I don't have to tell anyone that the Rockies had a bad season. I'm constantly reminded about how they made the playoffs two years in a row for the first time in franchise history, almost a division title, game 163, etc. Then all of a sudden when the Rockies have a bad season, everyone becomes an expert on the subject about how the pitching has been horrible, the bullpen cost too much money, and no critique is complete without mentioning Ian Desmond. I have a few problems with this. 1) These are all complaints without a solution. Saying the pitching needs to be better isn't a solution, and saying Ian Desmond hasn't helped the team also doesn't provide any actionable information. As fans we of course want our team to win. But if they don't, blindly yelling about it doesn't support the organization or help the players at all. If you have a problem with the team, give some solutions. 2) If someone does provide a solution, it is like throwing darts at a board. The starting rotation got hurt; why isn't the organization spending millions on a veteran starter? Ian Desmond struck out; why don't they trade him? This is like when someone asks why we can't just solve poverty? The answer is because they world doesn't bend to your will. Before you start throwing solutions against a wall and hoping they stick, you need to define the problem. I'm an Aerospace Engineer by training, and we certainly wouldn't have put a man on moon by putting a bunch of gun powder under a car seat and hoping for the best. Blowing things up is not a solution.
Throughout this piece I aim to address both of these concerns. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see the Rockies need help. Before we blow things out of proportion, we need to define the problem and can't be afraid to look at things in a different light. Once we've done that, we need to use this information to provide actionable changes to help the team.
The Rockies Didn't Make the Playoffs, Time to Give Up
Ken Rosenthal previously asked about trading Nolan in a piece for the Athletic. This is a common question everyone outside of Colorado seems to ask and I'd like to point out how that argument never makes internal sense. The most common stated reason for trading him is that the Rockies would get some prospects to build the organization back up. They also often cite that our farm system has been depleted.
Firstly, the farm system has dropped from one of the best to one of the worst because all of our prospects came to the majors in the form of the starting rotation. This is a natural process, not the beginning of the end. There is no doubt trading Nolan would bolster the farm system, but to what extent? Nolan is a superstar in the prime of his career and in the middle of a huge contract. Let's look at some of the largest trades lately. To get Zack Greinke, the Astros gave up 3 of their top 5 prospects. For an organization with one of the strongest farm systems in baseball, that's saying something. And for that trade they get a future hall of famer yes, but they also only get him for 2.5 years and his fastball tops out at 90mph. The Greinke trade is the closest thing we can compare to for a Nolan trade because teams don't trade future hall of famers that often. At this point, Nolan isn't a hall of famer (he hasn't played enough seasons) but the assumption is if he remains healthy enough to play into his late 30s, he will be in the hall one day. Now with the Grinke trade as our prior ask yourself, if you are trying to get a potential hall of fame player, in the prime of his career, for 7 years, what do you think you'd have to give up? My answer would be the whole damn farm system. It's worth at least 5-8 of your top 30 prospects including 2-3 in the top 5. There isn't a team in baseball that would even call about a trade like that.
To be clear, if this trade was on the table, the Rockies should probably take it. The question isn't ridiculous because the Rockies shouldn't dare give up Nolan, the question is ridiculous because no other team would ever attempt it, especially because there is a stigma against players from Coors Field. To an outsider, our players could be the next Mike Trout or the next Carlos Gonzalez (remember his 2010 season, we also thought he was on a fast track to Cooperstown). And speaking of Mike Trout, here is where these outside correspondents are contradicting themselves. I've read plenty of articles asking about Mike Trout's free agency several years down the line, but now that he has the largest contract in history, I don't see anyone asking about trading Mike Trout. The Angels are not a good baseball team. They have no pitching staff and it's not looking like they are getting one in the next few years. Mike Trout continues to play on a losing team while being the best player in the history of the sport.
The reason these correspondents ask about trading Nolan isn't because they think the Rockies can win if we improve the farm system. If that was their only concern they'd be asking the exact same thing about Trout. They ask about trading Nolan because they don't like Colorado. They don't watch the games of the only team in the Mountain time zone. When the team performs well, they blame Coors field and say that the team over-performed. When the team does poorly, they immediately point to how it was always doomed to fail. This is not sound analytical thinking, this is confirmation bias. They want Nolan to be traded because they want to see him somewhere else. At the very least they want to see him two hours earlier playing at 7 EST so they don't have to pay attention to Colorado anymore. They just want him somewhere, anywhere, but Denver.
These articles are mostly clickbait anyways, designed to provide shock value titles and stir the pot. It's how sports journalism survives. Neither the Rockies or the fans should care what Ken Rosenthal says. But there is some truth to highlight here: the Rockies are also not a good baseball team, and it isn't just injuries.
The Problems Run Deeper Than The Elbow
Why did the Rockies win in 2017/2018 and lose in 2019? The entire starting staff got hurt! Well now that's answered we can pack it up. 2020 will be great when everyone heals up. Nothing to fix here.
Except even without any stats, we all know that isn't the only problem that needs fixing. The pitching staff was the reason the Rockies made the playoff last season, but before we continue, we need to understand why.
If you read enough articles, you'll also see another theme about the 2017 and 2018 Rockies: over performance. A friend joked to me that the last word he would use to describe the Rockies is over performance, but that's not exactly what we mean here. There is something called a Pythagorean win loss record. This is what we would expect a team's record to be based on the number of runs they scored vs the number of runs they allowed. On average, teams will line up with this expectation plus or minus a few games.
If a team over performs their Pythagorean W/L, holding all things equal, we would expect them to regress. The same is true if they under perform. Based on the number of runs the Rockies scored the last 3 seasons, here is what we would expect to see.
|Season||Expected W-L||Actual W-L|
The differences can come from many places: luck, statistical noise, or even just winning more close ballgames. The Rockies were 26-15 in 1 run games in 2018. Plenty of good teams have good 1 run records, but in general this is what we mean by over performing. The Rockies were about the same team in 2017 and 2018. A contender for sure, but only just. We certainly were not a division winner of a team. And for context, the Dodger's Expected W-L for 2018 was 102-61. Game 163 happened because of a slight over performance from us and a drastic under performance from the Dodgers. If someone says we expected to contend for the division this year: the truth is we were never even close. In 2017, we performed as expected and that was enough to scrape into the playoffs. The wouldn't have been good enough for 2018, but it would have in 2019 if things had gone better. This year, we hit our mark exactly.
Looking beyond the Rockies performance, we can also look at the projections prior to the season starting. According the FanGraphs, here is what our expected record looked like at the beginning of each season.
|Season||Preseason Projected Record|
Projections are wrong all of the time. If they weren't sports wouldn't be exciting. Fangraphs getting even the Paythagorean W/L wrong isn't that uncommon. As the saying goes, "All models are wrong, some are useful". This model becomes useful if it is well calibrated. Meaning the events it forecasts result at the rate you expect. The only question we are asking is: does FanGraphs have a well calibrated model? And the answer is yes, they are pretty good at it. FanGraphs, FiveThirtyEight, and Vegas sportsbooks for the last 3 years all have a similar consensus: the don't see much in the Rockies. If we beat the projections, that's fantastic. But the reason we are looking at these is because to the people who are professionals at sports forecasting, the people who will lose money if they miss something or are wrong, don't see a winning ball club. Sure there is some luck and magic in baseball and yes the playoffs are notoriously a crap shoot, but if we want the Rockies to win a World Series, it probably isn't coming because we are lucky and defy the odds. It will come because we are the best.
Whose to Blame?
Let's get even simpler, baseball boils down to two things: hitting and pitching. If you are going to win the World Series, you're going to need both.
Take a look at the following table. We can see how the team as a whole has done on both sides if the ball each year. The first stat is ERA+. This is a fancy way of tracking how many runs the staff gives up, includes park normalization factors to account for Coors Field (we're going to need to do this a lot) and compare how the team performs compared to the league overall where 100 is average. The second is weight Runs Created Plus. This is a similar concept, but now we are taking all the actions of the offense and assigning them a value based on how many runs it is worth. Then we do the same thing by normalizing and making 100 league average. You can think of these stats as "how much better or worse are the pitchers/hitters than the rest of baseball, without getting caught up on Coors Field?"
Last season the pitching staff was 9% better than average, while the hitters were 12% worse than average. Many people around the league still aren't aware this happened. Many assume we luck our way into the playoffs with a hitter friendly ballpark. Accounting for park factors, the hitters were actually pretty poor last year, the pitching staff carried us to the playoffs.
This season, the pitching staff is 5% worse than average. Looking at our record and fan comments on social media you'd think it would be much worse, but that's not too bad for losing the entire staff. The main problem is not only that we didn't improve the offense this year, it actually got worse. The pitching was able to make up for the underwhelming offense last season, but the injuries meant they couldn't carry us this year. This also highlights a very important point. For everyone complaining about the pitching this season, getting rid of McGee doesn't begin to address the largest problem: the offense!
Diving a little deeper, we start to find the problems with the offense are in fact not just Ian Desmond's fault, but a more systemic problem altogether.
Dan Szymborski on FanGraphs wrote an interesting piece on the division of WAR amongst playoff teams in 2018. It's worth a read, but this article is going to be long enough. To summarize, of all playoff teams in 2018, if one were to take away the contributions of the top two hitters and pitchers on each team, 9 of the 10 teams still rank in the top 10 in terms of overall WAR. The Rockies rank 19th. This highlights one thing we already knew about 2019: when our top pitchers got hurt, the team fell apart. It also highlights a much bigger problem: the Rockies are vulnerable.
