the Rockies are a team that can play competitive ball throughout the season, maybe even making a playoff run as they have in years past. I truly believe that they actually think this to be the case, and it isn't difficult to see where they're coming from.
Our outfield includes two All-Stars, one of whom is also a Gold Glove winner. Charlie Blackmon provides a solid glove in centerfield, and I believe that he will be able to add some consistency at the plate. A healthy CarGo gives the Rockies a legitimate five-tool player who's both outstanding with the glove and the bat. Finally, Corey Dickerson has got a great shot at adding "All-Star" to his resume as well. Although I marked him as a candidate for negative regression in 2015, I still think it's likely he turns in a fantastic overall performance.
Our infield is one of baseball's best defensive units. Arenado and Morneau provide stellar defense at the corners, and Tulo and LeMahieu are one of the league's best at turning two. I could spend days watching clips of their collective efforts in the field. At the plate, three of those guys have already demonstrated their prowess. LeMahieu is the exception, but I fully expect him to provide more value at the plate this season. I was one of six staff members who voted for DJ as a candidate for positive regression, but the entire Purple Row staff is pretty high on his ability to improve at the plate. Here's what Drew had to say about DJ:
Okay, so you won the Gold Glove ... what's next? Well if you ask Purple Row (which is what we're doing here) even more good things.
It's easy to see how this would play out. At 26 years old it would be quite odd if his defense went AWOL, especially considering how hard he works on it, and the offense has a ton of room for improvement. Whether it's adding a little strength (and therefore slugging) taking a few more walks, or just getting a few more hits to fall, DJ is coming into his prime and has to be feeling confident coming off a season where he was nationally recognized for having elite skills.
A LeMahieu that contributes on offense is a LeMahieu to get excited about.
Finally, although injuries have recently dealt a blow to the rotation, when healthy it looks pretty solid. We have a ton of talent coming up through the system as well. So, it isn't difficult to look at the Rockies and see a team that could potentially compete. I'm not saying they're a team that has a legitimate shot at winning it all, but they're certainly a team you'd expect to manage more than a paltry 66 wins as they did last season.
When you talk about teams that you expect to be playing meaningful games in the fall, I believe that there are three types. The first group are teams that have a great shot at making a deep playoff run, such as the Tigers. These teams will look to either add a key piece or two at the trade deadline that can put them over the edge. Examples of this include the Athletics' acquisition of Lester or the Tigers' trade for David Price.
The second group features teams who have a good chance of making a playoff run, but have some issues. Making a single, blockbuster trade isn't what they're necessarily looking to do. Instead, they'll look to sign a few players to provide depth or fill a hole. They're not betting the house, but making moves to increase their odds of winning while also avoiding rental-type players.
The final group of teams is the section I believe the Rockies may be placed. They have a number of glaring problems, mostly dealing with a lack of quality depth. These teams have a core group of players who are super talented, but their playoff hopes rest on those players' consistent performances and health. When the Rockies lose one of these core players, the lack of depth is exposed and the team pays a hefty price. In all sports, the truly elite teams have guys who can come off the bench and partially mask the absence of an injured starter.
The problem I see with the organization is that they operate as if the Rockies were in the second tier of teams. This past offseason, the acquisitions of Nick Hundley, Jairo Diaz, Kyle Kendrick, and Daniel Descalso were decent moves that provide depth. Diaz is a young arm with upside who should bolster a bullpen which was awful in 2014, while Kendrick is a solid back-end guy who is a definite upgrade over what we've had in the past. While I did like these moves, it is concerning that the Rockies didn't do more. We've seen in seasons past that a couple band-aids aren't going to propel this team to the next level; there are systematic problems that the team routinely fails to address.
Maybe, however, you disagree with my views on the three tiers of teams who can reasonably hope to play meaningful games in the fall. A different way of looking at teams is as "buyers" or "sellers." The concept behind this is simply that, as the trade deadline approaches, a team will look at its current position and determine whether the addition of players will be enough to help them make a playoff run. If they determine that they are in no position to realistically hope to make such a run, however, they'll look to offload some players to teams looking to load up for playoff push in exchange for assets whose benefit will realized in the future.
If the Rockies are looking like another 66-win team this season, will the FO recognize that the team must become sellers?
Take the Mets, for example, who've played under .500 ball for the past six seasons. They lost key players in those years, but invested in the future. With the exception of the signing of Curtis Granderson this past season and Michael Cuddyer this offseason, the Mets have mostly looked for young guys with upside. The Cubs are another example of this. The future talent that these teams invested in is about to pay dividends. The Cubs may not be a playoff team this year, but they'll certainly be one in future years with the talent of Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Starlin Castro, and Jorge Soler, who have an average age of just 24. They also possess Baseball America's top-rated farm system, with Addison Russell another developing stud.
