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Fixing the Rockies, a data driven approach: Part 5, the offense

Swing selectively, swing hard, and swing up

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Fixing the Rockies, a data driven approach: Part 1
Fixing the Rockies, a data driven approach: Part 2
Fixing the Rockies, a data driven approach: Part 3
Fixing the Rockies, a data driven approach: Part 4

Home runs and strikeouts

Parts 3 and 4 of this series identified strategic changes to the Rockies’ pitching philosophy that could benefit the team, and how those changes might apply to current members of the pitching staff. Now, it’s time to take a look at the offense.

The league-wide story about offense has been home runs and the repeatedly broken records. Despite that, in 2019 the Rockies were not a good home run hitting team. And even, worse, they struck out a lot.

Conventional wisdom says that if guys swing harder, strikeouts also have to go up. It’s true that home runs and strikeouts are increasing each year, but the correlation isn’t very cut and dry.

Taking the general trend, there is a slight correlation that as strikeouts decrease, home runs increase. This is the opposite of what conventional wisdom says, but the correlation between these two stats is almost nothing (R^2=0.05). If you are a good hitting team you strikeout less and hit more home runs.

Shown in orange is an inflection line where home runs alone (not including singles, doubles, groundballs etc) make up for the lost value of strikeouts (based on The Book). The Dodgers are hovering around that and the Astros, Twins, and Yankees actually exceed that. These are the juggernaut teams in the MLB. None of them strikeout as much as the Rockies, all of them hit more home runs, and none of them play at Coors Field. Because of the slope of the line, if you had to chose one option, teams should hit more home runs even if it costs more strikeouts.

Overall, the Rockies are a below average MLB team with regards to strikeouts and home runs. We aren’t the Tigers or Marlins (which is good because our record isn’t much better), but we aren’t close to the great teams. The lesson here is that hitting more home runs doesn’t mean you will have more strikeouts. Most of our strikeouts happen on the road (55%), in fact. The second issue is we don’t hit many home runs for a team that plays at Coors Field, where it is actually easier to hit home runs.

Is this a reason for the Rockies to search for a new hitting coach? Not really. Dave Magadan is a seasoned veteran as a hitting coach and is someone who is bridging the gap between old school approaches and new school analytics. Analytics are important, but the human element of actually coaching is also important. As poor as the Rockies’ offense is, from the outside Magadan seems like he is able to adapt to the analytics of the game while also communicating those changes to the players. Instead what this analysis shows is that the Rockies can improve their offense with a better approach.

The approach has four steps:

  1. Don’t swing at anything you can’t drive
  2. Swing hard
  3. Hit the ball out in front of the plate
  4. Swing up

The reason you hit out in front is because the bat is moving faster due to more time to accelerate. This is the mentality each of the top hitting teams employ. This is of course easier said than done, but the strategy is really that simple. Pitching has the luxury of being far more strategic because you can make decisions between pitches. Hitting requires quick reactions and hitting 95 mph heat. This also isn’t unique to this report. It’s now pretty common knowledge and the approach many teams are starting to preach. Not every insight needs to be complicated. Nolan is actually great at this. Guys constantly pitch him away and when they miss inside at all (especially curveballs) he pulls a home run to left field.

I love baseball strategies, but our task is to improve the Rockies. Every possible solution is worth a look, but it should be designed to address Rockies’ specific problems. Things like player development create a huge amount of value and the Rockies should focus their efforts on things that will have the biggest impact.

So how does this apply to the current roster of position players? Let’s look at individual players, their strengths and weaknesses, and suggest some fixes that go along with player development. We can skip Nolan and Trevor, but all of the other positions on the field are worth a look.

Ian Desmond

And now for the moment you’ve all been waiting for, the moment when I say we need to get rid of Ian Desmond.

Except, I don’t think that’s a smart idea. His numbers are terrible, yes. But the situation is more complicated.

It’s been covered before that Desmond has tried to tweak his swing in the past. That didn’t really work last season but it has this season. On the Statcast leaderboards Desmond ranks 74th out of 462 qualified hitters in terms of average exit velocity. He is hitting the ball hard. In addition, in 2017 and 2018 his average launch angle was 0°. In 2019 it was 8°. His groundball percentage is down, his flyball percentage is up. He’s pulling the ball 5% more than last season and he’s hitting the ball hard 4% more often.

His main issues are that he, like all the Rockies hitters, strike out too often and doesn’t walk much. This is a fixable problem, but in this case it is also systemic. Desmond has a fair amount of pop in his bat which he’s gotten better at this season, but the reason his wRC+ is at 83 is because he doesn’t walk enough. Desmond has an extreme case with a 97 wRC+ at home and 66 on the road. What’s interesting is that his walk rate is almost half on the road. Striking out more on better breaking balls makes sense, but the ability to not swing should be constant wherever you go.

The second problem is his platoon splits are huge. He is 45% worse than league average against right handers and 26% better than league average against left handers. As a hitter Desmond is a little worse than league average, but the Rockies have been pretty smart using him as a platoon hitter when facing left handers. His main drain on the team has been the defense.

