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The Rockies are letting it slide

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Colorado Rockies news and links for Wednesday, May 26, 2021

That fastball usage is at near all-time lows in the big leagues is something we all know pretty well. That, of course, means more breaking and off-speed stuff, more of those frisbee-looking pitches that make us fans wonder “how does anyone ever hit a baseball?” and cause more and more whiffs and slow walks back to the dugout.

This, of course, is old news. Since pitch types have been tracked starting in 2002, the percentage of fastballs (four-seam and sinkers) has steadily gone down from 64.4% in ‘02 to just 50.9% so far in 2021. And the pitch that is the mastermind behind that sharp decrease? The slider. Sliders were thrown 12.1% of the time in 2002, compared to 19.8% in 2021. They’re now the second-most used pitch in the Majors, well ahead of curveballs (9.8%), changeups and splitters (13.1%), and their little brother, the cutter (6.4%).

The slider is a great pitch. Its tight spin, late movement, and high velocity compared to most breaking and off-speed pitches make it a formidable swing and miss offering to pair with a hard heater. It also has a unique spin and movement profile that happens to fit phenomenally well at Denver altitude, as shown in this Fangraphs article. And it seems that the Rockies are aware of that, because they’re currently throwing more sliders than any other team in the big leagues, and it’s not even close. The Rockies already threw a lot of sliders last year (24.7%, fourth-most in the Majors), and they’re kept going that route:

That graphic shows you the change in slider usage from 2020 to 2021, ranked team by team. As you can see, the Rockies have had the fifth-highest increase in slider usage among all teams, at just a tick or two over 5%. The biggest difference between the Rockies and the other four teams with heavily increased slider usage? All of them were average or below average in slider usage in 2020. The Rays were 14th, the Giants 22nd, the Astros 25th, and the Cubs dead last.

The Rox have clearly doubled down on the slider. 29.9% of all the pitches Rockies hurlers have tossed this season have been sliders, a number that is 3.2% higher than the next biggest slider enthusiasts, the Tampa Bay Rays (26.7%). In fact, that gap is almost as much as the difference between the Rays and the sixth-placed Marlins (23.3%). And it’s not a result of newcomers, because the rotation has mostly remained intact. All returning starters are throwing more slide pieces this year, and Austin Gomber is throwing it a lot more than he did in St. Louis.

Here’s Germán Márquez...

Baseball Savant

Now Jon Gray...

Baseball Savant

Antonio Senzatela...

Baseball Savant

As mentioned, Gomber’s slider has now become his main secondary...

Baseball Savant

Even Chi Chi González has seen a drastic increase.

Baseball Savant

This is surely intentional from the Rockies. Such a drastic and widespread change can’t be happening by pure luck. Is it working? Well, in theory, yes. Sliders thrown by Rockies pitchers this season have a .295 xwOBA against, solidly better than the .312 mark from a year ago, and they have already created a +5.5 in Statcast’s Run Value stat, well ahead of 2020’s +2.3, and in about 200 less pitches. After last year’s Rockies team was the worst strikeout pitching staff since integration (no, seriously, they were. They had the lowest K%+ of any staff since 1947), this year’s group has recovered a bit on that department, even if they still struggle to put batters away.

Really, the reason I wrote all of this is simple: this franchise is infamous for being directionless, and it looks like they’ve found a pitch usage philosophy they’re convinced will work. Time will tell, but conviction is at least something. Right?

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Trevor Story’s rental price, Cubs’ and Twins’ deadline approach, OF help for Indians: Bowden’s MLB trades mailbag | The Athletic ($)

Teams don’t let go of their entire future for two or three month rental players anymore, so lowering expectations seems like the smart thing to do. Bowden’s expected return for Story from an average farm system would be a top-five and a top-15 prospect, as well as a lower-tier MLB player. Will the Rockies pull the painful but smart trigger? We’ll have to wait and see.

LaTroy, Castilla to manage in Futures Game | MLB.com

That’s a couple of good names, huh? LaTroy Hawkins and Vinny Castilla have been announced as the managers for the 2021 Futures Game that will take place July 11th at Coors Field during this year’s MLB All-Star weekend.

In The Farm

All four affiliates saw action yesterday:

That is not a typo. The ‘Topes got trounced by the OKC Dodgers to the point where it’s hard to find positives outside of No. 3 PuRP Ryan Vilade, who went 2-for-4. Wipe this one from your memory and think about the next game, fellas.

Win number six of the season for the Yard Goats came thanks to 5.2 innings of one-run ball courtesy of hurler Frank Duncan and a balanced offensive attack. Eight of the nine starters for Hartford recorded at least one hit and the one who didn’t, Elehuris Montero (nº 7 Rockies prospect according to MLB Pipeline), walked three times and scored once. A good bounce-back effort by the Yard Goats on the road after getting swept at home by the Somerset Patriots in their last series.

That’s a lot of strikeouts. Indians batters K’d 17 times against Emeralds pitching on the series opener Tuesday night. Nº 12 PurP Brenton Doyle and LF Hunter Stovall provided all four hits for Spokane, with Doyle going 2-for-3 with a walk, a double, and a triple. The lineup’s struggles seemed to extend to former first rounder and Nº 30 PurP Riley Pint, who gave up a couple of earned runs in his one frame of work and now carries a 4.70 ERA on the season. Worth pointing out, just for fun, that Nº 36 PurP Jack Blomgren had himself a unique night. The 22-year-old shortstop went 0-for-0... with three walks and three stolen bases without getting caught once.

It was a pitcher’s duel for the Fresno Grizzlies, as Nº 17 PurP Sam Weatherly and 66ers lefty Brent Killam combined for 11.1 innings of shutout ball Tuesday night. Weatherly, a first-year pro out of Clemson, struck out 10 batters through 5.1 IP and allowed just three hits, though he did also walk four hitters, and the bullpen was terrific, helping Fresno improve to 12-7, which is the best record among Rockies affiliates.

Nº 8 PurP Drew Romo has gotten off to a slow start with the bat, with just a .220/.255/.360 slash in his first 13 games as a pro, but the highly touted catcher impressed behind the plate yet again, catching two would-be thiefs and showing some good pop times:

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