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The Rockies need some action guys

It was all about power. Then MLB changed the baseball.

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Let’s begin with some recent history.

Remember back in a miserable 2021 when the Rockies had the worst offense in baseball (a wRC+ of 82) and Bill Schmidt committed to bringing in some power to address this weakness? He signed Kris Bryant, traded for Randal Grichuk, and extended CJ Cron, who had shown himself to be comfortable at Coors Field.

Of course, the Rockies also hoped that Ryan McMahon and Brendan Rodgers would become more consistent, that Charlie Blackmon would have one more good year left, and that Sam Hilliard would finally become the hitter they always believed he’d be. But the power trifecta of Bryant, Cron, and Grichuk seemed enough to carry the team while the others sorted things out.

San Francisco Giants v Colorado Rockies Photo by C. Morgan Engel/Getty Images

The philosophy seemed sound.

Given that the Rockies play half their games in a hitter’s paradise, it only made sense to maximize offensive potential and take advantage of a juiced (if variable) baseball. The Blake Street Bombers would be back, and perhaps the Rockies could slug their way into a wildcard.

But then that well laid plan went awry: MLB deadened the baseball.

Consider the 2022 Baseball

In the offseason, MLB informed all teams of its intention to deaden the ball, hoping to reduce the flight of balls by 1 to 2 feet and thus decrease the number of home runs.

As Mike Axisa and Dayn Perry reported on May 6, “MLB wants more contact and more balls in play, and more action on the field in general. The thinking is that, by deadening the ball and making home runs harder to hit, batters will instead focus on contact.” (Remember that phrase “action on the field.”)

So far, MLB’s initiative has been successful. In 2022, teams are only averaging 4.04 runs per game, the lowest since 1980 when the average was 4.00 per game. In addition, the average distance on barreled balls has decreased by six feet this year. (ESPN has a great analysis here.)

Notice the contrast:

  • April 2022: .231 BA, .675 OPS .137 ISO
  • April 2021: .232 .BA, 699 OPS, .157 ISO

To be fair, the weather in April (and some of May) was cold, and balls will fly further when the days get warmer. Still, Rob Arthur has found that the drag on baseballs has increased in 2022, hence the lowered number of runs. So when we’re deeper into the season, even though the baseballs will probably fly better than they did in April, they’ve still been designed to fly less far than they have in the past few years.

Further complicating matters is the addition of humidors in each ballpark, an effect not yet fully understood. Earlier this month, ESPN reported, “Home runs per fly ball have declined 0.7% in humidor holdovers, while dropping 2.4% in the new humidor parks, which means that the number of at-bats per home runs has barely changed in the holdovers, but in the new ones, it has taken an average of 13.1 more ABs to hit a home run.” (Patrick Saunders has written a very good article about this topic.)

Short version: The Rockies put all their chips on hitting for power at the very moment MLB decided to change the game.

CJ Cron is okay with the move: “They have deadened the balls a little bit,” he said. “But as power hitters, we would almost prefer that. I mean, when small shortstops are hitting 20-25 homers, it’s taking away some of the jobs that (power hitters) used to have….Plus, I think the ball is a little bit fairer nowadays, but we just have to stick with one, no matter which one we choose.”

Still, he’s noticed the change.

“I’ve definitely been surprised by some balls we’ve had as a team that haven’t really gone anywhere,” Cron said, “the other teams as well.”

A deadened baseball is not the scenario the Rockies planned for — and the numbers show it. Right now, the Rockies have hit 40 home runs (12 of them hit by Cron), which is 18th in baseball. (The Yankees lead with 63.)

Enter: The Action Guys

Rather than players hitting bombs, MLB wants to move to a game they believe will keep fans engaged, one that values actions and players getting on base more than players who excel at the three true outcomes.

I’ve been thinking about a piece Ken Rosenthal recently published: “Rays’ Wander Franco Can Spearhead the Action Revolution that MLB so Badly Desires.

Here are the key takeaways. According to Rosenthal, MLB is craving “action guys.” He explains, “For lack of a better phrase, that’s how I would describe the high-contact, extra-base threats who embody the kind of excitement Major League Baseball wants to restore to the game.” These are the anti-three true outcomes players (guys who either hit a bomb, walk, or strike out). MLB wants “action on the field.”

Rosenthal provides this definition of an “action guy”:

To qualify as an action guy, a hitter must meet only two standards. First, he must strike out in fewer than 15 percent of his plate appearances. Second, he must produce an isolated power percentage (extra bases per at-bat) of greater than .20. I thought about incorporating a baserunning measure, but at least at this early stage of the season, it might have eliminated José Ramírez, who generally rates quite well as a baserunner — and otherwise is a model action guy.

The categories are, Rosenthal admits, a bit arbitrary, but it’s easy to see why he’s selected these metrics. In case you were wondering who best meets the criteria, Rosenthal cites these examples: In 2021, José Ramirez, Juan Soto, Jose Altuve, and Nolan Arenado. So far in 2022, MLB has seven qualifiers: Ramírez, Arenado, Wander Franco, Anthony Rizzo, Tim Anderson, J.P. Crawford, and Alex Bregman.

If power is, in fact, going to be less valuable and we’ve entered the season of the action guy, let’s see how the Rockies stack up in the “Action Guys Metrics” using FanGraphs data as of Wednesday.

Source: FanGraphs

I’ve sorted the numbers by K%. Remember: To meet Rosenthal’s standards, a player needs to have a K% of under 15% and an ISO of above .20.

Serven hasn’t had enough plate appearances, so let’s keep him out of the discussion.

Daza and Iglesias both meet the K% standard while Charlie Blackmon and Connor Joe just barely exceed it, so let’s add them to the group. When looking at ISO, though, just one Rockie — CJ Cron — exceeds the minimum. Only Charlie Blackmon comes close to meeting both criteria with a K% of 15.2% and an ISO of .176. Connor Joe is the next closest.

So the Rockies really don’t have an action guy. Then again, most teams don’t. However, when a team like the Rockies is trying to not have the worst offense in baseball, it needs every advantage it can get — in this case, maybe, an action guy. And maybe Charlie Blackmon or Connor Joe will emerge as that guy, but that’s also not how this team is built.

Colorado Rockies v Detroit Tigers - Game Two Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images

Since the deadened baseball is encouraging small ball, it’s going to be important for the Rockies to have players get on base and steal bases. However, in 2022, the Rockies have stolen only eight bases — Connor Joe leads the Rockies with two — tying them with the Tigers for the fewest stolen bases in ranking baseball. (St. Louis leads the league with 36 stolen bases.) The Rockies can get players on base, but they’ve been less successful at bringing them home, which is the play rewarded by the 2022 baseball.

It’s a discouraging proposition.

Final Thoughts

So far, the Rockies’ offense is not working,

They have only won four of their last 12 games, including a 10-game homestand. In the offseason, the Rockies attempted to address their issues.

Now, they need some action.