The Rockies are bad. Not historically bad, but they’re bad. They are twelve games below .500. They are projected to finish the year at 74-88. If the season ended today, there would be seven—seven!—teams ahead of them in the Wild Card race. They have the third-worst record in the National League.
On the surface, this might seem surprising—in 2017 and 2018, the Rockies were good. Several outlets predicted the Rockies to win the Wild Card this year, and some even speculated that they might win the division. The general consensus was that there was nowhere for the Rockies to go but up: they had stars in the infield, two young aces atop the rotation, and they had finally jettisoned some of their dead-weight veterans from the roster.
In fact, if you follow the Rockies closely, you might have been justified in being more excited about the team this year than you had in seasons past. In 2017 and 2018, the team struggled offensively, seemingly incapable of taking playing time away from its established veterans. Suddenly, this year, the team seemed to get it. Raimel Tapia and Garrett Hampson made the team. Ryan McMahon was the opening day starter at second base. Sure, Ian Desmond was still in the lineup, but after a horrid start, the Rockies were uncharacteristically open to playing him in a platoon role.
Not only that, the team didn’t do much in free agency this off-season—which came as a bit of relief to many Rockies fans. After previous off-seasons resulted in the disastrous singings of Gerardo Parra (-1.1 fWAR), Ian Desmond (-1.2 fWAR), Mike Dunn (1.85 WPA), Bryan Shaw (-2.78 WPA), and Jake McGee (-0.87 WPA), a quiet off-season was a welcome change. Maybe General Manager Jeff Bridich had made mistakes in the past—you told yourself—but he had finally learned from them and was putting his best foot forward.
Here’s the odd thing about 2019: if you thought the team performed better last off-season, you weren’t wrong. The Rockies didn’t have a bad winter. In fact, they probably had their best off-season in three or four years—a low bar, perhaps, but a feat nonetheless. Rather, the struggles of the 2019 Rockies are the result of the team’s past mistakes—mistakes Bridich made in 2016 and 2017. Those mistakes didn’t hurt the team much over the last two years; this year, however, they’ve made their presence felt.
Mistake 1: Throwing money at relievers
Let’s start with the pitching. In 2016, the Rockies signed Mike Dunn to a three-year deal. In 2017, they signed Jake McGee, Bryan Shaw, and Wade Davis to three-year deals, each of which have team options for a fourth that can vest into player options. None of the deals have worked out in the Rockies’ favor.
Even on an individual level, there were reasons to be alarmed. All four relievers were on the wrong side of thirty. Dunn, McGee, and Davis had declining fastball velocities. McGee had hardly been consistent in his two years as a Rockie, and Davis had suddenly developed a walk problem with the Cubs. Shaw was probably the most sensible of the signings, but even then, there were reasons for caution. Over the previous five years, Shaw had appeared in nearly half of the Indians’ total games.
But what really didn’t make sense was the strategy. Relievers are notoriously volatile. An elite group can sustain success, but for everyone else, year-to-year performance is nearly impossible to predict. For years, teams like the Padres, A’s, and Brewers have built cheap, quality bullpens by stockpiling high-ceiling arms and seeing which relievers step up. The Rockies, however, took the opposite approach. They tied themselves to the mast of several long-term contracts, hoping that past success would predict future performance. It was a massive investment in the bullpen without much, if any, precedence suggesting it would work.
The contracts were the real sticking point. When a player with options struggles, you demote him. When a player struggles on a cheap, short-term deal, you designate him for assignment. But when a player with an expensive, long-term contract fails to perform, your decision becomes much harder. Paradoxically, this is especially true in the bullpen, where the high degree of year-to-year volatility makes a bounce-back the next year all the more likely. It simply doesn’t make sense to cut Jake McGee in 2018 if there’s a decent chance he comes back strong in 2019. You hide him in the back of the bullpen and hope he doesn’t hurt you.
Here’s the surprising thing—in 2018, that strategy worked. Because Rockies starters logged the third-most innings in the major leagues (932.0), Rockies relievers logged the third-fewest (520.1), thereby allowing the team to avoid the worst effects of a bad bullpen. After all, the Rockies did still have four good relievers—Adam Ottavino, Wade Davis, Scott Oberg, and after the trade deadline, Seung-Hwan Oh—and they combined for a remarkable 89% of the team’s high-leverage innings in the second half. Strong starting pitching allowed the team to carry what was effectively a four-man bullpen. Shaw, McGee and Dunn were relegated to mop-up duty.
Much has been made of the struggles of the starting pitching this year. But the real problem was that the Rockies weren’t just built on starting pitching. They were only built on starting pitching. And however confident you’d like to be in your starters, everything comes with risk. Once the starting pitching came crashing down, the team simply didn’t have the bullpen to pick up the slack. And the “superpen” didn’t just leave the Rockies with a bad bullpen; it left them with little flexibility to do anything about it, too.
Mistake 2: Throwing playing time at veterans
Then there was the offense. In both 2017 and 2018, the Rockies posted a team wRC+ of 87—good for fifth-worst in all of baseball, and extremely poor for a playoff team. They got subpar performance from their catchers and bench, but the chief culprits behind the team’s anemic offense were Gerardo Parra, Ian Desmond, and Carlos González. Together, the three took nearly a quarter of the team’s at-bats (23.4%), combining for a wRC+ of 84.
Of course, CarGo and Parra no longer play for the team, and Desmond is hitting slightly better this year (86 wRC+). But by allocating playing time to CarGo, Parra, and Desmond in 2017 and 2018, the Rockies didn’t allocate playing time to the young players who needed it. The astonishing 2,898 at-bats taken by Cargo, Parra, and Desmond were at-bats that the Rockies could have given players like Ryan McMahon, Raimel Tapia, and Mike Tauchman. And if they had given those at-bats to players like McMahon, Tapia, and Tauchman, two things would have happened: 1) the team would have been able to better assess their young talent; and 2) McMahon, Tapia, and Tauchman might have gotten better with experience.
Take Mike Tauchman. The Rockies can hardly be faulted for failing to predict that Tauchman (153 wRC+) could hit like George Springer. But they can be faulted for never bothering to find out. For long stretches of 2017 and 2018, the Rockies had a golden opportunity to figure out whether Tauchman or Tapia was the long-term solution in left field. Instead, Tapia exhausted his option years with fewer than 250 at-bats, and Tauchman left after starting only fourteen games. The net result was that the Rockies got rid of Tauchman and kept Tapia based on projections and roster space considerations, not major-league results. For a team that knew it would need to replace two veteran outfielders, it was a big unforced error.
Prospects often fail to succeed immediately in the majors. But in time, many adapt, and by depriving their prospects the opportunity to play, the Rockies also deprived them of the opportunity to improve. For instance, this year, Ryan McMahon was hitting .248/.327/.392 (74 wRC+) through June, but he’s adjusted to major-league pitching and is hitting .299/.372/.514 (114 wRC+) since. Garrett Hampson has done the same, hitting .261/.370/.435 (98 wRC+) after a .206/.241/.294 (19 wRC+) start. If Mike Tauchman needed 200 plate appearances before he broke out, why not give him those plate appearances when Gerardo Parra sat ahead of him on the depth chart?
If there’s anything to give the Rockies credit for, it’s this: last off-season, the team made the decision to turn their roster over to younger players. That decision was a good one. But the team’s past mistakes more or less ensured that that decision was made without information, and when you lack information, you’re forced to take risks. The Rockies knew less than they should have about their young team this year—all the result of the team’s past mistakes.