DENVER — Since the inception of the franchise in 1993, pitching has been a challenge for the Colorado Rockies.
After the disastrous Mike Hampton and Denny Neagle signings in 2001, bringing free agent pitchers to Denver has rarely been an option, so the Rockies have had to develop their own.
One man key to the development of the Rockies’ pitchers has been Mark Wiley, the Rockies’ Director of Pitching Operations. Wiley was hired by former general manager Dan O’Dowd after the disastrous 2012 season to oversee pitching throughout the Rockies organization, from the big league club to the amateur draft.
Since Wiley joined the organization, the Rockies have drafted and developed Jon Gray and Kyle Freeland as well as traded for Jeff Hoffman and Germán Márquez as minor leaguers. Antonio Senzatela signed with the Rockies in 2011 but did not make his way to the United States until 2013. All five have contributed to the Rockies’ big league rotation this season, all besides Gray doing so as rookies.
“It’s very rare to have that many rookie pitchers in your rotation,” Wiley said. “It’s just a tribute to them on the kind of kids they are. They have no fear.”
The challenge of pitching in the big leagues can be as much mental as it is physical. Wiley gave the Rockies’ young staff credit for overcoming that mental challenge as they enter their first playoff race.
“In baseball, fear will creep in,” Wiley said. “These guys haven’t allowed that to happen and that’s a tribute to them and their ability to make the pitch instead of worrying about the whole situation.”
That said, Wiley and the Rockies have developed a philosophy for developing their pitchers, starting when they first enter the organization.
“We put an emphasis, like a lot of people do, on when they first get into pro ball, getting them to establish their fastball on both sides of the plate,” Wiley said.
One pitcher currently in that first stage of development is 2016 first-round pick Riley Pint, who has a 4.02 ERA and 1.58 WHIP with 53 strikeouts in 622⁄3 innings in his first full professional season at Low-A Asheville.
“(Pint) has tremendous physical talent,” Wiley said. “He has all the pitches, really good curveball, really good changeup, even throws a slider. We’re just trying to get him, first and foremost, commanding the fastball and improving on that. We’re not as caught up right now in too much of the secondary stuff. He’s got time.”
Wiley’s mention of the changeup, which doesn’t usually get headlined in scouting reports of Pint, is no accident, as the Rockies have made the change a point of emphasis in their development of pitchers during his tenure.
“Most kids coming out of college and high school, with a few exceptions, don’t have much of a changeup, so we want to indoctrinate them into having value in a changeup,” Wiley said.
In fact, every homegrown member of the Rockies’ big league pitching staff in 2017 has thrown a changeup, from Tyler Anderson, who has used it more than 30 percent of the time, to Gray, who has thrown a changeup just two percent of the time.
In addition to the fastball-changeup combination, Wiley said the goal for the Rockies is to have their pitchers master one breaking ball, as we have seen with Gray’s slider and Hoffman’s curveball, among others.
“We like to get one breaking ball that we can get consistent with, that we can throw behind in the count,” Wiley said. “We don’t get our catchers having their hands tied to where they don’t have weapons or areas of the plate that they can’t go to.”
One prospect who has moved on to that stage of development is the Rockies’ second-round pick in 2015, Peter Lambert.
“Peter has always been a pretty good command guy,” Wiley said. “The command element of the game is his strength. So we’ve been able to work on the changeup and the curveball to try to improve that.”
Lambert, a 20-year-old right-hander, has walked just two batters per nine innings in posting a 4.18 ERA and 1.21 WHIP at High-A Lancaster, striking out 108 in 113 innings. While a 4.18 ERA may not seem flashy, Lancaster is perhaps the most extreme of the hitter-friendly environments scattered throughout the Rockies’ farm system, something Wiley said helps prepare pitchers for the rigors of Coors Field.
“Pitching at Coors Field, it’s all attitude over altitude. We don’t worry about it, our players don’t worry about it,” Wiley said.
Given the hitter’s parks in the Rockies system, and at the big league level, Wiley said a major focus in the organization is on winning, regardless of the score, while still acknowledging a sub-par outing that comes in a winning effort can be improved on.
“We praise guys who win 7-6 in the minor leagues because we tell them that’s what we want,” Wiley said.” “Wins are the most important thing. We’ll try to make it better, but if you’re a winner, you help us win games, that what it’s about.”
That philosophy has certainly applied to the Rockies in 2017, especially to Senzatela. Despite a 4.67 ERA and 4.95 FIP, the Rockies are 11-5 in his starts this year and he has gotten through six innings or more nine times.
Wiley also said mental toughness is key for success both in baseball in general and pitching at altitude.
“We also emphasize the toughness, how tough you’ve gotta be to be a Rockie,” Wiley said.
Former Rockies manager Jim Tracy once compared pitching at Coors Field to tackling a monster. Five years later, the Rockies, with Wiley at the helm, have decided the best way to subdue that monster is to ignore it. Worry about taking down the team in the visiting dugout, which they’ve been quite successful at in 2017, and the monster will just starve to death.