Baseball America's John Manuel wrote this of the New York Mets:
"Rebuild mode" has described the Mets for most of this decade, so it’s natural they rank high in prospect talent. They’ve made astute trades for prospects such as Noah Syndergaard and Dilson Herrera, drafted and developed prep (Steve Matz), college (Kevin Plawecki) and international (Amed Rosario, Marcos Molina) talent . . . They’ve even produced impact big leaguers such as RHP Jake deGrom, who went from No. 10 prospect to NL Rookie of the Year.
If the Rockies aren't going to compete for the foreseeable future, the FO needs to make the tough choice and recognize this. Our own Ryan Freemyer wrote this of his worry that the organization might not appropriately react to the situation they happen to find themselves in at the deadline:
I worry that Bridich won't pull the trigger on moves that need to be made at the deadline. I didn't totally hate the inactivity in the off-season, but if the deadline comes around and we're clear sellers (or buyers) I'm not convinced that he'll have the guts and/or blessing from above to make the moves that need to be made.
The Rockies have a solid core, including young stars at the MLB-level in Arenado and Dickerson, as well as a number of highly touted prospects. If they need to sell some of their better players for prospects, the future could be bright indeed. Alternatively, if the Rockies find themselves in a favorable position at the deadline, let's hope they have the stones to make some moves.
4. Prospect Development
Although I'm very, very high on some of our prospects, there's a few worrisome issues. The Rockies are often accused of messing around with their young pitchers' development, whether it be in pitch selection, the approach they take to pitching, or by rushing them to the majors. In other cases, high draft picks have totally failed to pan out. I don't expect them to hit on every single draft pick, but there are a worrisome number of picks in the first few rounds that have completely failed to materialize. Here are some examples.
|Player Name||Road to the Rockies||Draft Year/Selection (Round/Overall #)||Comments|
|Peter Tago||Drafted by Rockies||2010 (1/47)||Supplemental first round selection. Awful in minors for the Rockies, Tago was selected by the White Sox in the Triple-A phase of the Rule 5 draft this past winter. Has yet to pitch in the MLB.|
|Casey Weathers||Drafted by Rockies||2007 (1/8)||Early injuries hampered his progress and forced him to miss a year, Weathers was traded in 2011 to the Cubs along with Ian Stewart for Tyler Colvin and DJ LeMahieu. Has yet to pitch in the MLB. Hurts to know they could've drafted Madison Bumgarner, Todd Frazier, or Josh Donaldson.|
|Greg Reynolds||Drafted by Rockies||2006 (1/2)||Pitched all of 123.1 innings in his MLB career over three years, 94 of which were with the Rockies in 2008 and 2011. He owns a career ERA of 7.01 and an ERA- of 159. Currently pitches in Japan. Not really what you hope for from the second overall selection. Hindsight is 20/20, but the Rockies had the chance to take Evan Longoria, Clayton Kershaw, or Max Scherzer, among others.|
|Chaz Roe||Drafted by Rockies||2005 (1/32)||Spent years in the minors before being traded. He's pitched just 24.1 innings at the major league level, none of which were for the Rockies. In 2014, Roe gave up 2 earned runs in 2 innings for the Yankees. Not too concerned about this pick, because the Rockies drafted Tulo this year. If Roe was our punishment for landing Tulo, then it was a minor punishment indeed.|
|Drew Pomeranz||Traded to Rockies||2010 (1/5)||Traded to Rockies in the Ubaldo deal, Pomeranz struggled with the Rockies for three years before being shipped to Oakland in the Brett Anderson deal. He pitched 69 innings for the Athletics in 2014, posting a 2.35 ERA, 64 Ks, and 26 BBs.|
|Alex White||Traded to Rockies||2009 (1/15)||Traded to Rockies in the Ubaldo deal. White has pitched 149.1 innings over two seasons in the majors, posting a 6.03 ERA. Most recently, White gave up 7 runs in 4 innings for the Astros in spring training this year, good for an ERA of 15.75, which looks suspiciously like what mine would have been had they thrown me out there.|
|Christian Friedrich||Drafted by Rockies||2008 (1/25)||
Some pretty serious injuries are partially to blame, but after lighting up the lower minors and posting impressive strikeout numbers, Friedrich fell off. In stints with the Rockies, he's been pretty poor. On a positive note, he looked good as a reliever and could be a solid option going forward in that role. On an unrelated note, Friedrich recently won the NL Cy Young in my MLB the Show 14 franchise. Go figure.