It really doesn’t matter what metric you use, Desmond is the worst defender in baseball. We won’t go into them here, mostly because fielding metrics are difficult to explain what they really mean, but most metrics have him costing the Rockies 1-2 wins this season just with his defense. This is less Desmond’s fault than the Rockies, because he actually hasn’t been bad in left field. He was just bad at first base and center field, which is where they tried to stick in the last couple of years.

So why shouldn’t we get rid of him? This answer has many parts so let’s break it down.

First, no one will take that contract. He is owed $15 million in 2020 and $8 million in 2021. For a guy who is by every metric worth less than a player that could be paid $500k, no one would take that contract. No one is that skilled at making trades. So if we can’t trade him, can we just designate him for assignment and take the loss?

We could, but he can provide value if used correctly. Using him in platoon situations and off the bench is a perfectly acceptable idea. While he’s terrible in center, the numbers suggest he is actually an average to above average left fielder (everywhere else he’s played in his career he’s been below average). Putting him in left when there is a lefty on the mound at home suggests he would be a positive contributer in every aspect of the game.

Keeping Desmond in this role would also make his positive clubhouse presence worth it. There has been a lot of talk about the Rockies clubhouse culture this year. It isn’t fun enough. Would we have been better with Parra and CarGo? While I’ll admit the clubhouse would probably be more fun with them, they were both expensive veterans who took up roster spots and kept our prospects from coming up. While it is hard to quantify the value a veteran in the clubhouse adds, that hasn’t stopped people form trying. Quite famously, the Astros paid Carlos Beltran $16 million just to be a mentor to players during the 2017 World Series year. He didn’t play much, and they had the luxury of the DH spot, but most players on the team and the front office don’t think it would have been possible without him. If Desmond is used correctly (i.e. not in center) he is already considered a mentor by the other players.

If nothing else, he is a amazing community member. He’s been nominated for the Roberto Clemente award multiple seasons in a row. This is for all his work in the community and especially his work with kids with cancer. The city is a better place with Ian Desmond around.

He’s never going to be worth $23 million, but if he’s used correctly he can be worth something on the field. He’s already worth a lot to the players off the field and he’s worth even more to kids and parents counting on him.

Daniel Murphy

The other signing people are upset about is Daniel Murphy. He was given the same money as DJ LeMahieu but without the defensive capabilities.

Murphy’s numbers are down this year. He has half as many home runs than at his peak, but other than that he hasn’t really changed. His walk rate is the same as his career average. His strikeout rate is about the same as his career average. His groundball and flyball rates are also the same as his career averages. His timing seems to be fine. The amount that he is pulling the ball is almost exactly the same as his career averages. So what is it? Short answer is he isn’t hitting the ball as hard. His home runs are down, his slugging is down, and his hard hit rate is down.

In 2017 (Murphy’s last full season), he was hitting the ball at 89.1 mph on average. That was good enough for 47th out of 466 qualified hitters (top 10%). This season, his ranking has dropped to 359th (22nd percentile). At the beginning of the season, he broke his finger fielding a groundball. He was out for a month and came back a changed man. He’s still difficult to strikeout and still makes good contact, but he wasn’t hitting the ball as hard. One of the best predictors for any hitter is how hard they hit the baseball. For Murphy, it seems the finger injury prevented him from doing that this season. The good news is after an offseason when everyone can properly heal, we can figure out if he’s returned to form.

When he shows up for spring training next season the Rockies should be able to quickly identify if he’s hitting the ball harder and make a decision from there. If he isn’t, then he is a person we can trade, unlike Desmond. If he is hitting the ball hard, he’ll likely have a bounce back season.

Garrett Hampson & Sam Hilliard

Hampson does not hit the ball hard at all (82.6 mph good for 447th of 462). At least for now it isn’t that big of a deal. While hitting home runs is always going to make a more valuable player, as long as Hampson can get on base there will be a place for him.

The Rockies have plenty of young prospects with good legs in the organization. At the beginning of the season, there was debate on if Ryan McMahon or Garrett Hampson should be starting at 2B. Hampson is naturally an infielder, but he’s also one of the fastest players in the game. The perfect place for one of the fastest players in the game is in the largest outfield in baseball. Dahl can play center field better than Blackmon and Desmond, but he isn’t fast enough. He is faster than league average, but he ranks just above Desmond on the team in terms of sprint speed.

The other option is Sam Hilliard, who also has elite speed but with more power. He also has a strikeout problem to go along with the team’s general strikeout problem. It’s hard to judge based on a month preview but this would be my first choice. Unfortunately I think that decision comes down to spring training and information we don’t have.

The issue with finding a spot for Hampson is that infield is starting to get crowded. Compared to McMahon, Rodgers, and Murphy, Hampson doesn’t have a lot of upside compared. He does have a ton of upside if he can play a better center field than anyone else. He may not be a starter, but he can always be used in a pinch.

Raimel Tapia

I think the Tapia experiment has come to a close. He’s an exciting player, but he is Hampson without the flexibility and less speed. He’s a touch faster than Dahl and a decent fielder according to the metrics, but he has too many things working against him.

