The Colorado Rockies entered the 2017 All-Star break with a 52-39 record and .565 winning percentage, surpassing their previous best marks of 49-39 and .556 in 2010. The club, sitting 71⁄2 games in front of the closest Wild Card contenders, is well-positioned for its first postseason berth since 2009.
Improvement over last year’s squad, which entered the break with a 40-48 record, was widely expected—and for good reason. The Rockies are a young team that gained a year of experience and overhauled what was perhaps its biggest weakness in late-innings relief. But there have been several other, more important, reasons why the team jumped out to a 47-26 start and is enjoying its best record through 91 games to date.
Let’s review the first half, using a few of our 2017 season preview articles to identify why the Rockies have succeeded.
1. The bullpen has improved in the clutch
The Rockies 2016 bullpen posted a WPA of -7.40, which was far and away the worst in the league. A WPA of 0 would mean the bullpen didn’t make the team any more likely to win, but weren’t a detriment either. The -7.40 from the Rockies’ bullpen essentially means they cost the team 7.4 wins. A neutral bullpen (in theory) takes the 2016 Rockies from 75-87 to 82-80.
Anyone want to take a guess at what the Rockies bullpen’s WPA is so far this year?
Well, if you guessed a best-in-baseball 5.58, you must have looked it up on FanGraphs, because you’re correct. That’s a 13-win swing over 2016. Free-agent acquisition Greg Holland (2.75 WPA) is a big reason why the Rockies have been so much better in this category, but making Chris Rusin (1.81) a full-time reliever and getting Jake McGee (0.92) healthy and back to his old self are definite reasons for the improvement as well. Even Mike Dunn—an utter disappointment since starting off well in April—has accrued a positive WPA.
From that same article:
Additionally, a closer look at FanGraphs’ Clutch metric reveals that the bullpen was, in fact, the worst “clutch” bullpen in baseball in 2016 by a large margin. FanGraphs defines Clutch as “…how much better or worse a player does in high leverage situations than he would have done in a context neutral environment.” From that, we can gather that a team with a poor clutch rating will have a worse WPA than expected and, in turn, lose more games than expected.
That clutch rating of -7.79 was the worst in baseball not only last year, but in any year since 1974, which is as far back as FanGraphs tracks it. In 2017, that number has climbed all the way up to 4.87, which is the best in baseball and nearly double the second-place team. The eye test, especially early in the season, confirms this; after all, there’s a reason we wanted to nickname the bullpen.
A WPA and clutch rating even just closer to average would’ve helped the Rockies at least get back to around .500 when extrapolated to a full season. But getting the type of overall (as in, not just the last three weeks or so) performance the Rockies have received from their bullpen is a large reason why the team is 13 games in the black.
2. The backup plans have paid off
As the Rockies enjoy some welcome buzz as a sleeper with the season approaching, it’s fun to dream on a scenario where they are in the playoff race exactly as the plan is supposed to go. Jon Gray as the horse leading a solid, young rotation. David Dahl building on his explosive debut while Trevor Story socks home runs. The predictable greatness of Nolan Arenado supported by the predictable very-goodness of Charlie Blackmon, DJ LeMahieu and Carlos Gonzalez.
But we also know better, and we know it’s just as likely that the Rockies will take the field for a meaningful game with Gerardo Parra starting in left field, Ian Desmond in center field, Mark Reynolds at first base, Dustin Garneau behind the plate and a pitcher most people haven’t heard of on the mound. That doesn’t sound great, but it still isn’t as bad as some of the actual scenarios in past seasons when the Rockies were forced to use their backup plans.
Arenado, Blackmon, and to a lesser degree, LeMahieu, have all been their awesome selves this season. And with all that has transpired, that’s a huge credit to them. Sometimes those guys don’t get enough love because of how consistently good they are, and sadly that continues in this article because of its purpose and angle.
But that horse Jon Gray? Yeah, he missed more than two months. That homer socker Trevor Story? He’s dealt with injuries and poor offensive performance, though he’s been strong defensively. That very good Carlos Gonzalez? His swing speed has dropped by 3 mph from last year to this year, according to Statcast. And does David Dahl even exist?
Anyway, that’s where the likes of Gerardo Parra, Mark Reynolds, Alexi Amarista, and rookie Raimel Tapia have benefitted the Rockies. Parra missed significant time due to injury himself, but has otherwise been one of the team’s best offensive performers, hitting .335/.360/.503 (110 OPS+). And when he was out it was Tapia, seen by many as ready for the level when the season began but blocked in the Rockies’ populous outfield, who stepped up to hit .323/.375/.490 (111 OPS+).
Reynolds had perhaps the most surprising and important first half of them all, posting a .284/.379/.513 (117 OPS+) line with 19 homers. In all, it hasn’t been a banner year for the Rockies’ offense. But priortizing and assembling depth has kept it from being more of a detriment than it has been.
That depth has been even more evident in the rotation. Without further ado ...
3. The starting pitching has been good
The Rockies’ current pitching staff, based on the combination of potential and performance, looks like it’s close to a breakthrough. But don’t take my word for it.
“I was fortunate to have some very good pitching staffs in San Diego in a pitcher-friendly ballpark,” Black recollected. “I think talent-wise, this group on the mound can be even better. They have a chance to be really, really formidable because of their stuff.”
Thanks in large part to the managerial approach of the man who provided the quotes above, it’s happening. It’s really happening.
What exactly is “it” referring to?
Colorado’s rotation could solidify as one of the very best in the game. So much for the Blake Street Bombers. No, the new Rockies identity will be on the mound.
The Rockies will be synonymous with good starting pitching.
When the Rockies started the season with a pair of rookies and exactly one pitcher with more than one year of big league experience in their rotation, skepticism was rightfully abound. More than three months later, Colorado has, by fWAR, a top-10 rotation in all of baseball.
The group has done it not so much with anything fancy, but simply by keeping the ball down and preventing runs. Six of the seven pitchers who have started a game for the Rockies in 2017 have been above average in terms of park-adjusted ERA. Gray, Tyler Chatwood, and rookie Kyle Freeland have ground-ball rates above 50 percent, which is a good thing in front of an infield that features Nolan Arenado (16 Defensive Runs Saved), DJ LeMahieu (8 DRS), and Trevor Story (3 DRS). Those three pitchers plus Tyler Anderson are well above average at inducing soft contact; that quartet plus Antonio Senzatela has been better than average and limiting hard-hit balls.
That leaves the only outliers in contact management as rookies: Jeff Hoffman and German Marquez. Hoffman leads the staff in FIP and K/BB ratio, suggesting his approach will continue to work for him. And Marquez has been about average in terms of strikeouts and is slightly better than that at limiting walks, contributing to a 3.97 FIP that, like Hoffman, suggests better times ahead.
Just as important as all of that, Rockies skipper Bud Black has been patient and encouraging with his young staff. On several occasions, he’s allowed them to pitch out of jams that they created, leading to boosts of confidence. On several others, he’s exhibited tough love, with one such scenario helping result in the best start from a Rockies hurler this season.
These are all things that bode well for the Rockies’ future, both immediately and long term. The fact that they’ve already paid dividends is a testament to the talent that the Rockies’ front office has put together, and it has led to a first half that may have been good enough to give us the return of Rocktober.