While I did pick-and-choose players to post in the table, and the Rockies have had success in the draft, I wanted to provide some examples of how poor the Rockies' history is with pitching prospects. Keep your fingers crossed for Butler, Gray, Matzek, Anderson, etc. Matzek looks like the real deal, so hopefully he's a sign of better days ahead. I realize that the inherent nature of the MLB draft process means a lot of teams miss on their picks, especially high school stars, but the Rockies have a worrying history.
Even among our more encouraging prospects, there are a number of issues that should be looked at. While Jon Gray's performance this spring has been stellar, with the exception being his last outing, his season in 2014 at the AA level gave some reason to pause. There were signs that the Rockies were tinkering with their best prospect and some expressed concerns that they were taking a guy who had overpowering, strikeout stuff and trying to make him a pitch-to-contact player. The organization said Gray was simply working on locating his pitches and developing his other offerings, but it was nice to see him back to business this spring. Butler's injuries are concerning as well, and there are fears that he may be more of a bullpen option than a middle of the rotation guy.
5. Pitch Philosophy and Injuries
The emphasis on a pitching style to suit Coors may be having adverse effects on our pitchers' health. Tom (TomCat009) said the following regarding pitch style:
My worry is that the style of pitching that succeeds at Coors Field destroys pitchers' health, that our problems are structural and unlikely to go away. There has long been concern that sinkers destroy shoulders; Chacin and Francis jump to mind. Our emphasis on late movement may shred our pitchers.
The cause behind the recent epidemic in baseball of arm injuries is something that's discussed often. There are a number of factors that may explain the increasing number of injuries, but it's generally recognized that certain pitches put more strain on your arm than other pitches do. Due to the nature of playing at Coors Field, we place a premium on GB% as well as those pitchers who throw a slider. The idea behind having a high GB% — ground ball pitchers typically have a GB% approaching 50% — is that because balls naturally travel further at altitude, keeping the ball on the ground at Coors is a good thing.
ESPN's 2014 MLB Park Factors table is worth a quick look, but basically it compares a team's stats at home to its numbers on the road by dividing the ratios of total runs scored — both runs for and against — per total number of games at home to the same ratio from road game numbers. The formula they use is the following: Park Factor = [(homeRS + homeRA)/(homeG)]/[(roadRS + roadRA)/(roadG)], where RS = Runs Scored, RA= Runs Against, and G= Games. Coors Field's park factor regarding home runs is 1.393, just behind Yankee Stadium's 1.468. Rates above 1.000 favor the hitter, and rates below that mark favor the pitcher. Just for comparisons sake, our NL West rivals in San Francisco, San Diego, Arizona, and LA have home run PFs of 0.677, 0.808, 1.194, and 1.226 respectively.
Going just by total home runs hit at each stadium in 2014 tells a similar story. 209 balls went deep at Coors last year, which was 23 more than the 186 hit at the Blue Jays' Rogers Centre, which saw the second most home runs in the league. Keep it within the conference, however, and that 209 number is 40 (40!!) more than the next park most likely to see a ball go yard, which was the Reds' Great American Ball Park. That Coors Field sees a lot of home runs hit should be of no surprise, however, and thus the desire for ground ball pitchers. Just for fun, here's a scatter plot showing each homer hit courtesy of ESPN and Hit Tracker.
The altitude not only results in a high number of home runs, but also messes with breaking balls. Jon Drobnis at the University of Alaska Fairbanks has a site called the "Physics Behind Baseball," a section of which looks at why breaking balls do what they do. Essentially, the way a pitcher spins the ball and the resultant effect air resistance has on the ball's stitches creates different types of pitches. Because of reduced forces on the ball resulting from the thin air, balls don't break as much as they do elsewhere. The slider has shown to be more immune to these atmospheric effects than other pitches, such as the curve, and has become the go-to breaking ball for many of the Rockies' pitchers.
The problem that TomCat009 brings up, however, is significant. It's universally acknowledged that throwing certain pitches are bad for your arm — pitching itself puts lots of stress on your arm no matter what you throw — but some are worse for you than others. Sinkers and sliders are two that standout.
