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Rockies first-half review: They are who we thought they were—and then some

But why hasn't it translated into a better showing in the standings?

These three players have helped drastically improve the Rockies' outfield defense.
These three players have helped drastically improve the Rockies' outfield defense.
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

At eight games under .500 (40-48) at the All-Star break, the Colorado Rockies aren’t in a great position, but neither are they necessarily in a bad position. They’re just in, well, a position. As usual, it’s difficult to tell what the team’s strategy might be as we near the Aug. 1 trade deadline.

Such is life as a Rockies fan, supporter and/or follower.

The 2016 version of the team—halfway through the season, at least—is more or less who we thought they were going to be. Improvement has happened in some areas, but in others, the same old things have been plaguing the purple pinstripers, turning what at times looked like a winning team into a mediocre one.

At the beginning of the season, we attempted to pinpoint where the Rockies would improve and where they’d stay the same, or maybe even become worse.

In the second part of our mini-series recapping the first half of the season (Isaac Marks mostly focused on individual players in part 1), let’s circle back around to some of those points to determine where the Rockies are now, and where they might be headed going forward:

Where we thought things would go right

Back in March, we suggested that the Rockies’ outfield defense, bullpen and offense against left-handed pitchers would take a step forward from their 2015 state. To a degree, each of those predictions have gone completely right.

Outfield defense
Defensive Runs Saved, OF
2015 -17
2016 13

Colorado to this point has improved its defense in the outfield by a whopping 30 runs over last year. However, it hasn’t necessarily been because Gerardo Parra is better than Corey Dickerson; in fact, Parra was the Rockies’ worst outfielder in the first half, even with limited playing time due to injury.

Instead, the Rox can thank Brandon Barnes (9 defensive runs saved), Carlos Gonzalez (7) and Charlie Blackmon (4) for the improvement. All of this ties into Colorado boasting the NL's fourth-best defense in terms of DRS, entering the break at 21 runs above average.

Bullpen
ERA K% BB%
2015 4.70 19.6% 9.9%
2016 5.09 19.9% 7.9%

In terms of run prevention, the Rockies’ bullpen is a bit worse than it was last season, posting a 5.09 ERA (104 ERA-) compared to 4.70 (102) in 2015, but the runs have come about in a somewhat different way.

Rockies relievers have walked just 7.9 percent of the batters they’ve faced, a figure that places the unit in a tie with the Washington Nationals for the best in the National League. Last year, the Rox bullpen finished second-worst in the NL by walking 9.9 percent of opposing hitters.

Sadly, the relief corps’ improved control hasn’t manifested itself in overall results. The unit as a whole allows too much contact (its 19.9 percent strikeout rate is only a marginal improvement over last year and is tied for third-worst in the NL), and when it does, the result usually isn’t good. The .320 batting average on balls in play allowed by the Rockies’ bullpen is the highest in the league, and that’s fueled by a 33.6 percent hard-hit rate—the second-worst in the NL behind only the San Diego Padres.

Offense vs. LHP
AVG OBP SLG wRC+
2015 .256 .310 .367 66
2016 .257 .330 .438 86

The Rockies in this category have gone from awful in 2015 to simply mediocre this season, although it didn’t come about the way we thought it would.

The additions of Ryan Raburn and Mark Reynolds were justifiable because of their ability to help improve the team’s production against southpaws, but that duo hasn’t been anywhere near the most responsible for the improvement. Instead, it has been rookie Trevor Story—along with incumbent starters Nolan Arenado, Nick Hundley and DJ LeMahieu—leading the way.

Where we thought things would go wrong

Though so far we've pretty much nailed it in terms of areas in which the Rockies would see improvement this season, we were dead wrong about the facets of the game in which the team would struggle.

Rotation
ERA xFIP K% BB%
2015 5.27 4.39 16.3% 8.7%
2016 5.07 4.14 18.3% 8.0%

It was an absolute must entering this season that the Rockies' young pitchers—and the pitchers returning from from injury—in the starting rotation take a step forward. So far, that has been the case. The unit has shaved a fifth of a run off of its ERA while striking out more batters and issuing fewer walks. Tylers Chatwood and Anderson have been the best of the bunch, but a big step in the right direction from Jon Gray and a resurgence of late for Jorge De La Rosa have been welcome developments, as well.

Still, even with the improvements, the rotation as a whole still hasn't been good enough. Even when factoring in Coors Field, Colorado's starters have been below league average in terms of run prevention, posting a 104 ERA-.

Getting on base
OBP BB%
2015 .315 6.4%
2016 .335 8.0%

Without even factoring in park adjustments, Rockies hitters finished eighth in the NL—and were below league average—in on-base percentage a year ago. This year, Colorado's offense ranks fourth in the league in OBP and sits 14 points above the league-average mark.

Among players with 100 or more plate appearances, five—DJ LeMahieu, Charlie Blackmon, Carlos Gonzalez, Nolan Arenado and Nick Hundley—have an OBP of .350 of better. Only LeMahieu and Justin Morneau could make that claim in 2015.

Additionally, the Rox have improved from second-to-last in the NL in walk rate in 2015 to ninth in 2016, and they've done it by maintaining the exact same respectable strikeout rate (21.1 percent) from a year ago.

Bonus pleasant surprise

Just 33 percent of the rotation's appearances last season ended in quality starts. This year, that number has jumped to 49 percent. The Rox need only 11 more quality starts to equal their total of 54 from 2015.

Bonus super-annoying thing

Why aren't all of these improvements translating into more wins and fewer losses? One of the biggest reasons could be the pitching staff's inability to limit damage with two outs.

Rockies hurlers with two outs and runners in scoring position have allowed the opposition to post an .868 OPS, which is 101 points higher than the second-worst team in that category and 164 points higher than the league average. It's also worth noting that, this year at least, this statistic shows a strong correlation with wins and losses.

The bottom five teams in OPS against with two outs and RISP are the Rockies, Braves, Brewers, Reds and Phillies. The top five? The Cubs, Nationals, Mets, Cardinals and Marlins.

History and conventional wisdom, though, show that things will get better in this facet for the Rockies before they get worse. The batting average on balls in play surrendered by the Rox in this situation is .355, an astounding 66 points higher than league average. Only one team in the history of baseball, the 1994 Angels, have been both as bad and as unlucky as the 2016 Rockies on the mound with two outs and RISP.

That raises a critical question: are these Rockies historically bad and/or unlucky in clutch situations, or is there some statistical noise that will even itself out in the second half? If it's the latter, that might go further toward helping the team improve its record than just about anything else.

***

Back in spring training, we also took a look at the top storylines for the 2016 squad and how those would affect the organization overall. Tomorrow, we’ll check in on the progress of those stories and how they relate to the team’s performance thus far.