Arenado and Story are excellent ballplayers, but we are screwed if they get hurt for a long period of time. Gray and Marquez are solid pitchers, but we are screwed when they get hurt. Almost anyone not named the Yankees would be screwed if their entire starting staff went down. We wouldn't expect any team to make the playoffs in those circumstances. But there is a middle ground between the entire starting staff stays healthy to throw 150 innings and the whole staff ends up on the IL. Very few teams can sustain many injuries, but the Rockies can't stand any. Here is where the "buy another starter" argument begins to break down. The Rockies don't need that one piece to put them over the top, surprisingly we already have that. The Rockies need an entire baseball team!
Shown below is a graph showing the WAR produced by players sorted by descending order from a team's best player to their worst player. The Rockies have the stars just like any other team with our top 4 players but then it rapidly drops off. The backups and replacements aren't worse than any other team on average, but our 5th best player to our 25th best player is well below the average MLB team. Every team is going to have stars, but no championship will be won if 20 out of 25 players are below average. No single veteran starter can fix that gap.
This is why if the Rockies are presented with the world's most unlikely trade for Arenado should take it. We have the stars, but we need a solid foundation. This isn't the NBA where LeBron can singlehandedly will Cleveland to a championship. In fact those predictions we discussed before are based on how much value each player is projected to add to a team over the course of the season. How many games they play, how many home runs they hit, how many routine fly balls Ian Desmond will drop. Anyone in baseball will be familiar with WAR, but when we say start quantifying players by wins, how do we use that? What is a replacement win, how did Nolan win 5 ballgames (or how did he only win 5 ballgames)? When we say replacement, the calculation is based on what players are freely available to any team. We also expect a replacement level team to win about 48 ballgames due to the variance of the sport and how good the average minor leaguer is to the average major leaguer. This gives us a baseline. The amount of WAR a team produces, should equate to X amount of wins above 48 in a season. In practice, this is what we see.
For example the Astros had 55.2 WAR from their team combined last year and won 103 games. 48+55.2=103.2. We also know on average how many wins it takes to get to the playoffs. In the double wild card era, that seems to be about 90 wins give or take. It can be lower, but once again we aren't looking to luck our way into the playoffs. Now we have a language to translate value from players into the postseason.
Taking 90 games as our base (beating the Dodgers is considerably harder) we know that as a team we are shooting for 42 WAR. This sounds like a huge number, and it is; building a playoff team isn't easy. Starting from the player projections we talked about earlier, we can start to make a road map (Ideally, we would have projections that fall in a probabilistic range, but for the purposes of this piece we are just going to look at averages.)
We can pencil Nolan in for 5 WAR. He's the most consistent player on the team, no need to hope for a 10 WAR season or worry about a 1 WAR performance. Trevor is listed at less than 4. This seems a little outdated, only because his defense this year has been so valuable that he's been worth over 6 WAR this season (different sites have different calculations for defense). This is meant to be a back of the envelope calculation, so without diving too deep we are going to assume he hits 5 WAR in 2020. Running through the whole list, we get about 20 WAR. That's not too bad, we are almost halfway there. Adding the projections from our pitching staff, we are looking at 35 WAR in total. That means we are looking to carve out 7 wins somehow, someway for 2020 and beyond to be a playoff contending team. Ideally, we'd want a few more wins if we can. Predicting WAR isn't perfect and the actual WAR we have next season doesn't perfectly predict our record. These are all just indicators that we can use to inform us what we are looking for.
To find these 7 wins we'll be looking at many things. We need depth around the diamond and we'll need to take a closer look at our current roster. But before we start diving into the data on the players, we have to address the hardest problem in Major League Baseball.
The Coors Field Problem
Hitting is Easy, Pitching is Hard
It's no secret that Coors Field is a difficult place to play. It also might be the only thing anyone outside the NL West even knows about the Rockies. MLB decided to write a whole article on how Vladimir Guerrero Sr. had to call Jr. to tell him about hitting at Coors Field. I imagine the conversation was pretty short. "The ball breaks less. Oh, and there's less air." "Thanks Dad". To be fair, he did hit a home run so I can't say it didn't help.
Rockies fans see this all the time. Any monkey can swing a bat and hit at Coors Field and therefore you can't trust any stat from a Rockies player. Every home run hit gets an asterisk that the ball flies farther. When people debate if Francisco Lindor or Trevor Story is better, they don't compare apples to apples. They pick Lindor season stats vs Story's road stats as if that's the true mark of a Rockies hitter. Larry Walker played for the Rockies for 9.5 of 17 seasons, therefore he shouldn't be in the hall of fame. By the way, almost all hitters hit worse on the road. And fun fact, if Walker doesn't get in this year, he will have the highest JAWS (a metric for assessing hall of famers) for any position player not in Cooperstown who also wasn't connected to steroids or banned from baseball (i.e. Pete Rose).
On the flip side of the coin, pitching at Coors Field is the most dreaded activity in baseball. Pitchers have nightmares of their trips to Colorado. Kenley Jansen's doctor even told him not to fly to Denver due to a heart problem he required surgery for this offseason.
This presents a unique problem for the Rockies that no other organization has. In fact, if your team isn't in the NL West teams don't even need to consider it. The Rockies have to construct a championship team (which is hard enough for any organization) and they have to do it at altitude. And to make matters worse, it really can't be ignored. I was born and raised here. To me the Colorado air is air. To others, this city is a challenge to live in. I've had family members come to town and take a rest at DIA walking to baggage claim. These are professional athletes, but the thin air has created several problems bound by the laws of physics.
To correct for the increased flight of the ball, the walls were moved back farther than any other park in baseball. This means that we have the most outfield area as well. More area=more hits=higher batting average. This why the Rockies have 10 bitting titles in 26 seasons. Once again, not rocket science. But what does this mean as far as constructing a good baseball team? The answer lies in how the Rockies are able to adjust to the constant park changes.
I previously introduced ERA+ and wRC+. To get a better sense of the Coors Field effect, we are now going to look at these stats for all teams home and away splits. Remember these stats include the park factor adjustments, meaning Coors Field has been filtered out. We aren't looking at how Coors affects the number of hits, we are looking at what happens when you play half your games in Denver.
First we have all MLB teams wRC+ at home vs on the road and the difference between them.
|Team||Home wRC+||Away wRC+||Difference|
These are sorted by the difference between each split. At the top there are a few teams that are actually better at hitting on the road like the Indians who hit 16% better away from Cleveland, but majority of teams hit better at home. On average the MLB hits 4.8% better at home. This is simply home field advantage. It's larger for some than others and there are many factors that can affect these numbers such as fan support. At the very bottom of our list we have the two worst teams in the National League and the Astros. Such a tragedy the Astros only hit 14% better than average on the road, if only they could play at home more often where they are 36% better than average.
At the very bottom are the Rockies. The switch from altitude has been well documented. I'm not the first one to point this out. In fact this split gets worse as the season goes on. It's hard to hit at Coors Field and adapt to nasty breaking pitches on the road. In addition the increasing split suggests players bodies are simply taking a toll from playing in Denver. The Rockies hit 24% worse on the road than they do at home (which also isn't very good), largest gap in the MLB. Overall they hit 28% worse than league average on the road.
Now let's look at pitching
|Team||Home ERA+||Away ERA+||Difference|
We've now flipped to the other extreme. The Rockies are now at the top of the list. They pitch 16% better on the road. This is a huge swing. The Rockies are simultaneously the best road pitching team and the worst road hitting team. And keep in mind, we have already taken Coors Field into account. This is not 16% better because Coors Field is better for offense (it's 13% better for offense btw), this is 16% better simply due to switching ballparks. But here's the most interesting part: the pitching gap is significantly smaller than the hitting gap. The Yankees actually have the opposite problem. They have a massive pitching gap, but a small hitting gap. They may not pitch well on the road, but if you hit enough home runs against the Orioles it doesn't matter than much.
Some might see where I'm going with this, but let's take it one step further. Let's take all of the data from the other NL West teams who play at Coors multiple times a season and then adjust to park effects. To make sure we have a large enough sample, I'm taking the data over the past 3 seasons.
|Team||ERA+ at Coors (2017-19)||Road ERA+ (without Coors)||Difference|
First thing to address is the 53 from the Padres. This is mostly due to the high scoring series earlier this year. Rockies fans remember it as the worst weekend in the history of the team. Padres fans remember it as the best weekend in the history of the team. Even using 3 years of data, that series had so many runs the Padres really take a hit.
Here is the answer we've been looking for. We can see the effect Coors has on any team coming from sea level even when we account for the increase in offense. The Rockies may be 16% worse at Coors compared to anywhere else, but only looking at the Coors field effect to each team's ERA+ we see that the Dodgers are 31% worse when they come from LA, the Diamondbacks are 16% worse coming from Phoenix, the Giants are 25% worse coming from the bay, and the Padres are a whopping 46% worse when they come from San Diego. It isn't just increased offense, this is a systematic shock to anyone who comes to play in Denver.
A few things to address here. The Diamondbacks have the same gap as the Rockies between home and road (in the opposite direction). They already like pitching on the road, but they are 25% worse pitching at Coors compared to other road ballparks. Second, the Dodgers are still a much better team. They pitch much better at Coors Field than the Rockies do, but that's because they have better pitchers. We are comparing a team to themselves to isolate the effect of coming to Denver.
I've been pointing out that we are taking park factors into account, but there is another story there. The park factors are an adjustment based on how much offense actually occurs at the park compared to the league average. There is more offense at Coors, but that comes from both the Rockies and the away team. When those are averaged, we get the total effect. Essentially what I've presented is what we see when we split that average. The park factor for the Rockies is large, but the park factor for opposing teams is enormous.
Why does this happen? Basically when we pitch at home, we get a home field advantage. The pitchers have more experience on what to do at home while the opposing pitchers don't. We cheer for our pitchers and unless the Cubs are in town, we don't cheer for theirs. This is why I pointed out our pitching gap is smaller than the hitting gap. Pitching at home comes with both an advantage and a disadvantage relative to other teams.
