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Rockies 2019 season in review: Lowered expectations

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It was a bad season in isolation, and it doesn’t inspire confidence for the future

On July 16th the Rockies lost to the Giants at home 8-4. It was a demoralizing defeat, as the Rockies scored three runs in the ninth inning to tie the game and send it to extra innings, only to see Wade Davis and Bryan Shaw allow four runs in the 10th inning. The game also broke a third place tie the Rockies had with the Giants, and it sent the Rockies to the bottom of the NL West standings. Since then, the Rockies haven’t been higher than fourth place in the division.

That loss against the Giants was two and a half months ago. It’s been a long time since anyone had any reasonable expectations for the 2019 Rockies to compete. Because of that, it’s hard to recall just how optimistic many of us were before the season began. In Purple Row’s pre-season staff predictions, seven of the 11 staffers predicted the Rockies would win between 89 and 93 games. The lowest win total prediction was 82 wins. That pessimist predicted 11 more wins than the Rockies’ actual, miserable, 2019 record of 71-91.

It wasn’t hard to justify the hopes. The Rockies had made the postseason the previous two years, albeit both times by way of the second Wild Card. Still, the Rockies were a game away from taking the division in 2018. The starting rotation looked like it would be the team’s major strength, with a solid and young top four. The bullpen felt like it would be fine, and while the offense was mostly returning from the previous season with the minor addition of Daniel Murphy, it also felt like it would be okay.

It’s worth asking what we might have missed that should have tempered some of the pre-season optimism. The answer is pretty simple. We should have paid more attention to the Rockies’ Pythagorean record in 2018. The Pythagorean record, which is based on run differential, is used as a more accurate measure of a team’s overall talent than pure wins and losses. The reason places like Baseball Reference track Pythagorean record, and why run differential is institutionalized on MLB.com’s standings page, is because it works. While it shouldn’t be viewed as gospel, it’s foolish to dismiss it as unimportant or uninformative. It’s a better predictor of success than intuition and hope.

The Rockies’ Pythagorean record in 2018 was 85-78 — not bad, but not good enough to make the postseason. The Rockies played a little over their heads in 2018 and returned basically the same team to the field in 2019. That brings us to the other thing we maybe should have paid more attention to. Prior to the 2019 season two major projection systems, FanGraphs’ ZiPS and Baseball Prospectus’s PECOTA, suggested that the Rockies would be fine but on the fringes of playoff contention. ZiPS predicted that the Rockies would finish 79-83 and finish in third place in the NL West, while PECOTA projected the Rockies to finish in second place at 85-77.

The season turned out considerably worse than both of these projections. Still, it’s important to keep them in mind when thinking about the season that was and looking forward to 2020, because if the Rockies once again return with basically the same roster, it will be difficult to justify the same high expectations we brought to 2019.

Here’s how we got to this place.

The fall, and rise, and fall of the 2019 Rockies

There were three parts to the Rockies season. After winning the first two games of the season, the Rockies lost 12 of their next 13 games. At the time I wrote that while the Rockies dug themselves into a hole, it didn’t necessarily mean the season was lost. It just meant that they had less margin of error going forward, and that they needed to start winning games immediately.

And, wouldn’t you know it, that’s exactly what they started to do. After the 3-12 start, the Rockies were one of the best teams in baseball for two months. They went 37-22 from April 14 to June 20. The team’s record was 40-34 at that point. They had, in fact, dug themselves out of the hole.

But there were signs during that stretch that the team would not be able to keep it up. A lot of fans, myself included, didn’t pay enough attention to those signs and assumed things would even out. The Rockies were winning because they had five position players hitting somewhere between All-Star and MVP quality, while the rest of the lineup was, at worst, average. This fortunate alignment masked and compensated for the problems with the pitching staff. German Márquez and Jon Gray were pitching well, but nobody else was.

The reason this was easy to ignore at the time was because the pitching was the team’s strength in 2018, and it looked like it would be again in 2019. The offense, on the other hand, was the problem in 2018. It was easy to tell yourself that the offense would take a small step back while the pitching would take a larger step forward. If those things could start happening with the team five or so games above .500, things will work out.

Instead, the Rockies got worse in all aspects of the game and turned into one of the worst teams in baseball. After climbing to six games above .500 by going 37-22, the Rockies finished the season 31-57, the third worst record in baseball, and were outscored by 146 runs. The record was only better than only the Marlins and Tigers, both 100 loss teams.

From that point onward the Rockies pitching staff posted a 5.93 team ERA, easily the worst in baseball. So the pitching didn’t correct itself. And the offense from June 21 to the end of the season had a wRC+ of 82, the third worst in baseball. So the offense got a lot worse, as well.

