Coors Field has long been considered a vicious hellscape for pitchers. Opposing pitchers would count the days to see if they would have to pitch here. Before the humidor was installed in 2002, 16-14 games weren’t all that uncommon. Due to the combination of thin air and large outfield, it is the single greatest run scoring environment in major league history, even with the humidor in place.
This proved a conundrum for the Rockies: how do you build a winner when you play half your games at Coors Canaveral? Do you double down on big bats and hope to bludgeon the opposition? Do you invest in sinker-ball-type pitchers and ride a good defense? Do you limit your pitchers to 75 pitches a game and piggyback them with a reliever out of the bullpen? It seemed an impossible riddle to solve and the Rockies languished through non-competitive season after non-competitive season.
Then, they tried getting good pitchers.
Contrary to whatever bias you may hold about Rockies teams, this team wins with pitching. Of course they still led the National League in runs scored, but they may turn out to be one of the worst offenses in team history. Despite two legitimate MVP candidates at the top of the lineup, scoring runs hasn’t been driving Colorado’s success—preventing them has.
The Rockies pitching staff has combined for 18.2 Wins Above Replacement, the 8th most in baseball according to FanGraphs. They are 15th in ERA (4.50) and 13th in FIP (4.33) but seventh in both ERA- (90) and FIP- (93), where anything below 100 is better than average. It’s only the fifth time in franchise history that they were better than average in both categories.
If you prefer your stats a little more contextualized, the pitching staff has a win percentage added (WPA, explained here) of 10.43, fourth best in baseball and only topped by the Dodgers in the National League. If you look at just the bullpen, only the Craig Kimbrel–led Red Sox are ahead of Rockies relievers in WPA, a year after the Rockies had the worst bullpen WPA in baseball.
How are they doing this? By most conventional indicators, it’s a mystery. They are 17th in the league in strikeout rate and walk rate, and 23rd in batting average against. They are also 30th in baseball with a 26.8% out of zone swing rate, which makes sense because they throw more pitches in the strike zone than any team in baseball. So they don’t strike very many guys out because they’re not making guys chase out of the zone. Instead, they’re electing to pound the zone, come what may.
Fortunately, all this contact allowed hasn’t hurt them because of they type of contact they’re allowing is soft. Of all balls hit against the Rockies, 20.3% have been classified as soft contact, third highest in the league. They lead the league in groundball rate (48.1%) and have the lowest fly ball rate (31.4%) by nearly a full percentage point. This approach plays well in Coors, where ground balls tend to be outs, or at most singles, and fly balls can easily turn into home runs (and their home run per fly ball rate is slightly below average). And when you pitch in front of a good defense (second in fielding percentage, eighth in baseball with 22 DRS as a team), you can afford to let batters hit the ball on the ground to their hearts’ content.
This method—induce lots of weak contact on the ground to sure-handed fielders—has been a growing trend in Denver. This year’s groundball rate is the second highest in franchise history, and the other top five all occurred in the previous five seasons. They’ve never been this effective, though. This year’s team had found more success with the strategy: the 90 ERA- is the best mark and the 93 FIP- and 17.7 fWAR are third best in franchise history.
The difference? Better pitchers top to bottom. By both ERA- and FIP-, a full 12 pitchers the Rockies used in 2017 were better than average. Only the 2009 playoff team had more (15), but they needed to use 25 pitchers to get there. Not only that, but the 21 pitchers used by the Rockies in 2017 was a league low. Oh, and these guys have to pitch half their games in the most hitter friendly environment in major league history.
Rockies pitchers, 2017
In fact, they only used eight starters total. Chad Bettis (9, who spent a majority of the season recovering from testicular cancer) is the only one who made fewer than 15 starts. Even that 2009 team had to throw a start each at youngsters Esmil Rogers and Jhoulys Chacin, and aging vet Josh Fogg. When the pitchers you have perform well, you don’t have to rely on as many to get through the season.
And perform they did. Whereas that 2009 team did it with veterans who had career years (Jason Marquis, Jason Hammel, Aaron Cook), the 2017 rode young arms (Tyler Chatwood is the only starter eligible for arbitration) like the rookie triumvirate Kyle Freeland (82 ERA-), Germán Márquez (87 ERA-), and Antonio Senzatela (93 ERA-). Staff ace John Gray lead the team with 3.2 fWAR in just 20 starts and, on a rate basis, may have just thrown the best season in Rockies history.
This doesn’t even mention any of the bullpen. From deadline acquisition Pat Neshek (49 ERA-) and quick-pitching mastermind Chris Rusin (53 ERA-), to revitalized vets Jake McGee (72 ERA-), Mike Dunn (89 ERA-), and closer Greg Holland (72 ERA-). Even starters Chatwood, Freeland, Senzatela, and Tyler Anderson have had success pitching in relief. It’s been all hands on deck all season.
The Rockies have gotten good performances from their pitching staff from top to bottom. It’s true that not all of these performances can be counted on to happen next year, but it’s always the perfect mix of talent and timing that propels a team to the playoffs. This year, for the Colorado Rockies, the primary engine was pitching.