The exact opposite effect happens when we hit. When the Rockies go on the road the hitters do worse facing better breaking balls. But not only that, they were already going to perform worse because hitting on the road is hard for anyone. This is a double negative that compounds the opposite direction.
Main takeaway: Pitching is the Rockies' biggest advantage, hitting is our disadvantage.
I know right. Blasphemy. The bane of our existence: pitching, is our biggest strength? I mean aren't you forgetting the last 26 years? Doesn't a pitcher come along once a decade that can actually pitch here?
We've often been concerned if someone can learn how to pitch here. It's hard, but the data seems to suggest even though the ERA is through the roof, our pitchers have learned. And this is 2019 data, so it doesn't really include the prized young pitching staff. This is the rag-tag group of backups with half a year of big league experience.
This does not mean the Rockies are good at pitching at home, it simply means they are better than anyone else. And the goal of a baseball team is to be better than everyone else.
Press the Advantage
This is a very fun find, but how does it help? Where are these 7 wins coming from? The whole reason I bring this up is because the Rockies need to do more than find a few players. No other team in baseball is concerned with where they play. A simple approach to winning more ballgames, independent from players or the number of runs we score, is to press your advantages and fix your weaknesses.
Let's see if we can press our pitching advantage. This piece has the indication that pitchers just try stuff out and hope it works when pitching at altitude. Mastering the question of pitching at altitude should be something the Rockies have a patent on. They should have been looking at this 15 years ago. It sounds like the organization really hasn't done much about it. Now I don't have the answer for you here. I promised you to identify problems and suggest data driven solutions. I've shown the problem, but right now there isn't any data for a solution. Unlike launch angels and defensive shifts, no one else is going to solve this. The Rockies are the only ones who can. That requires ideas and testing those ideas.
Compared to everyone else, we are pitching pretty well at Coors. That doesn't mean it's a solved problem, it only means it isn't our biggest problem. If I were running the show, I'd get all the analysts (we don't have many), coaches, trainers, and executives in the same room, get out the expo marker and start writing down ideas. Maybe it's throwing more curveballs? They break more than sliders so maybe batters will miss them more? Maybe it's throwing more sliders because the difference between the road and home isn't as large? Maybe you have an entirely different pitch for home and away? Maybe the trainers think the players should spend a half hour in an oxygen tent? Any idea is valid. Then get the analysts to design tests to prove whether these techniques improve pitching at Coors Field. In order to do that, you are going to need a control group. This means trying and idea on 2 starters and not on the other 3. This means randomly selecting pitchers to try ideas, not just the chosen ones who you are counting on. The team has thought of ideas before. For example, after Aaron Cook came along the team tried getting a bunch of sinker ball throwing pitchers. The idea was that a sinker causes more ground balls and more ground balls are needed at Coors Field. It didn't work. I'll actually address why it didn't work later in the article, but the point is the team had a belief of what it thought was the right idea and never designed a test to confirm it. This is actually a common theme today. The front office and coaches believe what the team is without stopping to confirm or deny that belief. As I've said, other teams also have a belief about the Rockies. They are all beliefs and the team needs to be able to separate fact from fiction. Ideally this would have been done in the 2011-2015 days when we were losing a lot, but it's never too late to learn.
I'd take a similar approach to hitting. It seems Nolan is taking some breaking pitches off the slider machine to get himself primed on a road trip. Don't know how that took so long to try. Maybe they take longer BP? Maybe they call up a minor leaguer not to be on the roster but just to throw some breaking balls to live hitters? I've already highlighted hitting is the Rockies' biggest weakness. This needs to be fixed. And no, getting rid of Ian Desmond isn't going to close the 24% gap between the road and home. We do need a better offense, but even that better offense will still struggle on the road unless the Rockies fix this. Of anything that I'm talking about in this article, fixing the road offense is the biggest problem we have. The Rockies should be throwing every ounce of brain power at this. Forget signing extensions or our position in the next draft.
Let's say the Rockies solve this to make us an average team on the road, meaning 4.8% worse than home. If our offense was 19% better on the road, we would score approximately 65 more runs per year. Referencing back to our Pythagorean W-L, that's 6.5 more wins a season (this is also why 10 runs are considered a win when calculating WAR). That's almost our 7 wins right there. If we solved one single problem we turn the projected 2020 team into a playoff favorite.
In reality, the effects of Coors probably won't be solved to make us an average team on the road. They absolutely have to be improved, but I doubt we get 19% improvement. That's okay, even if we can only improve by 10% on the road that's 3 wins. While I can't say how much one can really improve the offense on the road, I am going to assume we can get close to 3 more wins with a focused effort. This is without changing a single player. We still need at least 4 more wins and more if we can. After all we are looking for more than just a wild card spot.
A New Way To Pitch
When the Rockies were struggling in the early 2010's, we got plenty of high draft picks. And credit to the organization, those players have developed into one of the better starting rotations in baseball (when they aren't on the IL). Let's look at the Rockies pitching staff as a whole and the strategy Jeff Bridich has applied.
2014: the team needed an overhaul. We had been losing for years and had nothing to show for it. Of our eventual pitching staff, Jon Gray, Tyler Anderson, and Kyle Freeland were all on their way up. Chad Bettis had made his debut, but in those years his numbers were disastrous. At the end of this season, Dan O'Dowd resigned and Jeff Bridich took over. We had the beginnings of a quality staff, but Jeff knew we needed more.
This sets up our future rotation that took us to the playoff two years in row. However, it doesn't include a bullpen. All of the starters in the rotation are under control by the team but we don't have much promise in the 'pen. For the last several seasons, Bridich's approach has been to sign veteran relievers such as getting Greg Holland for a season to be the closer. We all of course know what happens next, Bridich signs the relief package of Wade Davis, Jake McGee, Bryan Shaw, and Mike Dunn to 3 year deals ranging from $19-52 million. Unlike most I actually don't hate Bryan Shaw (more below), but it's pretty obvious none of those contracts worked out.
Referencing our study in the Coors Field effect we can infer why this is. Our pitchers have figured out how to pitch at Coors Field, mostly through experience. It may not be very focused learning, but if you throw enough pitches at altitude your brain and body will adapt over time. This works for the starters, but for a 10 year veteran their whole world gets turned upside down. Nothing moves like it did before and as a reliever that doesn't train here in the offseason they don't even throw enough pitches to adapt.
But that's just a theory, we can't just believe something, we have to test it. For this I want to see if learning to pitch at Coors Field is better than coming here after an established career. As in the team home and away study, I am only trying to compare between the players themselves, not to see of the starters are overall better than the relievers (they are). If this theory is true, then if we take all the veteran relievers and all of the homegrown starters we should see that they veterans have a larger home vs away park adjusted split just like the pitchers of opposing teams who also don't have enough experience at altitude to pitch here.
For this test I am also using 2017-2018 data. 2019 has seen all of the starters go down to injury so that data set isn't exactly informative. To be considered a veteran reliever, they had to pitch a full season at Coors Not just a trade deadline 1 month rental. They also couldn't be a veteran that used to pitch for the Rockies then came back later (the Rockies love doing this). I considered using more years to prove this, but until the signing of pitchers in 2017-2018, the Rockies hadn't really done this before.
|Home ERA+||Away ERA+||Difference|
|Homegrown Starters (2017-18)||109||109||0|
|Veteran Relievers (2017-18)||86||110||-24|
Once again the effect of Coors Field reveals itself. Over 1725 total innings between these two groups, the veterans did 24% worse at home than on the road. In fact, the 16% difference between the road and home for the Rockies is almost all attributable to the relievers. Additionally, we see that the veteran pitchers are actually pretty good when they are on the road. They are 10% better than league average. We may give a lot of flack to Bridich for picking these guys, but based on the information he had on them before coming to Colorado it seemed like some solid pickups.
Part of this from our homegrown pitchers comes from our minor league teams. Albuquerque (our AAA team) is at an elevation of 5,312ft. This is exactly what the team needs to develop homegrown pitchers. You also want high elevation for your earlier minor league teams. Our single-A affiliates are halfway there at 2,134' and 2,359' for Asheville and Lancaster respectively, but the AA team is basically at sea level (59'). I don't know the elevation of minor league park, but I do know our previous AAA team, the Colorado Springs Sky Sox (who now belong to the Brewers), are at 6,035'. This may be a strange fix, but I'd advocate exchanging minor league teams with someone to get our double-A team closer to mile high elevation.
If we dig even deeper, we see that how early we get the starters into the high altitude system even makes a difference. Three of the starters were acquired via trade: Marquez, Chatwood, and Hoffman. The others all were drafted by the Rockies in the 1st or 2nd round. If we do the same analysis, we see the same issue comes up.
|Home ERA+||Away ERA+||Difference|
|Marquez, Chatwood, Hoffman (2017-2018)||92||121||-19|
|Freeland, Gray, Anderson, Bettis, Senzatela (2017-2018)||116||103||13|
Does this mean we should never trade for a pitcher? No. Chatwood was already a big league pitcher before coming to us and accounts for most of the difference (41% worse at home). He had no development in our system and also isn't with the team anymore. Marquez and Hoffman were both AA level pitchers when they came to us. Hoffman has had a much slower adjustment period but as he has gotten more experience, his gap has gotten smaller over time. In 2019, Hoffman was actually 6% better at home although that isn't included in the sample above. All this means is if we are going to get a pitcher from somewhere else, a single A or double A pitcher will have a better pay off specifically for the Rockies.