It wasn’t really a “tale of three seasons” for the Rockies. Even while they were winning, they were compensating for major weaknesses that would sink the team.

What went wrong

That the Rockies weren’t good in any aspect of the game is an explanation for why the season was so bad, but we can pinpoint it a little more.

Injuries didn’t play a role in the Rockies not being competitive, but they probably played a role in why they finished with a win total in the low 70s rather than the low 80s. Three of the teams five starters — Tyler Anderson, German Márquez, and Jon Gray — lost significant playing time due to injury. But the Rockies only shut down Márquez and Gray after the season was lost. Similarly, the Rockies best reliever, Scott Oberg, had his season ended in mid-August. It was an early season end for Oberg, but the season was already over for the Rockies.

On the position player side, David Dahl suffered the most significant injury. He suffered a high ankle sprain and was lost for the season. But the Rockies were eight games below .500 and in last place when that happened. The Rockies also lost Brendan Rodgers for the year, but he still hadn’t figured out major league pitching at that point and wasn’t really a contributor. Besides those injuries, Daniel Murphy and Charlie Blackmon spent some time on the injured list, but overall the team was healthy. Nolan Arenado, Trevor Story, and Charlie Blackmon all logged over 600 plate appearances.

Rather than injury, it was ineffectiveness and a severe lack of depth that doomed the Rockies.

Let’s start with the rotation. Márquez and Gray are solid at the top, but it’s extremely weak after them. The only other starter we can pencil in now for 2020 is Kyle Freeland, who very well might return to his 2018 form, but I don’t see any way to look at his 6.73 ERA and 6.00 FIP and feel good about how that will go. Peter Lambert had a rough rookie season, but he still might be called upon to enter the rotation come April of next year, especially since Tyler Anderson won’t be ready for the start of the season. Neither Jeff Hoffman nor Antonio Senzatela look like reliable major leaguers, and Tim Melville and Chi Chi González aren’t solutions to any problems the Rockies have.

On offense, the Rockies are, as we’ve been hearing more and more lately, top heavy. Nolan and Trevor are the team’s stars, with Charlie and Dahl are the second tier potent bats. Again, it’s pretty shaky beneath them. Ryan McMahon showed some progress throughout the season, as did Garrett Hampson and Sam Hilliard. I’m eager to see how Hilliard does in non-September baseball, but he looks like at least a good fourth outfielder. The same can be said about Raimel Tapia, although that somehow feels less complimentary.

This makeup, though, goes back to the question that we have to come back to again and again. There’s a lot to like about all of these players, but are they the types of players a team can rely on if they want to compete for the postseason? After watching this whole season, I’m not convinced. In all aspects of the game, the Rockies need help.

Silver linings

There were very few emergent players in 2019. The most positive development from the pitching side as easily Gray, who seems to have made himself into a reliable rotation arm. There were no breakouts on offense, aside from maybe putting up good numbers again for a little bit longer than he did in 2018. Tony Wolters got off to a nice start with the bat, but he ended up as one of the worst hitters in baseball. He managed to go the entire season without a single barrel, according to Statcast.

You have to look to the bullpen to find the silver linings of 2019, and even then it has to be contextualized by Wade Davis’s disastrous season. The bullpen problems allowed Oberg, Jairo Díaz, and Carlos Estévez log more high leverage innings. There’s always a reliever caveat with expectations, but right now I’d feel pretty good about those three being in charge of late inning work in 2020.

2020 outlook

There are just two things I’m confident about regarding the 2020 season. First, if the Rockies don’t make impactful additions to the roster, they won’t be set up to succeed. They’d only compete for a Wild Card if a lot of things go right for them while a lot of other things go wrong for others, which is sort of what happened in 2018. They need at least one, and possibly two more reliable starters, and upgrades in the outfield, first base, and catcher. Because this would require that the Rockies move on from some of the players currently on the roster, I’m not particularly confident it will happen. But I am confident it needs to happen for 2020 to be a competitive year.

The other thing I’m confident about is that 2020 will be a crucial year in team history. After the 2021 season, Nolan Arenado will be able to opt out of his contract, and Trevor Story and Jon Gray will be free agents. They could lose three of their five best players. The Rockies need to build a competitive team in 2020 so that 2021 can build even further ahead of a potential team transition. If they don’t make any roster additions this offseason and 2020 turns into another non-competitive season, the Rockies will need to enter full rebuild mode.

It’s strange to write that sentence given what I thought I knew a year ago. It’s not at all strange given what has happened over the last six months.