The Colorado Rockies have played four road and three home series so far in 2015. They stand at a 11-10 record after holding on for dear life in the first game against the Arizona Diamondbacks only to be pummeled in the next two. The Rockies begin a series in San Diego this evening ... or, y'know, practically tomorrow morning if you live on the east coast.
As with every team, there have been good and bad early signs, all of which should be taken with prerequisite helpings of salt grain. Here are five not so good signs from the Rockies thus far in 2015.
LaTroy Hawkins' early struggles led to a demotion from the closer role and now a DL stint. Scott Oberg has looked every bit the part of an overmatched rookie in two of his six appearances, as his ERA ballooned to 13.50 before his most recent outing shrunk it to 9.00. Boone Logan sports a -0.4 WPA and both Christian Friedrich and Brooks Brown have shaky moments on their 2015 resume.
The team has three blown saves, and by my count two other close games wherein the bullpen gave up runs in the late innings en route to a loss.
As much as number three on this list may be more of a long term concern in terms of probability that these bullpen struggles worsen, it is too early in the season for the pen to already be worn down, so the innings load shouldn't factor too much into analyzing the times the they have cost the Rockies a game in 2015.
Five close losses that the bullpen at least somewhat contributed to is tough to swallow for a team with less of a margin for error than some others in the division.
No one expects perfection, but perfection nonetheless from the bullpen in 2015 could have meant a 16-5 record up to this point in the season.
4. Lack of patience at the plate
The Rockies rank as the third worst team in the National League in total walks drawn in 2015. They have drawn 28 fewer walks than the first place Los Angeles Dodgers.
But the Rockies are also fourth best in the NL in OPS+ (a park adjusted stat) and second in slugging. They are fifth in the NL in on-base percentage. It can feel odd to argue process in the face of such results. It made sense when manager Walt Weiss told me he was "fine with the aggressive approach."
And yet it's easy to see how the Rockies could improve on all of these numbers, not even necessarily by walking more, but by being more selective at the plate.
Troy Tulowitzki and Justin Morneau are both swinging at pitches outside of the strike zone at career-high rates. The team itself is fourth worst in the NL in that category, and no matter how you slice it, swinging at balls is not a good thing.
Here's a fun way to think about it: if the Rockies can be more selective, they may naturally draw a few more walks and have more men on base when batters hit for power, but more importantly they will end up in more hitters counts and see better pitches to hit, which could extend rallies and really allow the offense to win some games on their own.
As long as they continue to hit the ball so hard, they don't necessarily need to walk more, but they do need to swing at balls less and trust that the more pitches this absurdly deep lineup sees—and the longer the opposing pitcher has to stand on the mound thinking about this absurdly deep lineup—the more damage they will do.
3. Starter length/taxation of the bullpen
A huge concern—judging by the amount of conversation on the topic on Twitter, here at Purple Row, and among the beat writers who cover the team—is the lack of length the Rockies are currently getting out of their starting rotation.
I'll just leave this here:
Good news: When a #Rockies pitcher earns a quality start, the team is undefeated. Bad news: Rox are dead last in MLB with 5 quality starts.— Purple Row (@PurpleRow) April 30, 2015
Jordan Lyles, Tyler Matzek and Eddie Butler have decent numbers in the runs allowed department, and are all under 24, but the fact remains that they have contributed heavily to the team's 1.492 WHIP (worst in the National League) which has in turn contributed even more heavily to the over-taxation and over-representation of the bullpen.
The bullpen has picked up 76.1 innings so far this year, which ranks first in the National League and sixth in MLB.
I am less concerned about this than others because the Rockies have a rare amount of depth on the farm that includes, but is not necessarily limited to: Tommy Kanhle, one of the team's best bullpen arms a year ago; Jorge Rondon, who is currently getting a shot to showcase himself with Adam Ottavino temporarily shelved; Jairo Diaz; who can throw 99 mph; Rex Brothers; who I don't know what the hell; and Simon Castro, who is sporting a 2.00 ERA and a 9.1 strikeout to walk ratio in Albuquerque.
You could also throw in Aaron Laffey, Chris Rusin, and David Hale as guys who could end up eating some bullpen innings for the Rockies if absolutely needed in 2015. These three also qualify as rotation depth which is another way for rested arms to give the Rockies innings.
But whether or not the bullpen tires is secondary to the fact that extended innings from starters is almost always a good thing unless you have a lights-out bullpen. The Rockies pen has shown themselves to be decent in 2015, but not so dominant they can afford to pick up four innings a night. This is an unsustainable situation.
This bad sign would be ranked higher on the list, but I tend to believe that 24-year olds with talent and pedigree who have experienced success on the scoreboard will improve in confidence, which will start to limit walks, and which will in the end lengthen starts.
We will see.
2. MLB Bench/Depth
This is not easy to write coming from the guy who wrote an article arguing Daniel Descalso could have a significantly positive (at least in relative terms) impact on this team, but the Rockies bench has been pretty bad.
Other than Michael McKenry, who pretty much is who we though he was (decent, awesome personality, but not an imposing force), the option the Rockies have for pinch-hitting or stepping in to give starters a rest are pretty thin.
This problem has been further exacerbated after Wilin Rosario found himself the odd man out when the team needed bullpen help, even though he hit well in limited play.
It is of course a minuscule sample size, but the irony is that Wilin Rosario's wRC+ actually leads the Rockies right now, but he finds himself in Triple-A.
Like with everything we've discussed so far, it is too early to panic about a very small sample size, even more so with bench guys who have an even smaller sample. But there is really no debating that both offensively and defensively, the bench has not been good, and historically that is what has doomed the Tulo/CarGo era Rockies.
There is no way around the fact that the Rockies need either unusually stupendous health or vast improvement from their bench in order to compete in 2015.
1. Over aggressive base running
That means that FanGraphs thinks the Rockies have cost themselves almost four runs on the bases so far this season. My eyes and every statistic I could find on the matter do not speak well for the Rockies.
This team doesn't need to scratch and claw for every base or even every run. Unless they are in the eighth or ninth inning of a low scoring, close game, the Rockies have so much talent in the batters box that they should do everything in their power to avoid outs on the base-paths. That might mean not attempting to steal so frequently.
Every out on the bases is a sigh of relief for the opposing pitcher. Each one takes the bat out of the hands of (statistically likely) a very good hitter and lowers the number of pitches he will throw that inning.
Every out on the bases is a potential run you are taking off the board, and a potential rally you are killing.
Some teams—the Kansas City Royals come to mind—have the personnel to win games with their legs. The Rockies do not. They are second to last in stolen base percentage at 40 percent.
I'm not suggesting the Rockies never try to go first-to-third, or take the extra base, or even steal. I'm am suggesting that they would score more runs if they only did those things in the most extreme of situations, leaving very conservative base-running as the default position.
There is only so much the Rockies can do to maximize the value of their roster. Most of the bad signs on this list arise out of talent that is either too young, not showing itself at the moment, or simply not there. These issues will be solved with individual growth or roster improvement. But maximizing run scoring opportunities by making fewer outs on the base-paths is something the Rockies can -- and should -- fix immediately.