You'll also notice that the trio dominates on the road. We need players that can pitch at Coors, but it doesn't hurt to have someone who is good on the road either. In a 1 game wild card or in a postseason situation, selecting Marquez to pitch if we are the road team and either Gray or Freeland to pitch when we are the home team gives us an edge that no other team in baseball has.
Just in case you wanted to know, Freeland actually doesn't have the best split. One would assume that growing up in Denver would result in even more experience, but Gray's splits are almost identical and Anderson's are even better. Inevitably, at some point there are diminishing returns. It's possible Freeland, Gray, and Anderson have already reached that point. Not to say they can't get better (more below), but an improvement might be uniform on the road and at home.
One reason why we dislike the veteran signings is because of how much they cost. Davis got a $52 million dollar contract and Bryan Shaw got a $27 million dollar one, the same one that Adam Ottavino got (and he's homegrown). The problem is pitchers know they don't want to come to Coors. They know it's hard. As a result, it takes a serious payday for them to come here. Whenever someone asks, "Why don't they go out and get a veteran starter?" the answer is: because they can't afford to do it. In order to get a star pitcher like free-agent-to-be Gerrit Cole to come here, it would cost significantly more money than he's worth. Outside of getting Jamie Moyer at the nice young age of 49, what veteran pitcher has ever come here? From Bridich's perspective, he saw a problem in the bullpen and he used money the Rockies had to go get that bullpen. He absolutely overpaid, because he had to. But as it turns out, getting any veteran reliever at any price fails.
The solution: the Rockies, as long as they remain in Colorado, should never sign any veteran pitcher that didn't also come up in the Rockies organization.
This actually hits on a bigger narrative in baseball. For the past few seasons we've seen an explosion in player development. Younger players account for more value than veterans. The Astros made a championship team not only by getting high draft picks, but by using cutting edge technology to develop them. Homegrown talent is now the way to win ballgames. The Rockies are kind of doing that. Nothing I've seen indicates that they are embracing technology, but all the Rockies stars came up in the organization. Even all the old stars (post-expansion draft) were homegrown.
The only difference is: unlike the Astros, Dodgers or Red Sox, the Rockies cannot get a veteran pitcher on the free agent market. They cost too much, don't want to come here, and are terrible when they do as a result of not having experience at altitude. The game is moving in a player development direction anyways but for the Rockies, this should matter of life or death. In fact this is so important to the Rockies, I would advise the organization to always and forever chose a pitcher as our first pick in the draft. Doesn't matter if they are the best hitter in a generation, we can't get pitchers anywhere else.
This also extends to how the team spends money. By never getting a veteran pitcher, that frees up money down the line to do other things. Want to extend Story? Go ahead. We have a problem in left field? Feel free to spend. Most importantly, if we have a halfway decent homegrown pitcher, give that man an extension! Even with the decline in velocity and general aging of pitchers, having someone who came up with the organization is so important on average those losses won't intersect the Coors Field gap until a much later age of 33.
One question that comes up is: if the veterans can't pitch at Coors, what should we do about 2020? If you can trade them and get some minor league arms, do it. They cost a ton of money and we can use that elsewhere. Even if the minor league arms are mediocre and in single A. Getting the money off the payroll is huge. However it might be hard to convince teams to take them. Even if we are still dumping money into the bullpen in 2020, we can at least use them smarter. There were some talks before Oberg went down about Wade Davis only closing on the road. Bud Black wasn't crazy about the idea, but this is probably the best solution. All of our veteran relievers are better on the road. In fact, even in a data set that included Mike Dunn the relievers are still 10% better than average on the road. Because home and road series normally come in bunches this won't work all of the time, but limiting the veteran's use at home would be a huge improvement to the overall pitching staff.
As we've seen so far, simply spending more time pitching at altitude can make a pitcher roughly 20% better. And the data also suggests the more pitches thrown at altitude the better. For both the starters and relievers a regular season gives plenty of experience, but we should be able to cut that learning curve without sacrificing runs when every games counts.
During the offseason, players normally go home where they feel the most comfortable. Maybe they get some home cooking from mom and they workout with friends they may have played with in high school or players that live nearby. This has been the classic model for decades, until Driveline came along. There could be entire books written about Driveline (in fact there is!) but that's not the focus of the article. Here's the TL;DR of Driveline for those who haven't heard of it. In a warehouse in industrial Seattle, players from high school, college, the minors, and the majors all go to use data driven techniques to make improvements in their game. It started mostly with pitcher's velocity increases, then moved into pitch design, and now has expanded into data driven hitting improvements. This is where Trevor Bauer was made and still trains in the offseason. They also have a great Podcast if you were looking for recommendations.
This is also where Adam Ottavino remade his pitching arsenal before purchasing the technology himself and training in a storefront in Brooklyn. After hearing about his experience and seeing the results, several Rockies pitchers took trips to Driveline this offseason including Jon Gray, Bryan Shaw, Jake McGee, Jeff Hoffman, and Antonio Senzatela. Jon Gray has had a resurgence from 2018, where he couldn't find his slider. Bryan Shaw and Jake McGee also have been significantly better since their trips.
Driveline isn't associated with one team. They will teach anyone willing to learn. There are teams like (once again) the Astros whose players don't go to Driveline. That's because the Astros already employ similar data driven improvement techniques and keep them under wraps. They even have 75 Edgertronic cameras (high speed cameras originally designed for Aerospace applications) installed in their ballparks. The cameras may be good for NASA, but the Astros are the company's #1 customer.
Driveline also aren't the only ones. Many different facilities have popped up around the US. There are hitting gurus remaking Justin Turner, Mookie Betts, and JD Martinez. This is new direction of baseball and it is rapidly expanding. I think the Rockies can do it a little differently.
The reason I mention that players go back home is because once again, unlike every single team in baseball, going home and away from Denver means a completely different environment. Going from Florida to California really isn't that different from a training perspective, but going from Denver to California is. I absolutely believe the Rockies should be trying to build up their data driven development, but I think they need to take it a step further: they need to do it in Denver. Given how important high altitude experience is for the pitching staff, I feel like all Rockies pitchers from low A to the major leagues should spend time in Denver during the offseason.
This isn't a new idea, the Royals actually did something similar in the 70s. Players spent all of their time at a training facility, were paid, and even lived there. The program proved to be too expensive to run year round, but that was when baseball made less money. I'm not advocating that Rockies pitchers as a result of being on the Rockies can't go home and see their families. They don't have to live in Colorado or even spent majority of their time there, but they should spend some time training in Colorado.
We'll actually talk about pitch design later, but it isn't something that happens in-season that often. With only a bullpen session between starts, it's hard to find a feel for pitches or make new ones. It can be done, but most of that work is done during the offseason. What I'd propose is that 1) The Rockies go all in on data driven development, and 2) base it out of Denver. Requiring pitchers (and maybe hitters) to spend at least a few weeks of the 4-5 month offseason making changes at altitude.
This has a few more implications that come with it. Having a Denver based facility also helps concentrate the players. Their ideas, their swings, different pitch grips, what batters have trouble with different pitches. Right now, training is a hierarchical system. The AA players don't interact with the MLB players because they are 2000 miles away for most of the year. By having a facility to train during the offseason for everyone, you get an organization that openly shares information. Everyone is there to do the same thing: improve. This is a culture that is created at these independent training facilities.
Focused practice is starting to become the norm in baseball. Organizations are actually decreasing the amount of minor league affiliates because running 100 players out to games that provide little improvement in comparison is a waste of resources. To that end, having a facility designed to make fixes to players would be a better strategy than sending someone down to the minors and making those changes. When Kyle Freeland was struggling, they sent him down to the minors for him to struggle in New Mexico. The coaches do try to provide improvements, but those are just the ones in AAA. What if the guy Kyle needed was in AA? What if that guy was the major league bullpen coach? He's been moved to a spot where he has to fight through it and never receives the opportunity to diagnose the problem.
When a player struggles, instead of shipping them around the country why not send them to a facility where high speed cameras and movement trackers can tell them what needs fixing in a matter of minutes? Why not send all Rockies affiliated players there? Not all the time, but anytime they need an adjustment. A double A hitter is scuffling, give them a week at the facility. The top prospect in single A is working on a slider, let him work on it without the fear of having to feel it out and throw it 2 days from now. The players would still play in minor leagues games to demonstrate and implement what they have learned, but it isn't so fruitless. They don't have to grind out innings at short while also trying to figure out their swing between bus trips. The Denver training facility would be focused on giving pitchers the experience at altitude they need, but would reach much further into the new age of player development and provide faster fixes for players who need to perform in the major leagues.
I briefly mentioned that I didn't have answers for Coors Field pitching. In a way, I don't. There isn't any data to say for sure what does or doesn't work for preventing runs compared to a control group. In another way I do: throw more splitters.
For a few years, the Rockies thought they had solved the Coors Field problem by getting sinker-ballers. The pitch naturally moves down which was thought to limit home runs and fly balls. It does (we'll get into that next), but there was a problem. The pitch has the highest rates of contact of any other pitch, and at Coors field it's actually a higher rate of contact.
Quick TL;DR on the physics involved. Pitches move due to the Magnus Effect. While the ball spins it creates a pocket of turbulent flow which has less pressure than the other side of the ball. The ball moves in the direction of the turbulent flow due to the pressure differential. This happens due to the seams on the ball, their direction, and the rate of spin. We can calculate how a pitch is going to move based on these factors. Another key factor is air pressure. There is less air at Coors, therefore the pitches move less. This is one reason why it's hard to pitch here. A fastball has backspin which pushes it up relative to how much gravity would pull it down normally. It still drops, but it looks like it rises because our brains already expect that. A curveball is the opposite. It's spun very quickly with frontspin and drops way more than normal because the pressure different moves it the other direction. With that out of the way, back to sinkers.
