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Ten Rockies lessons from the 2017 Baseball Prospectus Annual

Or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Accept the Tao of Rockies Baseball

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As humans, we operate on rhythms. There is research out there that shows that living without them, living “spontaneously,” can be hazardous to your physical and mental health. We create habits and routines to help us live our daily lives and these habits end up shaping us into who we are. We need these rhythms to survive and thrive.

That’s why early February is so important to baseball fans, especially the nerdy ones. The release of the Baseball Prospectus Annual and the latest PECOTA projections are signposts on the way to the regular season. Each year the Annual is perhaps the most invaluable resource to wrapping our minds around the upcoming season. This year, one of the major themes will be volatility of young players.

Today, in the grand tradition of SBNation sites near and far, we look at the 2017 Baseball Prospectus Annual and see what we can learn about the Colorado Rockies in the season to come.

1. Rockies fans should be very zen by now

One of the highlights of every Baseball Prospectus Annual is reading the team specific essays. These deeply insightful essays attempt to analyze an organization in depth, both where they are and where they are going, and inspires everything from potential harbinger of doom (2017: Cardinals) to post-apocalyptic fan fiction (2015: Twins). After many others this offseason tried to figure out, “What are the Rockies doing,” Patrick Dubuque instead waxed philosophical:

The existence of the Rockies is a rejection of the traditional Western mores regarding purpose and success. Within them lies something deeper, something more tranquil. To learn to be a Rockies fan is to learn how to live—as much as one can—a peaceful, happy life. There is a Rockies Way which is really just The Way, as best as anything can approximate it: It is the Tao.

After seven seasons of perplexing mediocrity, this is what it’s come to. Since the Rockies’ plan seems to be no more discernible from the outside than tea leaves are to a blind man, the essay intended to explore the Rockies’ plan reduces the writer tasked with the assignment to wonder aloud whether plans and purpose should really be a concern.

For those of us who are still looking for success from our strong men in pajamas, he offers this glimmer of hope and caution: “The Colorado Rockies of 2018, if not 2017, portend to be a better-than-average baseball team.But that’s not important, according to Lao-tzu. Winning (and its inextricable twin, caring about winning) is the ultimate distraction, and its pursuit will end in each fan losing their soul.” Where do we sign?

2. Nolan Arenado ain’t no scrub, but he sure can’t get no love from PECOTA

Projection systems are inherently conservative (Mike Trout, who’s career low WARP is 8.6, is projected for 7.7 WARP in 2017). As such it should come as no surprise that Nolan Arenado is, for the second season in a row, projected for just 4.0 WARP by PECOTA. Last year he was projected for a .287/.324/.513 season with a 4.4 WARP and went on to produce a .288/.362/.570 with 7.8 WARP. Of course PECOTA couldn’t predict that Nolan would nearly double his walk rate while continuing to lead the league in dongers, or that he would outperform his FRAA by almost 50 percent. But maybe it should this time. Before we get too up in arms over Nolan being perpetually underrated, though, we should note that PECOTA does predict Nolan will have the third-best slugging percentage in baseball and will continue to be one of the top 10 hitters in the National League.

3. Carlos Gonzalez might be the most feared average outfielder in baseball

Cargo logged over 600 plate appearances in each of the last two seasons and he was, well, average. It’s an unfortunate realization but Cargo is no longer the superstar-caliber player we thought he was. His 2.2 WARP in 2015 and 1.9 in 2016 indicate a player in the, albeit graceful, decline phase of his career, not a player worthy of an expensive extension. However, as we well know, Cargo can still unleash a mighty bat drop at the least inconvenient times, and it seems like opposing pitchers know this, too, “as he saw the sixth-fewest strikes among all qualified hitters in 2016.” That’s a lot of respect for an average outfielder.

4. Jeff Hoffman’s best comp is Jon Gray

The player comps are more intellectual curiosity than predictive measure. That being said, when your new top pitching prospect has listed in his comparables your old top pitching prospect—the one who just had the best rookie season for a pitcher in Rockies history—and he’s projected to be an average major leaguer right now, I tend to start hoping it’s more the latter. Looking at Jon Gray’s projection before his breakout rookie campaign last year offers a bit more cautious optimism.

PECOTA Projections

Jon Gray, 2016 127 1/3 3.93 4.02 4.45 100 1.3 3.7
Jeff Hoffman, 2017 111 1/3 4.36 4.34 4.43 100 1.0 ??
Baseball Prospectus

The raw projections don’t hold as much hope for Hoffman, but the context-neutral stats look remarkably similar, especially when you consider that Gray is a mere 14 months older than Hoffman.

