Four of Colorado’s starters—German Márquez, Jon Gray, Kyle Freeland and Antonio Senzatela—earned high praise early in the season, scoring the title ‘four horsemen’. Their combined 2.54 ERA through 14 games helped lead the Rockies to an 11-3 record.
A fifth starter—Ryan Castellani—joined the mix with one of the hottest pitching debuts in Rockies history.
A seven-game losing streak can silence all facets of a baseball team, but the Rockies’ starting rotation is still making more noise than over half the league in 2020. If they can keep things up, they will hold the best starting rotation ERA since 2009.
The ace: German Márquez has been great, minus one outing
Márquez’s 4.38 ERA is better than it was last year—and it is the second highest in the rotation.
He was hit heavily in his last start against the Astros, allowing 10 earned runs in five innings. Márquez’s ERA would be 2.25 without that appearance, which would be the best in the rotation.
9.7 percent of Márquez’s fly balls have turned into home runs, compared to 20.1 percent a year ago. Such a figure can explain his 3.13 FIP in 2020, a number that stands as his career best. His 1.27 WHIP on the year shows that he’s done a good job limiting traffic on the base paths, which bodes well if that fly-ball-to-home-run ratio regresses back to his 2019 figure.
He’ll look ahead to the Diamondbacks (8/25), Padres (8/30) and Dodgers (9/4 or 5). Arizona has the fourth-worst wOBA in the NL, which could help Márquez build some momentum after a tough Houston outing. It would be timely before he faces the NL’s 2nd and 4th best wOBA.
The revived left-hander: Kyle Freeland is back
Freeland’s 2.87 ERA is the best of all five starters, and it rivals the 2.85 he held in 2018. He is two years removed from finishing fourth in NL Cy Young voting, and this year he holds better figures in WHIP (1.16) and ERA+ (193).
2020 has brought a new-look Freeland with different pitch selection compared to previous years. Prior to 2020, Freeland would normally throw over 50 percent fastballs. This year he is down to 28.3 percent, with sizable increases in slider and changeup usage.
FanGraphs pitch values suggest Freeland’s ‘best’ pitch in 2020 has been his changeup. He’s thrown it twice as often as he did in 2018.
His FIP has inflated from 3.67 in 2018 to 4.48 in 2020, but his fly ball percentage this year is also the lowest it has ever been. FIP is often referenced as a predictive statistic for future performance, but his ability to keep the ball out of the air this year could be a predictor in the opposite direction. Doing so at Coors Field could be more important than anywhere else.
The breakout arm: Antonio Senzatela’s hot start
After posting a 6.71 ERA in 2019, Senzatela has responded with a 3.96 so far in 2020. It was 2.90 before Sunday, right next to Freeland for the best in the rotation.
The Denver Post’s Kyle Newman addressed in mid-July how Senzatela had lost 15 pounds over the offseason, and was primed to be a “pillar” on the back end of the rotation. His best outing of the year came on August 18 against one of his toughest opponents, as he held the Astros scoreless through eight frames.
Senzatela’s fly ball rate has increased by about seven percent in a year, which reasons his 4.03 xFIP far higher than his 3.03 FIP. Few of his fly balls have turned into home runs; if such a trend can continue, Senzatela’s 2020 successes could be far more likely.
Two of Senzatela’s next three starts appear to be against San Diego, and they lead the NL in home runs. This will be a big test for the right-hander.
Ryan Castellani’s work: best for innings one-through-four.
Two starts in and Ryan Castellani couldn’t have began his career much better. He allowed just a single run in his first 8 2⁄3 innings of work.
His third career outing was the first time he worked into the sixth inning, however, and the damage was done late. The Astros chased him for five earned over 5 2⁄3 innings, and four of those runs came after the fourth inning.
In his debut, he no-hit the Mariners through four complete innings. In his next start, he allowed one hit in the first four innings against the Rangers. In the Houston start that followed, he allowed two hits in the first four frames.
His sample size is small, but it appears Castellani is as good as anybody up until the 70-pitch mark. It is representative of how he was used in Triple-A Albuquerque last year: he made 10 starts, averaging 4.31 innings per start.
It will be interesting to see how Bud Black manages his work deeper into games, particularly with a bullpen that ranks 20th in ERA. As for now, one can remain optimistic that Castellani’s continued presence in the rotation will help accustom his arm to increased workloads. After his performance on Monday night, one can be optimistic he can continue to post some zeros after the fourth inning.
The unknown: Jon Gray has the highest ERA among starters
Jon Gray’s current figures for 2020 are on pace for career highs in ERA, FIP and xFIP. His strikeout percentage is about half of what it was last season.
With looming free agency in 2022, Gray could be under some pressure to perform.
If a start on August 10 against the Diamondbacks were erased, he would have a 4.33 ERA through 27 frames, instead of a 6.23 over 30 1⁄3 . His pitch mix has seen a serious uptick in changeup usage (from 2.9 percent to 15.3 in a year), and his changeup pitch value has hit a career low.
Gray had the “10th-best” slider in baseball last year, but its pitch value has plummeted this year. If the pitch is able to return to the form it was last season, Gray could be looking at a sizable turnaround in the second half.
Don’t expect the rotation to change—at least for now
Should the Rockies look to acquire a pitcher at the August 31 trade deadline, they would likely invest in a reliever rather than a starter, as our very own Ben Kouchnerkavich pointed out on Monday morning.
Right-hander Jeff Hoffman entered spring training in March as a potential starter at the back of the rotation. Hoffman has instead made seven appearances out of the bullpen this year, as Castellani has taken over the reins as the fifth starter.
Hoffman currently holds a 5.25 ERA in 12 innings of work, but one outing skews those figures. On August 19, Hoffman failed to record a full inning of work and allowed five earned runs to the Astros. Without that showing, he would be holding a 1.59 ERA over 11 1⁄3 innings.
This could imply that a sixth starter is already waiting in the wings; an injured Chi Chi Gonzalez looms as well. As the bullpen currently holds the 10th-worst ERA, Hoffman and Gonzalez could be needed as relief options too.
After the starting rotation showed for the worst ERA in baseball last year, the collective body of work for starters in 2020 has shined brighter than many could have imagined. In the midst of a lengthy losing streak, it could be those same starters that anchor the Rockies back to their early team successes.