The Rockies were forced to play him this season after he ran out of options. He is worse than replacement level, particularly with his bat. He’s free swinging and strikes out often. Hampson is faster to play the outfield and he has minor league options. Whereas Hampson provides flexibility, Tapia provides none.

David Dahl

The only thing I want to address with Dahl is the question: is he injury prone? From the outside it does seem like it.

  • 2013: Torn hamstring
  • 2015: Outfield collision
  • 2017: Stress fracture in rib and back spasms
  • 2018: Fouled pitch off foot
  • 2019: Core injury (9 games), Ankle injury

He’s not the iron man Nolan is, but two of these injuries are freak accidents (collision and foot). That leave 4 injuries over 5 years. The line between injury prone and unlucky is a fine one, and it may seem Dahl is on the injury prone side, but it doesn’t seem like a Tulowitzki situation, where all the problems were in his legs.

I think if Dahl is moved out of center and to either left or right consistently, he’ll take less punishment and stay healthy enough to help the team. I’m no trainer, but it seems the important thing is to give him some days off. This is where Desmond can slot in against left handers. For context, Dahl hits just as well against left handers as he does right so there is no need to platoon him. The Rockies could simply give him days off strategically based on Desmond’s platoon splits.

Tony Wolters

Tony also doesn’t hit the ball hard (ranks 411th out of 462). Supposedly he is a person who would tweak his swing often and it would lead to inconsistency. He was more consistent this season, but as I said we traded away Tom Murphy who did have the power. We can’t take that back now so we’ll have to move on with what we have.

I like Tony “3 bags” Wolters. He’s got a good arm and studies hard. The only thing I want to improve is his power. He does hit up on the ball, but he doesn’t pull the ball much. His swing also ends with one hand. He’s already shown he likes to work on his swing, so I’d really just suggest he tries to get a bigger load (perhaps a leg kick) and try to hit the ball out in front of the plate. That way his hands are forced to stay through the ball and he’ll hit it harder.

While these are simple changes in writing, they are not simple for the player. Of any position on our team, the spot of catcher has the most potential to add more wins if Tony can find a home run swing. He doesn’t need to be the best hitting catcher in the game.

Ryan McMahon

I’m super excited about McMahon. The main reason is he crushes the ball. He ranks 25th in baseball for average exit velocity. 48% of his batted ball events are 95+ mph. He ranks 7th in average home run distance. He is a consistent hitter with power. He’s cheap and he’s young. This is one of the Rockies best assets.

The reason I like how hard guys hit the ball is because how predictive it is. Hitting the ball in the air can be important, but it doesn’t need to be. Christian Yelich doesn’t hit up on the ball, but damn does he hit it hard. Giancarlo Stanton does more damage to baseballs than anyone alive, but he also doesn’t hit up that much. This most important thing is to hit the ball hard and McMahon absolutely does it. He hits the ball harder than Chuck, harder than Nolan, and even harder than Story. And ss far as defense, the metrics suggest McMahon is an above average defender.

The great news for the Rockies is McMahon, along with Rodgers ,is the depth they have been missing. We talked about how top heavy the Rockies are, but that’s about to change. McMahon can play first depending on what happens with Murphy. He can play second or third if the worst happens and Nolan gets hurt. Rodgers can fill in at second or shortstop. Those two alone will provide the versatility and power the lineup has been missing. If anyone goes down to injury the infield will be fine with these two prospects.

Free agent upgrades

We’ve established the Rockies should not spend money getting a pitcher, so where should they spend money? We’ve already spent so much money on first base that we can’t really support any more people over there. First also has plenty of internal options to make that a productive spot next season. Plus there aren’t any good free agents at first this upcoming offseason. The two spots are really catcher and left field.

For catcher the best option is Yasmani Grandal who may or may not be available based on what he and the Brewers do with his mutual option for 2020 (he’ll likely decline it). If he’s available, we should probably throw our hat in the ring. I like Tony, but we do need more power and Grandal has been praised as a great pitch framer. He might want a multi-year deal but he also signed a big one season contract with the Brewers this season. The Rockies could absolutely try a one year deal for something like $20 million.

The other area is left field. Once again this is tricky because I actually think Dahl should go there. We need the speed in center and either Hilliard or Hampson could cover that. Chuck could move to first, but as I said we have too many people there as it is. In a perfect world we wouldn’t have the money tied up in veteran relievers, Desmond, and Murphy. They don’t provide much flexibility. I’ve talked about how we can work around the situation, but it’s hard to navigate.

Ideally I’d like Charlie at first, Murphy as backup, Desmond as platoon left fielder, Dahl starting in left, Hilliard in center, Hampson as backup, and we go get an outfielder on the free agent market. Short of that there isn’t really an outfielder available that would justify another large contract. At least that roster construction would be flexible to injuries and who performs well.

I don’t want to say the Rockies should stay pat, but I think there is enough talent on the team to maneuver some pieces on the board and focus on a few improvements. Mainly I’d want catcher improved either by Tony gaining power in his swing or signing Granda, the Rockies to spend significant money trying to find a solution to the road hitting problem, and for the team overall to become more selective at the plate.