A sinker is very similar to a fastball but doesn't have as much rise and has some arm side run. Fastball rise less at Coors, but because the sinker already is designed to rise less, the thin air doesn't work against it. This is good, we've eliminated one problem. Unfortunately, the arm side run is another factor of this pressure differential and it doesn't move as much. This creates a problem. We've chosen a sinker because 1) it creates more groundballs and 2) Coors Field doesn't work against its natural sink. But when you remove the run on the ball, they become easier to hit. Any reduction in movement makes the baseball easier to hit. This can be seen in the image below (purple are Coors Field pitches). Sinkers are already the easiest ball to hit because they act very similar to fastballs, but you're less likely to swing under them. Bringing them to Coors means the easiest pitch just gets easier.
(Figure from Adam Maahs)
From what we knew at the times of Aaron Cook, this wasn't a bad strategy. But we weren't really looking at the pitch from a design perspective. Ideally we need a pitch that is hard to hit and isn't affected by the Coors Field air as much or even better, a pitch whose movement is aided by less air. The study found that sliders move about the same amount at altitude. They move the least out of any pitch, and the amount of spin that contributes to their movement (known as active spin), is very low. In looking at these kinds of studies, I've seen an analysis of almost all types of pitches except one: the splitter.
The splitter (sometime called a forkball) is a pretty simple pitch. It is most commonly thrown just like a fastball, but with the fingers on the sides. They come in a little slower than a fastball, but have greater drop. By placing the fingers on the sides, that backspin is reduced. This reduction in backspin causes a smaller Magnus Effect and disappears out of the strike zone at the last second.
The same effect can be seen in a changeup, but it depends which kind. Often when guys throw a changeup it is a circle change. This has arm side run and is normally thrown to opposing handed hitters so that it darts away from them. Also seen in the image above, the changeup actually drops more at Coors Field (like we expect) but has a large reduction in arm side run. The ball drops due to low backspin but the sidespin component is reduced, once again making the pitch just as hittable. There is another pitch called a Vulcan change. This is almost exactly like a splitter but instead the ball goes between the middle and ring fingers. Even more confusing is when someone calls a splitter a changeup such as Tim Lincecum who had one of the best splitters in the game but never called it one.
The splitter isn't designed to have as much run as a changeup meaning its function seems to align with our goals. From a physics perspective this seems to be a great candidate for a pitch. In the thin air, the already small Magnus Effect will be reduced even more causing even more drop. And unlike a sinker, it is not the most hittable pitch in baseball.
The reason none of these studies include it is because not many guys throw it. Baseball Savant, which has a nice database of pitch arsenals, says only 46 guys in the MLB threw a splitter in 2019. The problem is that claim isn't necessarily true. Yu Darvish does throw a splitter, but he throws so many pitches Statcast can't even classify all of them. Based off the movement profiles Statcast will assign a classification to all pitches thrown, but the pitchers may disagree on that classification. The same movement might go by different names. We want to see if the splitter works at Coors Field. But not only do not many guys throw it, the guys who we can definitely say throw splitters are mostly in the American League. As a result we are going to need to hunt for the right guys.
Zack Greinke apparently seems like an obvious candidate given he played in the same division up until recently, but he has only thrown 5 splitters all season at the time of this writing. That isn't a sample size. Of the 46 guys that Statcast says throw a splitter, we are going to narrow it down to pitchers that actually faced the Rockies this season and throw a splitter more than 5% of the time. Then we need to narrow it down to pitchers that actually pitched at Coors Field. This gives us 13 pitchers that we can compare the movement profiles of this specific pitch at altitude compared to how they move normally.
This gives us 300+ splitters at Coors Field this season. Comparing their average movement and the movement seen at other ballparks we see that indeed, the splitter has a very similar movement profile.
Like the changeup, the splitter has a fair amount of drop due to less backspin. However it drops more than an changeup because the spin is even lower. It also has significantly less arm side run which means it isn't as affected by the Coors Field air. The splitter has a very similar movement difference as a slider, but drops slightly more. Perhaps most importantly, it actually drops slightly more on average at Coors Field because the already small Magnus effect is reduced slightly. The difference isn't as pronounced as the changeup shown above, but that's because the changeup has a higher spin rate. The higher the spin in any direction, the more effect seen by the Colorado air. The splitter also is thrown harder on average. This gives a similar amount of movement with less time to react which is why it is a strikeout pitch and the pitch that propelled Tim Lincecum to three consecutive strikeout titles as well as two Cy Young awards.
Does this mean all Rockies pitchers should start throwing splitters? No. If a pitcher has a good breaking pitch they can control, stick with it. Almost all Rockies pitchers have a slider and they also have similar movement profiles at home and on the road. All I'm suggesting is that if a pitcher is looking for a new breaking pitch, a splitter is simple to throw due to its similarity to a fastball grip and it plays well at Coors Field. Additionally, if a pitcher has a really ineffective pitch this is another option. When we look at our pitcher's arsenals, we'll see that there are several with really poor changeups. The splitter has 6" more drop than a changeup and doesn't lose nearly as much run.
The Rockies had the right idea by focusing on sinkers. Unfortunately the pitch is notoriously hittable and relies on the arm side movement a lot to get strikeouts. While that Astros make pitchers abandon sinkers, I don't think the pitch is really that bad. But to get strikeouts you have to throw it really hard.
Throw the Ball Up!
Along with the sinker narrative came the idea that you have to throw the ball down at Coors Field. If you throw it down there will be more groundballs, less home runs, and less runs given up. Simple.
In fact, this is Bud Black's tagline. He loves throwing that ball down. He tells this to every single pitcher that walks into the club house. If a pitcher did well, he was throwing the ball down. If he does poorly, he wasn't throwing the ball down. I wouldn't be surprised if every time a pitcher throws a ball up Bud Black makes them put a dollar in a jar on his desk. The thing is, he made all of us buy into it too. The commentators talk about. Journalists talk about. Here's an article that both praises throwing the ball down and getting a veteran starter with no Coors Field experience, all in one single data point. Let's take a look.
The Rockies pitching staff has struggled this year, that much is obvious. If that's the case, then according to Black, we must not be throwing the ball down. Looking into the numbers we see the Rockies lead the league in groundball percentage. Not only that, in the same sheet you can see we have the lowest flyball percentage as well. Taking it one step further, if we take all 350,000+ fastballs thrown in the MLB this season and break it down by team, the Rockies rank 2nd in terms of getting the ball down.
|Team||Average Fastball Height (ft)|
|Boston Red Rox||2.843|
|Tampa Bay Rays||2.822|
|St. Louis Cardinals||2.664|
|Chicago White Sox||2.651|
|New York Mets||2.646|
|New York Yankees||2.645|
|San Diego Padres||2.627|
|San Francisco Giants||2.611|
|Toronto Blue Jays||2.606|
|Kansas City Royals||2.547|
Bud, I think it's safe to say that you've done it, the Rockies have thrown the ball down.
But somehow we still rank 2nd in baseball for HR/9. The only team in front of us are the Orioles who set the record for most home runs allowed in a season this year (4 teams broke that record this year). Part of that is the ballpark yes, but how are we allowing so many home runs if we are getting the ball down? The answer is because fastballs down in the zone are hit hard.
Shown below is a heatmap of all fastballs hit hard (>95mph according to Statcast) as well as the average fastball locations for the best pitching staffs in baseball and us.
The hardest hit balls are mostly in the center of the strike zone and are skewed towards a RHB. This is because fastballs in are hit harder and a majority of people are right-handed, although left-handers are included in this sample. You'll also see that the Rockies, at least height wise, are right in the middle of where the most hard hit balls are. Zooming in we can see it a little clearer.
You can see the best pitching staffs are throwing their fastballs up and trying to get away from the most dangerous part of the plate. While no teams in baseball (Rockies included) are throwing fastballs too far in, the best are throwing it up. You'll also see that over hundreds of thousands of fastballs thrown, the difference between teams is really small, but those small differences over time make a huge difference.
The reason these balls are hit hard is because a fastball middle-down follows the natural bat path of a powerful swing. Add into that many hitters are starting to swing up on the ball and those fastballs down turn into home runs. It is true that fastballs down lead to more groundballs, but it's high risk-high reward. If a batter misses the pitch, he'll groundout. If he makes solid contact, he'll lift it for a home run. It might have been true in Bud Black's day that getting the ball down was a great strategy. At that time guys were instructed to swing down on the ball thinking that enough backspin could solve hitting in the wrong direction. By throwing down and hitting on top of the ball instead of under it it's possible that home runs were reduced. We don't have pitch data for Bud Black's career so we'll never know. Today fastballs down get punished. If you want here is some more reading on the Rockies fastball down problems.
Now you might be saying, "But according to this graph, you should throw the ball down even more and then they stop being hit hard." While this is true in a sense, it works against the natural movement of a fastball. As we just looked at, a 4-seam fastball has is a "rise" compared to what a ball would normally do without spin. You can try to throw fastballs down, but they always want to stay up. To be clear, there is nothing wrong with throwing the ball down, but it has to be the right pitch. Throwing a slider down works because it naturally breaks downwards. That location compliments the pitch. Throwing a slider up is a disastrous idea because then it breaks down into the heart of the plate. The same thing happens when a fastball is thrown down: it wants to break to the heart of the plate.
The goal is simple: throw the ball where guys can't do damage. For a fastball, that place is up. The ball naturally wants to go there and once it's high enough, it's very difficult to do damage with it. For a slider or a splitter, that place is down. The ball naturally breaks there, they are pitches with high swing and miss rates, and when hitters do make contact, the ball is already breaking down meaning they rarely hit the ball on the barrel for a home run.
