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Concern about Rockies’ run differential is overblown

It’s easy to see why the Rockies have a relatively weak run differential for their record. It’s also easy to see how it can change.

The Colorado Rockies are 10 games over .500 for the first time since 2010. Usually, when teams hit that sort of threshold, the talk surrounding it is overwhelmingly complimentary. It’s no easy task to win 10 more games than you lose in any stretch during a season.

However, there are three things people outside of the Rockies community are using as an asterisk attached to the team’s early success.

“The Rockies have started hot before, only to falter down the stretch.”

This is true. The 2014 team was 22-14 at one point and wound up losing 96 games. Similar starts in 2011 and 2013 ended with similar results. But the Rockies have never finished at .500 or worse in any season in which they’ve been 10 or more games over .500 at any point.

“The Rockies are 9-0 in one-run games, and that’s not sustainable.”

This is also true. Colorado isn’t going to 40-0 in one-run games, which is the pace they’re currently on. But just last year, the Texas Rangers—with a below-average offense, a good rotation, and a great back end of the bullpen—finished 36-11 in contests decided by one run en route to a 95-67 record. Will the Rockies be that good in that area this year? Odds are against it, but they certainly share a similar formula to last year’s American League West champs.

“The Rockies’ run differential isn’t that good, making them closer to a .500 team.”

OK, I’ve had enough.

Yes, the Rockies have outscored opponents by only 12 runs. Compare that to the New York Yankees, who lead baseball with a plus-55 run differential.

This doesn’t make the Rockies, who boast a .639 winning percentage, a significantly worse team than the Yankees. Instead, let’s look at a few factors that have caused the small difference in runs scored vs. runs allowed:

Bud Black’s bullpen management

When talking to Rockies fans last month at the Opening Day breakfast event hosted by Purple Row, I mentioned that the most important difference between former manager Walt Weiss and current skipper Bud Black was that the latter—in a really small sample size at that point—exhibited a feel for the value of letting certain pitchers “wear it.”

Too often, Weiss would burn his best relievers in games that were already decided, regardless of whether the Rockies were on the plus or minus side of those blowouts. That went a long way toward the ineffectiveness some of those Rockies bullpens experienced as seasons wore on.

Black, as we saw Thursday night (more on that below), is highly reliant on letting his long (Chris Rusin, Jordan Lyles) and middle (Carlos Estevez, Scott Oberg) eat up innings in lopsided contests. On multiple occasions, that’s had a negative effect on the score of the game, perhaps making things look worse and less competitive than they really were.

It’s also had a positive effect on the good, but somewhat aging, back end of the bullpen. Mike Dunn, Jake McGee, Adam Ottavino, and Greg Holland are usually fresh when they’re called upon, and that has shown in the results; the late-innings quartet owns a combined 2.12 ERA with 61 strikeouts in 51 innings.

High-leverage bullpen work and usage like that will help a team win a lot of close games. That’s what we’re seeing, and as long as Black as in charge and those relievers stay healthy, there’s not a lot of reason to believe that will change.

Jordan Lyles

We hate to pick on a guy who was given a specific role and is making the best of it, but it’s relevant to the subject matter covered in the article. Lyles, the Rockies’ main mop-up guy on both ends of the game score spectrum, has allowed 15 runs in 17 innings of work. Had Lyles been replaced on the roster by someone of, say, Chris Rusin’s caliber, that might’ve resulted in 10 extra runs in the Rockies’ run differential bank, perhaps rendering a lot of the criticsm moot.

Lyles gets a lot of flak for the one obvious reason (his 7.94 ERA), but also because the Rockies are just 2-9 in games in which he’s appeared. The thing fans should keep in mind, though, is that the majority of those games were already decided before he entered.

Does that mean the Rockies can’t and shouldn’t do better than Lyles? Absolutely not. But that’s only relevant to this discussion because of run differential reasons, not because he directly affects the team’s win-loss record.

The Washington Nationals

For whatever reason, the Rockies just could not keep the Nationals off the board during the teams’ four-game set in Denver last month. Washington, after dropping the series opener, scored 15, 11, and 16 runs en route to a convincing series win. The first-place Nats, who also own the NL’s best record, outscored the Rox 46-29 in the series. Much like is the case with Lyles, the run differential conversation would probably be much different if this series either never took place or was played against another team.

Bonus: Coors Field

You know that crazy ballpark in Denver (or, according to some, “on the moon”) where the baseball “is not real” because it plays like a “video game?” Well, it often produces games featuring atypical run scoring numbers. That—because of the domino effect long, wild affairs can have on rotations, bullpens, and even starting lineups and benches—places a large degree of volatility on the concept of run differential.

On top of all of this, it’s simply too early to make a big deal out of run differential one way or the other. The Rockies’ offense could start coming alive as more players come off the disabled list, at which point we may start seeing more lopsided games in their favor. Or, the rookie-heavy starting rotation might begin to falter a little bit, resulting in a few more blowout losses, even if not many more losses overall.

The point is, some stats in baseball can be taken at face value. There is so much that goes into every plate appearance, inning, and game that the end result of those—the win/loss stat—seems like a credible way of measuring a team’s (I didn’t say pitcher’s!) success.

Tomorrow, we’ll take a look at a few other ways of measuring how “real” the Rockies are and see how the team stacks up.