It's been a common refrain among fans, media, haters, and basically anyone observing the Rockies for a long time: the Rockies can't develop pitching.
It is fair to say the Rockies have not been paragons of pitching development throughout their history. The evidence is the lack of stars produced. But what if the problem that has historically plagued the team has been partially self-created? What if the Rockies, out of altitude-induced paranoia, have constrained themselves by pursuing a type?
After watching Jon Gray's start against the Padres at Coors Field a couple weeks ago, I met up with long-time Purple Row community member Franchise26 (who goes by Dan Lucero in real life.) As we watched Gonzalez Germen blow Gray's lead from the left-field concourse, the conversation turned to Gray and that fact that seeing a pitcher with his stuff on the mound at Coors Field, at least for the home team, was a novelty.
Prior to the selection of Gray in June of 2013, the only Rockies pitchers that have had his type of stuff and ace potential that come to mind are Ubaldo Jimenez and Franklin Morales, as well as perhaps Tyler Matzek and Doug Million, though the latter two are more questionable.
Jimenez and Morales have produced successful careers. Jimenez tapped into that ace potential for two seasons, 2009 and 2010, posting a 3.17 ERA and helping the Rockies to a .540 winning percentage and a playoff berth. He also started the All-Star game and came third in NL Cy Young voting in 2010. Jimenez has also posted several other solid seasons both before and after his peak; his development was certainly not a failure.
Morales was certainly never an ace; however, 2015 is his ninth season in the big leagues, and that doesn't happen by accident. No one who pitches in the majors for damn near a decade can be called a bust. He's currently coasting into the playoffs as a member of the Royals bullpen with a 2.13 ERA.
The reputation the Rockies have for being unable to develop pitching comes, in my opinion, from the types of pitchers the Rockies have endeavored to develop. Throughout most of Dan O'Dowd's tenure and even toward the end of Bob Gebhard's, the Rockies targeted amateur pitchers with high floors and relatively low ceilings. Some of the best homegrown pitchers in franchise history—guys like Jason Jennings, Aaron Cook and Jeff Francis—fit this mold. So do more recent Rockies like Jhoulys Chacin and Chad Bettis and pitchers from the early days, such as John Thomson.
(Not for nothing, you do have to take Coors Field into account when evaluating Rockies pitchers. For example, would you have guessed that Thomson had a career ERA+ of 104, making him above average relative to the league, with the Rockies despite his raw ERA being 5.01? Probably not.)
Francis is probably the epitome of the high-floor, low-ceiling type pitcher the Rockies targeted for so long. Taken with the ninth overall pick in 2002, Francis was a solid to quite good pitcher before a shoulder injury derailed his career in 2008. In the two seasons prior to his injury, Francis had an ERA+ of 118 in 2006 and 114 in 2007, the season in which he finished ninth in NL Cy Young voting and started Game 1 of the World Series.
That said, no one was going to confuse him for Clayton Kershaw or David Price with his stuff. His average fastball for a season was never faster than 88 miles per hour, he was never a big strikeout guy, he was never going to be an ace. However, he was a polished pitcher with an excellent changeup. The chances of him busting were very low; he was exactly the kind of guy the Rockies went after for a very long time.
Those Francis-type league average pitchers are actually what the Rockies have been quite good at developing, as there has been a fairly consistent stream of them throughout the team's history, starting way back in 1996 when Jamey Wright, the team's first-round pick in 1993, debuted. Wright pitched 19 seasons in the big leagues, making nearly 250 starts and pitching more than 2000 innings with an ERA+ of 96. That is a spectacular success from a developmental standpoint. In fact, the Rockies have maintained a consistent track record of development. With the exception of 2000, the Rockies have had at least one homegrown starter with an ERA+ over 90 in every season since 1996—often more than one.
That isn't to say the Rockies haven't had their share of development failures when it comes to pitchers. Greg Reynolds' development was a disaster, and no one is arguing otherwise. But Reynolds was only on the team because of the Rockies overly conservative drafting. Matzek is close to his 25th birthday and is still a work in progress, despite a strong 2014 season. I'm sure the Rockies expected more out of him when they drafted him in 2009. But what organization hasn't had pitching development failures? Ask Orioles fans about Matt Hobgood or Pirates fans about Bryan Bullington. A portion of prospects will always—always—fail.
The conclusion that I have come to is that the Rockies' failures when it comes to pitching have not been in development. Instead, the failures have been in player acquisition. They haven't developed elite pitchers because they haven't tried to develop elite pitchers, opting instead for safer options. Those league average or slightly better types do have value, and quite a bit of it, but they need to supplement top-end pitchers.
The good news is that it appears the Rockies have changed course. It started when the team hired Mark Wiley as head of pitching operations in 2013. In addition to Gray, the Rockies have selected Kyle Freeland and Mike Nikorak in the first round of the draft in 2014 and 2015, respectively, and acquired a pair of high-ceiling guys in the Troy Tulowitzki trade in Jeff Hoffman and Miguel Castro. This all came under Mark Wiley, and we have yet to find out whether or not it will pay off. Patience, it has been said, is a conquering virtue. We'll know more soon.
Wiley seems to have brought an entirely new philosophy to how the Rockies approach pitching, one that seems to be endorsed by Jeff Bridich. Gray is the first pitcher developed under this philosophy. The next few years should be very exciting as we find out exactly how successful the new plan is.