This can even be seen in FanGraphs pitch value tables. This seeks to answer the question of "how well have hitters done against any pitcher's specific pitch?" Of the 15 Rockies pitchers this season who threw 30 or more innings, 13 of them have a negative value attached to their fastballs. Every hitter is doing well against almost every single pitcher's fastball on the Rockies. Either the Rockies are wasting their talent by throwing the fastball down, or somehow the Rockies have coincidentally assembled the collection of players with the worst fastballs in all of baseball. I can assure you Jario Diaz and Carlos Estevez, who both throw 100mph, do not have negative fastballs. By comparison, 9 out of 13 have a positive value on their sliders. This is because when Bud Black tells them to throw a slider down, that's where the pitch should be. When he tells them to throw the fastball down, that's where the pitch gets hit.
|Chi Chi Gonzalez||-0.40||0.10|
I'll use this moment to address one big question: should we fire Bud Black? My answer to that is probably not, but it's complicated. We brought Bud Black in to be a mentor to the young pitching staff as a big league pitcher himself. To that end he has done beautifully. He was the right man for the job. He still is a guiding force, but right now he is guiding fastballs into the seats. There is a lot more to managing than just bullpens and double switches. There is a human element and mentorship that Bud Black has is droves. Additionally, firing a manger who has such a good relationship with the players can be hard. My personal position is Bud Black should remain as manager if someone in the organization can convince him to start throwing fastballs in the top of the zone and to stop using the veteran relievers at home. If he refuses, fire him. It's a hard position to take but the Rockies need to stop allowing so many home runs. The best of both worlds is where Black is able to work with the analytics department but doesn't let it become so robotic that he can't mentor his players. There is a balance.
As far as the question: should we fire the pitching coach Steve Foster? I don't know enough about him to say. I'd file that under maybe but it depends on what he's doing with the staff. The Rockies don't have a strong analytics department and they often only promote from inside. I don't know if Foster is doing anything that works against the team, but there should always be room for someone to come in with some new ideas.
In what might be one of my favorite baseball articles, Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight creates a new stat called the Goose Egg. I highly encourage you to read it, but if not, here's the TL;DR. The save in baseball is a stupid stat. Saving your best pitcher until the 9th inning and only using them if the game is within 3 runs isn't a very smart strategy. The reason is a game you are leading by 3 runs in the 9th inning normally doesn't require your best pitcher. Even worse, there are often times in a game where you do require your best even if it isn't the 9th. The Goose Egg is named after hall of famer Goose Gossage and the idea is pretty simple. A pitcher gets a goose egg for a clutch, scoreless relief inning. If you want the details, please do read the article. Basically all this means is when the game is really close, you want your best pitcher. It doesn't have to be the 9th, sometimes if there are runners on 1st and 2nd in a 1 run game you need someone to lock that down. If a pitcher lets those runs score, they don't get the goose egg. Just because you didn't put those runners on base doesn't mean you face no consequences for letting them score.
Once again the idea is simple, but it's a way to both measure how good a middle relief pitcher is and a better way to manage the bullpen. Interestingly, Bud Black actually followed this strategy really well in 2018. In this model when there is a 1 run game in the 8th, Silver recommends going to the "closer" who is supposed to be your best pitcher. In all those situations Bud Black went to Adam Ottavino, who was actually our best pitcher. In Black's mind Davis was our best pitcher so he saved him until the 9th. In reality, Ottavino was a much better last season and he was used in higher leverage situations. He employed a better bullpen strategy by accident.
I won't dwell on this too much. Basically I'd like Bud Black to use the bullpen just a little bit better. It took one of the worst seasons ever for him to finally move Davis out of the closer role. On the whole he does a pretty good job with what he has. Don't pitch the veterans at home, and use your actual best pitcher when the game is super close, not when it's the 9th and you're up by 3. Saves are stupid.
Home Runs and Strikeouts
It's no secret there are more home runs these days. We keep breaking records. Guys are swinging for the fences because a home run is the most valuable hit. There is also some conventional wisdom 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%) which we've already talked about. 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 us to get 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 our 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 two things 1) we need a better offense and 2) we need a better approach.
Yes we need to fix the road offense, we've talked about that. We're also going to talk about improving that players on our offense, for now let's look at the approach.
4 Steps to Hitting:
- Don't swing at anything you can't drive
- Swing hard
- Hit the ball out in front of the plate
- 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 95mph heat is never easy. 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.
There are plenty of things we can talk about strategy wise, but I'll leave that to you if you want to read more.
Should we have an opener? Maybe. The data isn't conclusive for the Rays, but that's because we don't have a control group. So far the places to use an opener are in situations where your 4th or 5th starter is going and you want to make it a little easier on him. The Rockies main strength is a healthy rotation, so we could use it for the 5th spot or if someone gets hurt but at this point the juice might not be worth the squeeze.
Another research paper looked at ideas to freeze opposing pitchers to get more runs in the bottom of the 1st. It also looks at ways to pull starting pitchers before they get into trouble. Both interesting, but some fuzzy science to implement at the big league level.
Here's another paper trying to predict a similar effect.
Here's another paper trying to create optimal hitter-pitcher matchups.
One idea I had then found out someone had already done the analysis before me is the "3 inning model". No more starters or relievers, everyone throws the same amount of innings. They face the lineup fewer times and throw harder. The analysis predicts a few more wins per season (which is what we are looking for), but the effects actually diminish based on how good the starting rotation is compared to the bullpen. Once again, we have a good starting rotation, so this is a fun idea to use in the case where we no longer have good starters and somehow get a knockout bullpen. Also to note, even the Astros don't something like this because they have 2 hall of famers and the strikeout king in their starting rotation. It's unnecessary and requires completely changing how you train players in your organization from top to bottom to even attempt this.
I love baseball strategies, but our task is to improve the Rockies. These are all solutions worth a look, but they aren't 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.
With that we've reached the last mile. Finally I'll be looking at individual players, their strengths and weaknesses, and suggesting some fixes that go along with player development.
Doing a quick look over our current roster we have some spots already locked up. Nolan and Trevor are a great duo on the left side, no need to mess with that. Dahl has shown to be a solid big league hitter. Chuck is still a great hitter even if he is a massive defensive liability. So that leaves us with left field, catcher, first, and second base.
Second is in good hands. As with all of our players, I'll go more in depth, but even on the surface Ryan McMahon is a power hitter with decent defense ability. In addition, the Rockies No. 1 prospect Brenden Rodgers will be back from injury as well and projects to be a solid everyday player. One if not both of them have the position covered. The other 3 positions are much harder.
First base is a 30 million dollar hole at the moment. The Desmond experiment didn't work and Murphy has also been a disappointment. But I'm actually not too worried about it. Once again I'll provide some data, but there are encouraging signs. If Rodgers and McMahon both do well, they can go 2nd and 1st. Murphy has some interesting underlying data and I believe he can be worth the money we pay him next season. There is also potential to put Chuck there. There are many options at 1st and the future looks much brighter than what we've had the last few seasons.
Left field is tricky. Tapia ran out of minor league options this year meaning the team was forced to play him. That hasn't really worked out. I'll discuss below, but Tapia just isn't built like a modern major league ballplayer. Left field is where you expect some power and Tapia doesn't have it. The Rockies do have some pop in the organization. Sam Hilliard is a giant of a man with a strikeout problem. There's Daza, Cuevas, sometimes Desmond gets stashed over there. Honestly there isn't one answer in my mind. No one is a clear favorite and there are plenty of options.
Catcher is baseball's hardest position. Tony has stepped it up as far as batting average is concerned but he has no pop. He has more triples than home runs. In fact, he only has 1 home run. Triples are mostly statistical noise anyways. Hitting the ball farther than a double is just a home run. Triples are normally the result of a ball down the right field line that gets into the corner farthest away from 3rd base. Ideally for both left/center field and catcher the Rockies wouldn't have made the stupid decisions to trade Mike Tauchman and Tom Murphy. Tauchman was an amazing minor league player that we never gave a shot because we kept playing Carlos Gonzalez and Gerado Parra and Murphy was a catcher we also never gave a chance because we wanted to play Chris Iannetta. Murphy has one of the highest slugging percentages of all catchers in baseball and we didn't even trade him! We just let him go. We got absolutely nothing in return and 3 of the wins we are looking for could be found simply by playing him for half the season. None of this is to say Tony is bad. His defense is great and he studies hard to face opposing hitters. but we need to find more wins from catcher.
We aren't going to look at everyone. Nolan and Trevor need no attention and going through an entire minor league system is tedious. We are going to focus on our trouble spots in the lineup as well as a few more interesting questions.
And now for the moment you've all been waiting for, the moment when I say we need to get rid of Ian Desmond. I don't think that's a smart idea. His numbers are terrible, yes. But the situation is far 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 74/462 in terms of average exit velocity. He is hitting the ball hard. In addition, in 2017 and 2018 his average launch angle was 0°. This season: 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. We've highlighted this is a fixable problem but in this case 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. As we've covered before, the Rockies hitters do better at home than on the road. He is 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, Ian 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.
The organization decided that Charlie should move away from center as he gets older (which is the right move), but they decided that Desmond (who is the same age) should replace him. The way WAR is calculated involves the defensive metrics like range and putouts, but it also has positional adjustments. These are sort of arbitrary. They are based on when players move between positions and how hard a certain position is for different people. Anyways, these values range from catcher (+9) to designated hitter (-15). We signed Desmond to play 1B (-9.5) which he wasn't great at but mainly he wasn't hitting well. Then he went to left (-7) which he was fine at and then went to center (+2.5). The main problem is he was moved to a harder position and every time you make a mistake at a more valuable position, that mistake counts more against you. Stashing a bad defender at 1B isn't a new idea. It is a way to limit the damage a poor defend makes. When Desmond was at first his mistakes didn't count so much against him. When he moved to center, every mistake was worth way more.
