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Are the Rockies quietly building a culture of analytics?

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Reporting suggests perhaps they are

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It’s old news that Rockies are the only MLB team in the 2020 off season that did not sign a free agent to an MLB-guaranteed contract. This, coupled with the Rockies’ miserable 2019, has led to a wave of grim 2020 predictions. After all, they are essentially the same team that they were in 2019. But recent reporting leaves a trail of breadcrumbs that suggests perhaps the Rockies are quietly trying to improve their players rather than relying solely on Guys Playing Better (GBP) (h/t Purple Dinosaur Podcast).

Back in a December Reddit AMA, Nick Groke noted this:

What Rockies players really need from an evaluation of advanced metrics is some insight into how to minimize the effects of playing in and out of elevation. They are all ears on that one. They’d love somebody to help them in that way. But nobody has ever figured that out very thoroughly. . . .

For now, as several players have expressed to me off the record in regard to advanced stats, they would like to know how to be better at Coors Field in elevation over the long haul. The grand mystery.

We know that the Rockies analytics department is small. In December 2018, Eno Sarris reported the Rockies had 4 employees devoted to development. (By comparison, the Dodgers lead the league with 20.) In fairness, that was more than two years ago, and the Rockies have perhaps made some changes since then. Certainly, high-tech cameras are now a regular part of the Rockies’ development system, which is a shift from Adam Ottavino’s experience as recently as two years ago.

But consider these additional changes:

The Rockies hired Steve Merriman — Merriman is now the Rockies’ Minor League pitching co-coordinator and brings with him an understanding of pitching, technology, and teaching experience. In other words, Merriman signals a systemwide change in the organization’s approach to data. (It’s also a very Rockies move given that Merriman has a history with the team.)

The Rockies promoted Doug Bernier — A former Rockies scout, Bernier has been promoted to Major League Data and Game-Plan Coordinator. Bernier’s job is to mediate between the R&D staff and the coaches and players. He sees his role as facilitating improved communication. This suggests that the team understand that having data isn’t enough without effective communication. Given Bernier’s background and history with the Rockies, he seems a natural fit for this role.

Charlie Blackmon took the lead — In the first of a two-part series, Nick Groke reported that during the Rockies’ July series with the Yankees, a frustrated Blackmon called a meeting with the coaching staff to address the Coors Field Hangover. In an attempt to adjust more quickly to playing away from Coors, Blackmon adopted a new strategy for the first day of road-trip batting practice:

He started using a pitching machine that could duplicate pitches with high spin rates and velocity, a three-rotor machine he could tune to mimic that night’s pitcher. If Blackmon was set to face Clayton Kershaw at Dodger Stadium, he could tune the machine for 12-6 curveballs and deep-diving sliders. If it was Madison Bumgarner in San Francisco, he could dial up sweeping fastballs.

Blackmon noticed an immediate change, and his xSLG, according to Groke, went from a pre-NYY of 0.405 to a post-NYY of 0.494. He was soon followed by Nolan Arenado, Trevor Story, Ryan McMahon, and Tony Wolters, with Garrett Hampson seeing the most dramatic improvement (0.254 to 0.448). In January, the Rockies’ minor league coaches attended a hitting summit in Denver and began implementing Blackmon’s strategy throughout the system.

As Groke reports, “Everybody’s got to buy in,” Colorado hitting coach Dave Magadan said. “And it can’t be a few guys here and a few guys there and then kind of do your own thing.”

What this indicates is player-led cultural change. The fact that it’s player driven is significant. A few years ago, I attended a conference on implementing outcomes-based assessment. Experts stressed repeatedly the importance of creating a “culture of assessment,” and that cultural changes are most effective when they are initiated from within and generate organic buy-in. That’s what Charlie Blackmon has started.

In Grant Brisbee’s very fine essay on the Rockies in Baseball Prospectus: The Essential Guide to the 2020 Season, he articulates the challenges that come with playing baseball at elevation: “[T]he Rockies are forced to figure out a new branch of physics on the fly. They have to conquer something that’s just as hard to conquer as baseball at the same time they’re supposed to be conquering baseball.” Blackmon and his teammates are trying to do just that.

On one hand, this seems like a failure on the part of the front office. Shouldn’t the analytics department have addressed this? On the other, maybe it’s better for the players to take the lead in creating a solution. After all, who knows Coors Field better than the players?

I’ve been fairly critical about the Rockies’ lack of action during the off season, but recent developments suggest that maybe we will be pleasantly surprised in 2020.