From April 14 to June 20 the Rockies had a record of 37-22. Those 59 games accounted for about 35% of the season, so it wasn’t just a brief hot streak. It’s worth asking, then, what exactly made the Rockies good over such a long period of time? They had to have been winning for some reason. And, more importantly, what can we take away from how they looked during that stretch, and what might it tell us about the state of the team heading into 2020.
Why they were good
This wasn’t a secret then and it’s not a secret now: The Rockies were winning games because of their offense.
Over that span of games, the Rockies had five hitters with a wRC+ of at least 117 (min. 100 plate appearances). They were: Charlie Blackmon, Nolan Arenado, Trevor Story, Ian Desmond, and David Dahl. And even the guys not hitting quite as well were still pulling their weight. Daniel Murphy, Ryan McMahon, and Tony Wolters posted wRC+ numbers of 96, 97, and 98, respectively. In all, the Rockies scored 383 runs over that span of time, which was the most in baseball and 16 runs better than the second place Twins. The team’s run differential was +59.
All of the important players on the Rockies offense caught fire all at once. This is something that every baseball team wants, but it’s also something that teams can’t necessarily expect. Baseball is such an individual game, and this type of fortunate sequencing can’t be a part of a team’s overall plan.
For instance, Charlie Blackmon hit .367/.411/.749 over that span of games, for a 178 wRC+. He was basically a slightly better version of Mike Trout. You can’t count on that again. Ian Desmond hit .310/.376/.607, a 133 wRC+ when the Rockies were good. He may have been playing over his head, but the numbers were more believable because of the reports of him changing his swing, and the evidence borne out by his batted ball outcomes — more line drives, more hard hit balls, less grounders. But accounting for the whole season, Desmond has turned out to be the same hitter, the same drag on the lineup, as he was in his first two seasons in Denver. David Dahl’s .330/.382/.519 batting line was propped up by a .417 BABIP.
As much as the Rockies were winning because of their offense, they were also winning despite their pitching. While the offense outscored everyone else in baseball, the staff ERA was 5.28, the seventh worst in the league. Of the 10 highest team ERAs over that span of games, the Rockies were the only one with a winning record. Jon Gray (4.18) and German Márquez (4.91) were the only starters with an ERA under 5.00. Kyle Freeland’s ERA, you might remember, was over 8.00. The team’s adjusted ERA- was 103, overall a little worse than league average, and ranked 20th in the league.
If it weren’t for the entire lineup hitting extremely well all at the same time, the Rockies overall record would have ended up much worse. We never even would have had that late June hope. Jeff Bridich recently said that a problem with the Rockies in 2019 is that things haven’t all clicked at once — the pitching and offense being good at the same time. It’s true that that hasn’t happened, but it also wasn’t happening when the Rockies had the second best record in the NL for two months.
The Rockies were good because they were lucky.
That doesn’t minimize any individual talent. Luck plays a huge role in baseball, and just about any team or individual success contains some element of good fortune. For about two months, everyone who got regular at bats was either good, great, or amazing, all while the pitching staff was terrible based on unadjusted measures and below average according to park adjusted ones. That combination can make a team good for a while, but it’s not a recipe for success over a full season. It’s just not sustainable, as we’ve seen.
How could a team that won 91 games in 2018 who returned most of the lineup end up like this, and what does this mean for next season? While the Rockies were winning games, it was clear that the offense was carrying the team. Here’s what I thought would happen: The offense would cool down, but the pitching will start to pick things up. Things would normalize, and the Rockies would play about .500 baseball over the last three months of the season, giving them somewhere between 87 and 90 wins and a shot at the postseason. I didn’t think they’d revert back to how they’d played over their first 15 games, in which they went 3-12, but that’s what happened.
The pitching has been even worse (a staff ERA of 6.10 since June 21) and the offense has been flat out bad since the good stretch ended. Whereas during the 37-22 stretch the team had nine players with a wRC+ 96 or above, five of them 117 or higher, since June 21 the team has just four players with a wRC+ 96 or above: Trevor Story (130), Charlie Blackmon (116), Ryan McMahon (103), and Raimel Tapia (98). That’s three above average hitters over 50 games.
Just like the team rode some luck to win games, they’ve also suffered from bad luck in this run as well, including the injury to Dahl. This convergence of bad pitching with bad hitting has really hurt. The Rockies have gone 17-33 since June 21 and have been outscored by 84 runs.
So who are the real Rockies, and how much optimism should we have for 2020? Usually, in a scenario where the team was really good for a while and really bad for a while, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. If that’s the case for the Rockies, then we’re looking at a team that should win between about 80 and 85 games. Notably, that was the case for the 2018 team, when the Rockies’ Pythagorean record (based on run differential) was more suggestive of an 85 win team than the 91 they ended up winning.
Of all the misguided things Jeff Bridich has said in recent months, he is right about one thing. The Rockies do have a good core of players. But given what we know about them, I don’t think that’s enough for them to be one of the best teams in the National League. If the Rockies don’t make any additions this offseason, whether by trade or free agency, they look like they’re going to continue being stuck in the middle, hanging playoff hopes on good luck or good sequencing to push them into playoff contention.