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 sucks 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. The platoon role also works well at first where Murphy is a left handed hitter. He has added pop, and while that's harder to find a spot for a National League club with no DH, it is possible to navigate to get positive value. If we DFA him, then that is $23 million in the hole guaranteed. He's not $23 million, but he can also be more than nothing.
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. Desmond is also that, but instead of 3 players with that description, we only have one. Cargo had pop, was a mentor to other players, and he struck out too much. That perfectly describes Desmond. We are saving $16 million this year by not having CarGo and Parra. We've also freed up two outfield spots on the roster to bring up some younger guys. 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. We'll often see some pictures of Rockies players taking an off day to visit a hospital but those don't happen that often. Most of the players use off days to play golf. Not Desmond. He spends every off day working with kids whether there are cameras or not. Of all that money we pay him, a significant portion goes right back into the Denver community. That might not lead to a World Series ring, but 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. If we did DFA him, I'd understand. No one could ever argue his signing was a good idea from day one, but that doesn't mean he can't be worth something to Colorado.
The other signing people are upset about is Daniel Murphy. He was given the same money as DJ LeMahieu but without the defensive capabilities.
Yes it would have been nice to keep DJ here but 3 of our top prospects were second basemen in McMahon, Hampson, and Rodgers. Therefore we didn't need to pay millions for 2B. On the other hand 1B was in trouble. Murphy was a few years older but he was a consistent hitter with playoff experience and we needed help at first. That was the place to spend money. It obviously hasn't gone as planned, but let's dig into why it didn't.
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 SLG is down, 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 47/466 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. This is a nice intersection between new and old baseball. Telling anyone that they need to hit the ball hard makes sense. 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 447/462). 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 prospect 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. We've already talked about how the Rockies have the largest outfield in baseball. This is the perfect place for one of the fastest players in the game.
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. According to Baseball Reference, Dahl has been worth a negative value in center. The Rockies center field is larger than anywhere else and very simply we need someone who can cover that ground. This is a tall task for anyone, but Hampson can do it. 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 I don't have.
The issue with finding a spot for Hampson is that infield is starting to get crowded. With McMahon, Rodgers and Murphy, Hampson doesn't have a lot of upside compared to them. 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 a pitch runner and can back anyone up in the outfield through sheer speed.
I think the Tapia experiment has come to a close. He's and 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. According to WAR he is worse than replacement 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 if he isn't workout out on the hitting side. He provides flexibility. Tapia provides no flexibility. Outside of his fielding there doesn't seem to be any upside. Desmond can work in a platoon role. Tapia hits poorly against any pitcher and he doesn't swing hard enough.
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. Tulo would tear his hamstring running out a ground ball every single season. He injured his legs every few games all the way to the end of his career.
We may not be able to count Dahl as a full season player, but we also can't count Mike Trout as a full season player. He's been injured just as often and also has missed significant time. Dahl isn't Trout (no one is), but 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 also doesn't hit the ball hard (ranks 411th/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.
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.
Some might be upset that he isn't the defender DJ was, but that's okay. Fielding counts for a few runs over the course of a season, but hitting counts for an overwhelming majority of it. The metrics even 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 2B or 3B if the worst happens and Nolan gets hurt. Rodgers can fill in at 2B or SS. Those two alone will provide the versatilely and power the lineup has been missing. If anyone goes down to injury the infield will be fine with these two prospects.
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 1B that we can't really support any more people over there. First also has plenty of 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. 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 to 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 Tony to gain some power this offseason (or sign Grandal if he's available), the Rockies spend $20 million dollars finding a solution to the road hitting problem, and I want the team overall to become more selective at the plate.
Once again we aren't looking at everyone. I did take a look at the pitches of every single pitcher on our roster in 2019, but just like the position players some like Jon Gray really don't acquire much attention. Young relievers who we don't if they'll be around in upcoming years are also not worth a whole analysis.
For the pitchers I'm going to be talking about pitch design. We are just going to be looking which pitches are good and bad, and which ones can be fixed/paired better.
To do this I'll be looking at Statcast data and how much a pitch moves compared to the average MLB pitch of the same type. This gives us an idea if the pitch is good or bad. However, we are also going to pair this with the spin rates of each of the pitches. Sometimes a guy will have great spin that would create a ton of movement but the spin efficiency is low. While this isn't exactly how it works, if a guy has a high spin but low movement, we can suggest a slight grip change and probably produce better movement. All is easier said than done, but we are trying to make improvements informed by data. If you want to know more about the science of pitch design and pitch axis Driveline has you covered.
Tyler's fastball has slightly above average rise and spin rate. It isn't overpowering but it isn't terrible. His main weapon is his cutter. This pitch has some elite spin and a well above average movement profile. This is a pretty great pitch and has a different look that the fastball. He doesn't throw a slider. Instead his breaking pitches are a circle change and a curveball.
Unlike the fastball and cutter, these are not good pitches. The curveball doesn't drop as much as an average curveball and also has no horizontal movement. For having great spin on his cutter, he has below average spin on the curveball. Because a curveball needs to be a strikeout capable pitch, I'd probably abandon it.
The circle change is significantly worse. It does have a 10mph difference between the fastball, but it neither drops or runs. It is really just flat. That's mostly because he spins it too fast. You want a lower spin on a changeup so that it drops off the table, but Anderson's doesn't.
As I was talking about before, he is a great candidate for a splitter. Having a cutter-slider combo is nice because they look very similar but the differences in movement come at the last second. It's hard for a hitter to adapt to them. A slider would also be a good pitch, but I think a more natural switch would be swapping out the changeup for a splitter. He'll get a strikeout pitch that drops off the table that also looks like the cutter and moves slightly in the horizontal direction.
The curveball might be something to pull out at some point, but I like the 3 pitch mix of a fastball, elite cutter, and splitter. If that splitter can get a few more strikeouts he'd be a much improved pitcher from the one that now has to nibble and throws a terrible changeup 25% of the time.
Freeland has a fastball with below average movement and average spin. He can locate it pretty well, he was just a big loser of the Bud Black ball down narrative this season. Basically his pitches all gained more movement this season from last year. As a result, the fastballs he was trying to get down started creeping up from an increased Magnus effect.
The slider is also a bit below average, but he also can locate it well. Same story goes for the changeup. This 3 pitch mix is something that can absolutely sustain him if he starts throwing the fastball up while pairing it with the slider/changeup down. And I don't mean up over the plate, I mean above the hands.
Kyle Freeland should never throw another curveball as long as he lives. I have no problem saying that Kyle Freeland objectively has the worst curveball in all of baseball. Some guys may have little vertical movement because they have large horizontal movement or vice versa. Everyone is different and different release positions have different results. Freeland's curveball ranks 2nd to last is vertical movement (last place moves more than average horizontally) and he ranks 2nd to last in horizontal movement. This is the worst pitch on the Rockies staff and should never be thrown again.
Freeland normally works by spotting his pitches well and getting weak contact. He doesn't have a strikeout pitch. While this can be done, it is rare for a pitcher to have long term success without a wipeout pitch. Kyle is another candidate for a splitter. His slider and changeup aren't bad, but they also don't move enough to cause a swing and miss. The slider in particular doesn't seem to have a lot of deception. Rather than a late bite it moves gradually to the plate. Adding a splitter would be give him a strikeout pitch over the changeup that could give him more than just weak contact.
Hoffman was the key piece in the Tulowitzki trade, and he is a Cy Young caliber pitcher.
He has excellent spin on a 4 seam fastball that has great running action and he can throw at 99 mph. In addition, he also has a curveball with above average spin and break. Finally he also has a changeup with excellent drop that averages 10mph lower than his fastball.
Fans might point to his huge ERA and say he is a failed baseball player, but I think he's just getting started. He has almost the exact same makeup of another starter who previously struggled but has now become one of the best pitchers in the game: Gerrit Cole.
Hoffman has a similar arm action, can throw almost as hard, has a hammer of a 12-6 curveball that actually moves more than Cole's, and has been using his pitches all wrong ever since he got to Colorado.
Gerrit Cole, upon being traded to the Astros was sat down in a room, told to abandon his sinker, throw his fastball up, and throw his curveball more. This is the exact conversation that needs to happen with Hoffman. Just to demonstrate to you how throwing his fastball up would help, here is a video of Cole getting to 300K's this season. Just look how many strikeouts he gets up in the zone above the hands. The other strikeouts come by throwing a hard breaking ball down.
To me Hoffman is Cole. A top prospect being used incorrectly with elite stuff. I've heard suggestions to trade him since he's a failed prospect, but that would be the worst thing the Rockies could do. I wouldn't be surprised if Jeff Luhnow (GM of Astros) has given the Rockies a few calls about this. If the Rockies trade Hoffman to any analytics focused team, within one season he'll be a Cy Young contender.
The walks are a little high, but he is missing a huge opportunity to strikeout entire lineups. He is also one of the hardest hit pitchers in the MLB because he keeps throwing his fastball down and it keeps riding up into the heart of the zone.
Senzatela doesn't have much going for him. In previous seasons he really only had one pitch: his fastball. In fact he still only has one pitch. Upon first look, his fastball doesn't look good. It ranks as one of the worst rising fastball in all of baseball and it is thrown at an average velocity. Upon second look it's much worse. The pitch also ranks as one of the lowest spin fastballs in the MLB. That means it isn't just a adjustment of spin axis for him, the pitch just isn't that good. The commentators have talked about it being a plus pitch, but I can't find any number to back that up. It's very hittable.