Rob Neyer on SB Nation in 2013 wrote a piece that referenced an article by Bill James that said ground ball pitchers are more injury-prone than others. Definitely check out his article, besides it's a really good read, but I'll just pull some quotes from it so that everything is in one place. Neyer quotes Bill James on ground ball pitchers:
What I have never understood about ground ball pitchers, and do not understand now, is why they always get hurt. Show me an extreme ground ball pitcher, a guy with a terrific ground ball rate, and I’ll show you a guy who is going to be good for two years and then get hurt. I’m not saying this about Chien-Ming Wang and Brandon Webb; I was saying this before Chien-Ming Wang and Brandon Webb. They’re just the latest examples. Mark Fidrych. Randy Jones. Ross Grimsley. Mike Caldwell. Rick Langford. Lary Sorensen. Clyde Wright. Fritz Peterson. Dave Roberts. They’re great for two years, and then they blow up. Always.When I talk about ground ball pitchers getting hurt, I’m not really talking about guys like Adam Wainwright and Andy Pettitte, with Ground Ball Rates around 38% or Ground Ball /Fly Ball Ratios around 5 to 4. In that context, I was talking about the guys with really extreme Ground Ball tendencies, like Chien-Ming Wang and Brandon Webb. Those guys, it seems to me, always self-destruct after a couple of years, unless their name is spelled "D-e-r-e-k-L-o-w-e". I don’t know why.
Neyer includes a comment on the article from sabermetric guru Craig Wright:
In doing aging profiles for pitchers during my career, I downgraded extreme groundball pitchers because they tended to show more reactive responses to abuse setting off premature aging syndrome (PAS) and also to the normal aging response. They are logically be a group of pitchers who would benefit more than most from managed workloads shaped to their circumstance. I tried to convince the Indians of this in regard to Derek Lowe last season, telling them that there was a key that could be simply applied to managing Lowe's workload that would significantly enhance his ability to sustain a positive performance as a starting pitcher over the 2012 season.
They felt they already had Lowe figured out and replied, "We believe that Lowe will perform appreciably better next year than he did last year." In their wisdom they ended up doing exactly the opposite of what my study indicated would be the single most helpful thing they could do to enhance his effectiveness at this late stage of his career. He crashed and burned after a fast start. (5.52 ERA in his 21 starts, allowing an .819 OPS.)
In another article Neyer wrote following his first, he reached out to Wright and asked him to elaborate on his comment. Wright's response is of great interest.
I believe the big issue with sinkerballers is that most continue to have as good or even better sinking action when their arm is a little tired. That doesn't happen with a normal fastball, which tends to lose effectiveness when the shoulder crosses the line of fatigue. As I've said many times, the key point in managing a pitcher's workload is not about pitches or innings in general, it is about curtailing the pitches and innings when the shoulder is starting to stress from fatigue. We are inclined to be more careless with a sinkerballer in that regard. He is more likely to be left in a game when his shoulder is most vulnerable to being damaged. That's the theory that I think makes the most sense.
So, sinkers apparently cause more stress to a pitcher's arm than other pitches do. Because of the altitude, however, sinkers are a favorite among many pitchers who've donned a Rockies uniform. A Denver Post article by Patrick Saunders lists Jhoulhys Chacin, Tyler Chatwood, Jordan Lyles, and Aaron Cook as examples of guys who've embraced the sinker. Chacin, before being cut, was trying to comeback from a shoulder injury. Chatwood is making his way back from Tommy John. Cook dealt with a number of injuries, but most recently shut himself down in 2013 for elbow inflammation. Jeff Francis had shoulder surgery, which forced him to miss all of 2009.
The slider is another pitch that apparently is more likely to cause injury. A 2011 FanGraphs article "Too Many Sliders?" took a sample of 25 pitchers who used the pitch more than 40% of the time. The piece references Jeff Zimmerman, who found that a pitcher coming off of a 120+ inning season landed on the DL 39% of the time. Furthermore, in examining pitchers who threw the slider at least 30% of the time, Zimmerman found that 46% of them ended up on the DL after a 120+ inning season. In another FanGraphs article analyzing Brett Anderson's battle with injuries, a sample of 25 starting pitchers who threw a slider at least 28% of the time was chosen. Of the sample, 17 had hit the DL for elbow or shoulder issues at least once over the past two seasons.
Does throwing a slider or a sinker mean a pitcher is going to end up on the DL? No, but it may suggest that they are more likely to. The fact that Rockies pitchers rely on sinkers and sliders is a product of playing at Coors, which as TomCat009 suggested points towards a systematic problem. The pitching coaches and organizational philosophy that encourages pitchers to work on getting ground balls is a product of playing at Coors Field, which is an unfortunate and unavoidable result of playing at altitude.