DENVER — They say that the difference between a major league player and a minor league player is the ability to make adjustments. That thinking also suggests that the better teams in the league are ones who not only have the talent to win consistently but can also adapt to how the league reacts to them as the season progresses. The Colorado Rockies have had to learn quite quickly in 2017, and on the fly too, as various members of the lineup and pitching staff have battled injury, ineffectiveness or youth. Thus, the Rockies have had to lean on some rookies, particularly among their starting pitchers, in the midst of on-the-job training.
One such pitcher is Antonio Senzatela, who at one point was tied for the National League lead in wins; however, manager Bud Black noticed that the league had started catching up to him in recent starts. He said this about Senzatela:
Senzatela’s had great experience here for four plus months. If you look at his control rate, his minor league innings, his walk rate he continued that performance in the majors. You usually you don’t see that continue from Double-A to the big leagues. He’s also learned as he got into June and the fastball started to creep up, he got hit around. He learned quickly that getting the ball down was better than keeping the ball up. So his breaking ball became the focus but it doesn’t happen overnight.
Senzatela was moved to the bullpen to not just limit his innings, but to give him more time to adjust to the league.
DJ LeMahieu is another player who has noticed the league responding to him, coming off the heels of winning the National League batting title in 2016. He started the season in somewhat of a slump, hitting .281 in April and May with an OPS of .713, which is quite a bit worse than his 2016 batting average of .348 and OPS of .911. He got back on track though, as he hit .343 in June and had a .929 OPS for July. He said:
I’m just a lot better player all around but yeah, I’ve noticed the league adjusting to me. Sometimes they take advantage of something for a stretch. It’s a constant battle with the league adjusting to you but I think I know how to correct that a lot quicker than I used to. I talk with Charlie quite a bit and Nolan too. Charlie is great because he always has good at bats. By the time I get up, he’s already battled hard and it helps me to be on the same page.
Still, adapting can be difficult. Black talked about how Carlos Estevez, who was a rookie in 2016 and even spent some time that year as the Rockies closer, needed to make some changes despite Estevez’s minor league success. During spring training, Black felt that there were “some things he needed to clean up . . . There were some things on the mechanics side that he got away from that we needed to address, and he did address. There were some things on the confidence level that he needed to handle and I think his time in Triple-A has helped with that.”
Black argued that
Big league games are different than minor league games. [Estevez is] facing a higher caliber of hitter. It comes back to throwing the fastball in good spots, fundamental pitching, throwing strike one and trying to get ahead in the count. When he gets the chance to put a guy away, put him away. If he falls behind in the count, he has to know how to get back into the count. These are things that, at bat to an at bat, every pitcher has to get done and the guys who do it frequently stay in the majors and the guys who don’t have some inconsistencies in their performance, and those are the guys that sort of go back and forth between the majors and Triple-A. Carlos is a major league talent, we just need him to be more consistent in different areas.
Whether it’s on offense or on defense, not just the players, but the team has to adapt to remain competitive.
That desire for consistency has been something this Rockies team has shown throughout the 2017 season. With the exception of their cold stretch in June, the Rockies have not really had many long winning or losing steaks this year. As LeMahieu mentioned, “Our starting pitching has done a great job, the bullpen’s been good, [Greg] Holland’s been great. We’re not just winning games here, we’re doing that on the road.” If they plan on going past the first playoff round, they’ll need to keep that consistency while also adapting to the circumstances that arise and the way the league responds to a good Rockies team.