5. The Rockies already have Chris Carter

Taken together, you would be forgiven for thinking Purple Row was a “Chris Carter to the Colorado Rockies Blog.” However, I present for your consideration 2017 PECOTA projections:

2017 PECOTA Projections

Chris Carter .223/.320/.470 0.267 1B: -4 1.0
Tom Murphy .256/.309/.504 0.262 C: -7 0.0
TAv = True Average, FRAA = Fielding Runs Above Average, WARP = Wins Above Replacement Player Baseball Prospectus

Of course, there are major differences, as a huge part of the value that Murphy provides is as a catcher who still might prove to be an average-or-better receiver behind the plate (with a great arm to boot). However, since his number two comparable is the erstwhile first base target, perhaps Rockies fans can console themselves with the fact that we already have a masher with swing-and-miss-issues on the roster.

6. Despite losing velocity, Adam Ottavino was at his best in 2016

When Adam Ottavino went down for good in 2015 for Tommy John surgery, he had allowed two walks, three hits, and struck out 13 in 1013 innings. It was difficult to imagine him putting up better than a 0.00 ERA and 0.48 WHIP, but context-neutral numbers like DRA and cFIP had his year as right around his stellar 2014 campaign. In about half a season in 2016, his DRA of 2.51 and cFIP of 67 ranked him as among the best 20 pitchers in baseball. That he managed to do this while going from an average fastball velocity of 98.1 mph before surgery to 96.3 after is all the more impressive.

7. Bud Black has a skill for managing The Grind...

Like many Rockies fans, I did my fair share of hand-wringing after it was announced that Bud Black would be the new manager. Certain things have helped mitigate those concerns, but there is still some trepidation on my part. This year’s annual helped further mitigate those concerns in two meaningful ways. In his masterful essay, “The Modern Manager,” Matthew Trueblood notes:

The first job of a manager is to minimize the deleterious impact of The Grind...Losing, absent any managerial influence, begets more losing. Players play worse after losses. Long stretches without days off have a cumulative effect on performance. Over a long season, it gets harder to bring one’s best efforts to the field every day, in ways big and small.

Managers can exert real influence and minimize or even reverse these small disintegrations. Erstwhile Padres manager and new Rockies skipper Bud Black is great at this aspect of the job.

This is a part of Black’s reputation that I had not yet heard. Considering the bounty of evidence about these cumulative effects on performance, this aspect of managing cannot be overlooked. And the fact that Black is the prime example listed tells me the Rockies have hired a manager who is one of the few in the game who has proven he can manage workloads to maximize performance well, something that will be tested working at altitude.

8. ...and Black is also great at managing bullpens.

One of the biggest complaints against Walt Weiss was his bullpen management. His replacement was sure to be better, but the Rockies may have struck gold with Black. According to wRM+, a stat created by BP writers Rian Watt and Rob Arthur “in order to better understand which big-league managers match their best relievers to the game’s biggest moments,” Black is among the best in baseball. His mark of 103.1 is third in baseball behind only Joe Girardi (105.3) and Bruce Bochy (104.1). In fact, Black’s wRM+ (scaled where 100 is average) is one of only nine current skippers who are above average.

9. Ryan McMahon may be the first baseman of the future

The Rockies’ system has been unable to produce a regular major-league first baseman since Todd Helton. That could change if Ryan McMahon recaptures the form that earned him a spot on top prospect lists last offseason. We all know about “the Arenado-shaped barrier in front of him,” and the Rockies plans to transition Ryan McMahon to a possible future at first base. What surprised me is the extent to which they have committed to this plan: he started as many games at first base in 2016 (67) as he did at third base.

Bonus: McMahon’s 2016 Double-A team is listed as “NBR,” the abbreviation formerly used for the New Britain RockCats. Apparently, since they didn’t actually play any games in Hartford, BP elected to not move the Yard Goats to Hartford just yet.

10. We still don’t have any indication that Jerry Vasto actually exists

Sure, double-digit K/9 ratios in Modesto and Hartford seem pretty great. But, as the BP comments note: “pressed to invent a player—say, a lefty with a fastball/slider combo with a decent shot to be a bullpen option in 2017—one might come up with the name ‘Jerry Vasto.’”