Welcome to the 2017 edition of Ranking the Rockies, where we take a look back at the in-season contributions of every player to don the purple this past season. The goal wasn’t and isn’t to quibble with order. Instead, it’s to get a snapshot of a player along with a look forward. For that reason, we simply sorted by Baseball-Reference’s Wins Above Replacement (rWAR) and will start at the bottom and end up at the top.
No. 10: Antonio Senzatela (2.1 rWAR)
There was a time when Rockies fans would have expected a strong season out of the rotation from Antonio Senzatela. After the 2015 season in which he dominated hitters on average three years older than him (in the California League, no less), Senzatela rose to ninth on Purple Row’s preseason PuRP list. He went to Double-A Hartford and seemed to be on the fast track to Denver. But between shoulder problems and the loss of his mother in Venezuela, he threw only 342⁄3 innings in 2016. It was reasonable to expect that he would repeat Double-A in 2017 and maybe show up on a major league roster in 2018.
That’s why it was such a surprise to hear the coaching staff talk about him as a rotation candidate in early March. As injuries mounted it became more plausible. By the time he was set to make his major league debut in Milwaukee on April 6, it was an open question whether a pitcher with zero innings above Double-A could have long term success.
The early results were better than even the most optimistic could have hoped for. After shutting down the Cardinals on May 26, Senzatela had a 3.19 ERA and 1.14 WHIP in 10 starts. He was 8-2 and a major component in the Rockies’ rise. There were warning signs, though: like his 5.4 K/9 or an opponent OPS around .700, indicating that there was some measure of fortune, even if he had one of the highest groundball rates among starters.
It turns out relying on two pitches—a fourseam fastball (72%) and a slider (22%)—is not a long-term path to success for a starting pitcher. The bottom fell out of Senzatela’s smoke and mirror show in June, culminating in a disastrous outing against the Diamondbacks: nine runs on eight hits with three walks in five innings. That was the start of a nightmarish stretch where the Rockies went 5-13 heading into the All-Star Break. Turns out relying on rookie pitchers is tough to do.
Senzatela lost his rotation spot after that game. He did make what amounted to five spot-starts for the rest of the year but otherwise worked primarily out of the bullpen. He did manage nearly a strikeout per inning and a 3.08 ERA in 232⁄3 relief innings, though most of those appearances came when the game result was no longer in doubt.
Did Senzatela tire or did the league figure him out? Running a below average swing percentage (in and out of the zone) in an era where strikeouts are at an all-time high was perhaps bound to catch up to him. But pitching in only seven games in 2016 surely made the marathon of a big league season a little difficult. But for those first two months he was exactly what the Rockies—sans Jon Gray or Tyler Anderson—needed to stay in lock-step for a playoff position. That he’s tenth overall on this list means that Rockies fans, even those who maintained high expectations, ought to be pleased with the role he filled on this team; they don’t make the playoffs without him.
Many hold that Senzatela’s ultimate destination is in the bullpen, where, it is hoped, his fastball might gain some power in short bursts (though, it’s worth noting, his average fastball velocity was largely the same in 2017 whether he was starting or relieving). It seems the Rockies will give him every chance to start, but that will only work if he finds a way to supplement his current arsenal. He experimented with his slider and curve ball more while coming out of the ‘pen over the last two months of the season, so he may come into spring training ready to continue tinkering with his pitch mix. If all goes well he may just surprise everyone again by making the rotation.