The team has tried to give him a secondary pitch, but that hasn't really worked out. The curveball may not be as bad as Freeland's (no one's is), but it has very little movement compared to average and tragically little spin.
The worst pitch is definitely the changeup the team tried to give him this year. It has the same spin rate as his fastball, doesn't drop, and he can't throw it for a strike. Other than it being slower than the fastball, there is really nothing here.
Several guys on the Rockies have gone to Driveline to work on their pitches and design new ones. I'd recommend doing something like that for Senzatela, except he already did that! There he got his best pitch which is a league average slider.
The thing is, he just doesn't seem to have the raw ingredients of a successful major league pitcher. He started with one pitch that wasn't very good, and he hasn't really found anything else that works. At the moment we don't know how to increase spin rate, so it looks like he's stuck as a mediocre pitcher with a very low ceiling. The only possibility I can think of is giving him a splitter because his spin rate is so low. But you can't throw only a splitter and slider. There needs to be something else.
The only other player I've suggested getting rid of outright is Tapia, and Senzatela is basically the pitcher version of him. There is just nothing to suggest he'll be a successful major leaguer no matter what he does. This of course sucks. He's a hard worker who has a huge desire to improve, but I'm not confident it can be done to a major league level.
This man has had his share of boos at Coors but his underlying pitches are pretty fantastic. Shaw is also included in the group that went to Driveline this offseason.
The main pitch is a cutter. It has average spin and above average lateral break. He's able to locate it well and gets a very high percentage of groundballs (51%) with it.
He also has a slider which has excellent spin and elite movement in both the vertical and horizontal directions. This is plus pitch that he really needs to throw more than 9% of the time.
He has an average curveball and below average changeup but as a relief pitcher, there is really no need for these pitches. The main reason I like him is of the veteran relievers, he's the only one to actually improve at Coors Field this year. If he throws his slider more, I think there are good things yet to come from Bryan Shaw.
McGee is another pitcher who went to Driveline this season and is another pitcher who only had one pitch his whole career.
His whole life he has thrown nothing but a fastball. At some point int 2018 he tried throwing a few sliders in games and almost all of them ended up in the seats. Unfortunately just like Senzatela, he doesn't even have a good fastball. It has below average spin and movement, average velocity, and he still doesn't have anything else to throw.
He now throws the slider more and it is better than last season, but it still has no horizontal movement.
Just like Senzatela, it doesn't look like there is much to improve here. Now we are in a position where he can't pitch at home, costs way too much money, and has below average pitches with nothing to keep hitters guessing.
I'd try to find a trade if possible. The contract is expensive but his numbers are good enough and there are teams looking for relief help. don't worry about the quality of the trade, getting almost nothing in return would be just fine. Even if the Rockies have to eat a small part of the contract it would still be worth it to move him.
Davis' repertoire is pretty good. He has an elite cutter and a curveball with a ton of movement. His problem is that he walks guys at an extremely high rate.
While his walk rate was sky high for 2019, he hasn't demonstrated the ability to throw strikes for his whole career. If you've seen him pitch at all the last 2 seasons you'll know what I'm taking about. I have no clue where the ball is going. Almost none of his pitches are actually in the strike zone. He hasn't thrown more than 40% of his pitches in the strike zone since 2016. His walk rate has always been high his whole career and is only climbing.
While he was great on the road, his walk rate was actually higher on the road this season. Maybe this is the crazy mind game he likes to play with hitters, but it seems to me that guys only get out because they want to swing.
Davis is owed so much money that I don't think anyone would take him even if you do cite his road splits. Someone might take it because it is only a 1 year deal at this point, but I'm not so sure. We can probably use him on the road, but it still seems like dumb luck at best. Moving him would free up enough money to give someone like Trevor an extension or go grab Grandal. Until then, leave him in the dugout in Denver.
We made it! We've talked about pretty much every side of the ball from hitting and pitching down to defense and pitch design. I said we were looking for 7 wins, so let's recap and see if we found them.
The most important change was to fix the road hitting problem. Even if hitters got 10% on the road (which would still be bad, but not as bad), we could get another 3 wins a season. This is no easy task, but out of any part of the game this provides us with the most upside. Other strategies that didn't result directly in wins for the 2020 season included only drafting pitchers in the first round at all costs, never signing a veteran pitcher again, extending homegrown pitchers also at all costs, trade the AA Hartford team for a higher altitude one, and if we are trading for other pitchers, trying to get them at the lowest level possible to give them more time to adjust to high altitude pitching. We also talked about how if we do have the veteran starters, we should try and limit their usage to the road. Looking over their home and away splits, that would net us about 2 more wins for the whole season (5 total). This is both because they allow so many runs at home, but the results are doubled because they actually prevent those same runs on the road. This extends to a playoff situation where someone like Marquez who does better on the road should start there, while someone like Gray (or Freeland if he has a bounce back season) should start at home. The veterans can hold a game on road, but we need to turn to homegrown players like Oberg to close it out at home.
We took a look at splitters which play well at Coors Field along with sliders and are a decent option for any pitcher current or future looking to add a pitch. In some cases it might be a good idea to abandon a below average pitch for a splitter as the spin profile can benefit certain pitchers. Three pitchers that I think would benefit are Tyler Anderson, Kyle Freeland, and Chad Bettis. Anderson and Bettis both have terrible changeups, and the splitter would give each of them a more dominant pitch to get strikeouts and even more groundballs. Freeland has league average pitches, but he needs something other than weak contact.
We looked at how the Rockies throw the fastball down a ton and get hit hard for it. Fastballs naturally play well in the top of the zone and there are several players whose talent is being wasted in the bottom of the strike zone. It's almost impossible to estimate how many wins this contributes, but with the reduction in home runs my estimate for run prevention might be 2-3 wins. I can't simulate a whole season and just change the height of fastballs, so take this with a grain of salt. We won't count the fastballs to our totals, but this would be a huge positive change for the team. This is so critical that Bud Black's job is dependent on it.
Going along with using the veterans on the road, we shouldn't focus on who gets the most saves but rather who can keep a ballgame close when it matters. The pitchers are the same but aiming for saves is chasing the wrong target. The closer will still get saves, but that shouldn't be the only motivation.
The Desmond situation is complicated, but if he is platooned correctly and stops playing valuable defensive positions he can turn a 2 loss season into perhaps a 1 win season. FanGraphs already had him at 0 wins for next season, so we'll say that we gained 1 win from this switch (6 total). Similar to Desmond, we looked at a quick way to determine if Daniel Murphy can be a valuable member of the team next season without having to run him out there to no avail. If he isn't hitting the ball harder next season we can trade him and put Charlie at 1B. This also opens the doors to getting an outfielder on the free agent marker, a place that Rockies have really needed help the last few seasons.
We looked at how an arrangement of the outfield can provide more value. FanGraphs has Hilliard producing -2 WAR next season and Tapia producing 1.5. Hilliard will almost certainly be better than that. They have him at a negative baserunning and fielding value, both of which are unlikely given that his average sprint speed is the same as Ronald Acuna Jr. It's also hard for someone who had nearly a .900 OPS in the minors to be a negative hitter. He does strike out often, but if you hit enough homers it's easy to make up for it. At the same time, there is almost no way Tapia can contribute 1.5 wins with his poor hitting. By designating Tapia for assignment and going with Hillard, we probably won't gain anything as far as FanGraphs is concerned, but it's a better move for the team. By having Hampson as a backup (or a starter if he hits well), we also won't lose nearly as many runs (and wins) than slower options in center. Dahl should stay in left, and even if he doesn't play 150 games he projects to provide 1.5 WAR next season.
We want to give Tony some pop. If the team can take some initiative with him during the offseason, that change alone can add 1.5-2 wins simply because catcher is such a valuable position (7-8 total). If Tony can change his swing and hit 10 home runs next season, we'll be one step closer to the playoffs. In the event Grandal becomes available, spending some money on him this offseason could add even more value giving us 3-4 extra wins (9-10 total).
With our pitching staff, we might have to let Senzatela go. He doesn't have dominant stuff and he doesn't have command of a large enough repertoire to be a big league starter. We also looked at possible trading McGee and Davis which would give more flexibility in the bullpen. But even if we can't, the 2 added wins still stand by relegating them to the road.
Adding in our possible 2-3 wins from fastball changes, we are looking at improving our 83 win projection to 92-94 wins. It may be hard to predict, but even without the 2-3 wins from altering fastball placement that pretty much guarantees a playoff spot (in the NL at least) all by only working with the players we already have. There is a little potential to go grab a free agent, but it also might not be necessary.
But wait! You got all the way here and you didn't say someone should be fired? What about Bridich? What about Black? Didn't you say he was harming the team? My answer is that I am not the owner or the GM. If you are one of the 30 people who get to be a big league GM, you want them the be the best. I don't think Bridich has been the best, but no GM makes perfect decisions and it's hard for me to sit here and say someone else would certainly do it better at this point. Bud Black certainly needs to get with the program, but the Rockies in general need to get with the program. Until that happens, no one person can share the blame. The Rockies need a better organization culture in my opinion but that doesn't mean everything must go. I might be that Bridich is the largest negative factor in the organization's culture. It could be Bud Black. It could be the entire front office. I couldn't tell you who needs to go without being there myself. What I can say is they often don't bring in outside help and they aren't planning on it this offseason. I keep up to date on data analyst positions opening in baseball and the Rockies are conspicuously not among the teams looking for help. In some respects the Rockies need to change the way they do things, in some respects they've done really well. We'll see what direction they take. I think they got the team close enough to where a few key decisions can turn the tide.
If anyone ever reaches the end of the piece, thank you for sticking with me. I really want my team to do well and I hope some of these suggestions can be incorporated into a winning ballclub. If anyone reads it is a different question altogether.