This article needs to start with qualifications and explanations.
First, by "chance" I mean the chance to contend for a playoff spot. Second, and I’m going to get this out of the way before you can think "confirmation bias," all teams had a chance at the beginning of the season, including the Rockies, though the chances for some were greater than others. Third, while contending for a playoff spot will always be the publicly stated goal for the Rockies, it might not have been the actual goal of the front office for this season. This article isn’t an "I told you so" as much as it is an illustration of how we should read the state of the Rockies at any given point in the season.
Finally, through Sunday’s win (the cutoff for all information below) the Rockies have won seven of their last eight games and nine of their last 13, so this declaration that the Rockies have no chance to contend is at least not due to another catchphrase: "recency bias." I had planned on writing this post once the Rockies reached 0.0 percent playoff odds, but the point is more illustrative because the team has been winning.
Now that that’s out of the way: the Rockies never stood a chance, and they are not going to contend for a playoff spot this season. The reason they have no chance right now is because they entered the season with a very thin margin of error. The poor start to the season further diminished that thin line. And now the Rockies really have no shot. Here are some of the ways we can measure that.
Record and Historical Comparison
The Rockies are 22-26. It’s not a great record, but it’s much better than the low point of the season thus far: the 15-25 mark they were at just over a week ago. In Rockies history, that’s middle of the road for the first 48 games. It’s tied for 12 out of 23 seasons played, including this one. Two teams that started worse than the current squad are the two most recent playoff teams. The 2007 pennant winners began 21-27, and the 2009 Wild Card team started 20-28. On the other hand, the best start in team history belongs to the 1995 Wild Card team and the 2013 team; they both started 27-21.
Only 15 teams (including the 2007 and 2009 Rockies) in the Wild Card era have started with a 22-26 record or worse over the first 48 games and have made the playoffs. That’s only nine percent of playoff teams in that time span. Sure, 48 games is an arbitrary cut off, but the salient point is that 48 games is a large enough sample to reasonably predict a playoff team. Of course, record isn’t necessarily the best way to evaluate a team.
Run Differential and Historical Comparison
In short, a team with a poor record and a very good run differential—more runs scored than runs allowed—can be expected to win more going forward. Conversely, a team with a good record and a poor run differential—more runs allowed than runs scored—can be expected to lose more. A team with a poor record and a poor run differential can safely be deemed a poor team. Run differential helps us understand how good or bad a team is beyond the record. In this respect, the Rockies have not been very good, either. Their run differential is currently -28, which is fifth worst in baseball. What this tells us is that the Rockies’ losses haven’t been fluky. They are not below .500 due to poor luck or run sequencing, but because they haven’t been a great team on the whole.
Only eight teams (including the 2007 Rockies) in the Wild Card era have made the playoffs with a run differential of -28 or worse after 48 games, which is just 5.5 percent of playoff teams.
Run differential can also be misleading. It relies heavily on sequencing, and a team can collect a lot of runs while playing weak opponents. Base Runs attempts to account for anomalous sequencing and calculate how many runs a team should have given up and allowed. FanGraphs keeps Base Runs standings; there, the Rockies rank eighth worst in baseball. Their "Base Run" record is 23-25, their run differential record is 21-27, while their actual record is 22-26. They are neither playing over their heads, nor are they underperforming. They’ve just reached this point by way of an 11 game losing streak valley and a 13-3 peak. Unfortunately, there’s no way to see the Base Run record of playoff teams since 1995. But, like run differential, it’s likely that few teams with poor Base Run profiles after 48 games have made the playoffs.
Playoff Odds and Projections
Rob Neyer recently wrote that, at this point in the season, we can’t just look at the standings to evaluate a team. Run differential and Base Runs illustrate two reasons why, but playoff odds, which are based on preseason and updated in season projections, fill it out for us. As far as the Rockies’ chances to contend for a playoff spot are concerned, this view is the bleakest. Each other measure is tied to what other teams are doing, but in playoff odds that aspect comes out the most.
I’ve been keeping track of the Rockies’ playoff odds (from FanGraphs) after each day of the season. The Rockies began the year with a 5.1 percent chance to make the playoffs. That was when every team was 0-0. The team’s good start pushed their odds to 14.5 on April 16, which looks like it’s going to be the peak for the year. After a May 23 doubleheader, which the Rockies split, their playoff odds stood at 0.8 percent. But then the Rockies got hot and won seven of their next eight—that streak has raised their playoff odds to 1.3 percent.
The Rockies have been winning, but they dug themselves into a hole. Not only that, but the Dodgers, and the Giants, and the Cardinals, and the Pirates, and the Cubs, and the Nationals, and the Mets, have sustained a high level of play. The projections that form the foundation of the playoff odds aren’t easily persuaded by two weeks of solid play—the Rockies are projected to finish in last place in the National League West with a 73-89 record. The Rockies don’t stand a chance, and they never really did.
The Rockies needed a lot of things to go their way in order to compete in 2015. They needed everyone to be healthy and effective, a rotation of at least three pitchers reaching their 80th percentile projections, rapid progress from young starters, a solid bullpen, home dominance, road competence, and some underperformance from other teams to top it off. We’re roughly a third through the season, and things have unfolded quite differently. The Rockies have won recently with outstanding starting pitching, but it’s unlikely to continue.
That doesn’t mean we don’t have interesting baseball ahead of us; nor does it mean that Troy Tulowitzki won’t have anything to smile about for the remainder of the season. What it does mean is that six weeks from now, the Rockies really need to be sellers in anticipation of the trade deadline because they will have no shot at contending this year. They should not trade Tulo because what they buy in return for what they sell (Justin Morneau, Wilin Rosario, Carlos Gonzalez, John Axford, and Boone Logan and Drew Stubbs if anyone will take them, to name a few) can contribute to a competitor as soon as next year.
To recall one of the caveats we opened with: contention was not necessarily this season’s goal, though it would have been a welcome, if unlikely, turn of events. Assessment and decision making regarding where to recalibrate and retool was the goal. Now that the off chance that the Rockies would compete has turned into no chance, changes need to be made on the Major League roster.