Investigating what went wrong with the 2014 Rockies is the pursuit of a misleading question. Asking “what went wrong?” assumes that things were going right. In the context of the 2014 season, that likely means using the team’s high point, 22-14 on May 7, as a point of departure. Based pre-season projections by non-sentient programs, as well as predictions by sentient baseball analysts, however, the Rockies are playing about as well as expected. FanGraphs, Baseball Prospectus, Beyond the Box Score, and ESPN’s MLB Forecast Panel (of which Richard Bergstrom and I participated) all predicted that the Rockies would finish in last place in 2014. Richard and I were among the more optimistic. We predicted the team would win 80 games. ESPN luminary Dan Szymborski responded that our forecast was not unreasonable, but unlikely. Still, the Rockies play through the beginning of May persuaded some observers to anticipate that the Rockies would be competitive. A search through my archive of tweets shows that I was among this group. We can find another example in Grantland’s Jonah Keri. Before the season, Keri predicted that the Rockies would finish in last place. But by May 13, he counted the team among the best in the league. This is notable because Keri is one of the more restrained and skeptical analysts. His most recent account has the Rockies among the five worst teams in baseball.
This post is one part description and one part explanation. I first detail just how poor the Rockies have played since the high point of the season in the context of previous long stretches of awful games. I then analyze why we shouldn’t have been so high on the team in early May and try to account for the poor play. Injuries, I suggest, did not ruin a chance at contention. Rather, they made an over-performing mediocre team terrible.
What Went Wrong
It has been about two months and about 54 games since the Rockies peaked in early May, which is about one third of an entire season. In those 54 games, the Rockies have gone 17-37 (through Saturday’s game and not counting the suspended game against the Giants), for a winning percentage of .315. Over the course of a 162 game season, a .315 winning percentage translates to a record of 51-111. Or, it’s the season record of the 2011 Houston Astros. This record over a 54 game stretch, which begins with two wins against the Texas Rangers, is not the worst in franchise history, but it is close. According to Baseball Reference’s Play Index, the worst third of a season in Rockies’ history came in 1993. From game five to game 58, the inaugural Rockies squad (who finished 67-95) went 15-39, for a winning percentage of .277. This was a bad stretch in an all-around disheartening first-half of the first year for the Rockies. In 12 other instances in the first 79 games of the 1993 season, the Rockies went either 16-38 or 17-37. These records overlap because they are embedded within even longer spans of frequent defeat. In other words, you can pick just about any 54 game stretch in the first half of 1993 and find a terrible record. Such continuous spells of clumsy baseball are only normal in the worst of seasons. The 73-89 2001 Rockies had 15 different stretches of 54 games where they went either 16-38 or 17-37. In 2012, that other forgettable season, the Rockies achieved those marks of futility over the stretch of 54 games nine times. Other than those, there was one stretch in 2004 and two in 2005 where the Rockies had a record of 17-37 for one third of a season.
There is no way to sugarcoat how bad the last two months of the season have been. We can say that it can be worse and that it has been worse, but not by much in either case. One dim silver lining might be that based on run differential, the 2014 Rockies haven’t been quite as maladroit as the 1993 and 2012 teams during their very bad stretches. The 1993 team had a 54 game stretch with a -135 run differential, while the 2012 team allowed opponents to score 108 more runs over a third of a season. The 2014 Rockies -70 run differential during its foray of failure more resembles the afore-described 2001 team, as well as the 2004 and 2005 teams that went 68-94 and 67-95, respectively. Good teams just don’t attain such poor results over one-third of a season.
What Went Wrong?
Judged by both record and run differential, the Rockies played exceptional baseball for 20 games this season. Over the first 16 games of the season, the Rockies were middling. They had seven wins to nine losses and a run differential of -1. This stretch also included eight games where the team alternated wins and losses. The following 20 games didn’t resemble the first 16 at all. From April 17 to May 7, the Rockies went 15-5 with an incredible run differential of plus 56. Through Saturday, the National League West leading Dodgers had a run differential of 56 through 90 games. The Rockies managed to do it in just 20. They were playing so well, and it was so fun giddily perusing the teams batting statistics and increased playoff odds every morning, that the glaring unsustainability of the performance somehow got lost.
The decline in hitting and pitching on a macro scale is easy to see. From April 17 to May 7, the Rockies 20 game peak, the team led all of baseball in every major category, and in some cases by quite a bit. The team’s batting average was .319. The Detroit Tigers were second in baseball at .303, but third place was .275 (all statistics courtesy of ESPN Stats & Info). League average over that time period was .253. The Rockies also led all of baseball in OBP in that same stretch, though by not as much. Their .363 mark was slightly better than second and third place over that same period of time, .360 and .356. Where the Rockies really excelled at an unsustainable rate was in their power hitting. From April 17 to May 7, the Rockies slugged .551—second place was .452. That’s a difference of nearly one hundred points, for the math disinclined. The same extreme difference can be seen in the team’s isolated slugging (slugging percentage minus batting average). The Rockies’ ISO in that stretch in April and May was .232—nearly 50 points higher than second place and seventy points higher than third place. League average team ISO is .139. To boot, the Rockies had a 20 percent fly ball to home run ratio. They still lead the league in that category, but at a more earthly 14 percent, which is just ahead of Toronto and Baltimore.
Nobody should expect a 20 game stretch of such extraordinary offense to continue. Indeed, the Rockies bats regressed to league average since then, hitting .262/.315/.410. The only area where the team has hit above league average is power, which can partially be attributed to the friendly hitting environment at Coors Field. They have an ISO of .148 to go along with their better than average (.390) slugging percentage. Even if it’s less than desirable, a league average offense can’t be accountable for one of the worst stretches in team history. It’s also notable that the conclusion of the 20 game peak had little to do with position player injuries. From May 7 until May 23, the game Nolan Arenado injured his finger, the Rockies went 4-8, and they are 1-3 since his return. The Rockies’ third base production was way down during Arenado’s absence, but no single position player could have compensated for the Rockies’ pitching post-peak.
During the 2014 peak, the pitching staff only needed to be competent to win games. They were that. However, once the hitting declined to league average, which really shouldn’t be the death knell of a season, the pitching went from competent to so, so bad. From April 17 to May 7, the Rockies pitching staff had an ERA of 3.64. Opponents hit .255 against the Rockies staff, with a .745 OPS and a wOBA of.321. None of these numbers were world beating, as they rank anywhere from 16 to 23 in baseball. It is notable that those rankings are within the realm of acceptable ineptitude. What came after, however, was ugly. The Rockies ERA since the completion of the 15-5 stretch is 5.67, which ranks last in all of baseball, and it’s not close. For instance, the difference between the Rockies and the 29th worst ERA over the same time-frame is about the same as the difference between the 29th and seventh ranked teams. The .828 OPS against is worst in baseball by a healthy margin, as is the .354 wOBA against. Injuries surely have something to do with the severe decline in performance. From the beginning of the season to the conclusion of the team’s peak, the Rockies used seven starting pitchers, Jorge De La Rosa, Brett Anderson, Jordan Lyles, Juan Nicasio, Franklin Morales, Tyler Chatwood, and Jhoulys Chacin (for one start). The team has used an additional six starting pitcher since then, but the wheels didn’t start coming off until early June, when Eddie Butler, Christian Bergman, and Tyler Matzek all debuted in the span of six days. Yohan Flande, Christian Friedrich, and Jair Jurrjens have since joined the ranks, but by the time the Rockies called upon them any remaining glimmer of optimism from the early May peak had been thoroughly shuttered for all but the most optimistic fans.
The coupling of a historically bad series of games with a rash of injuries has made the 2014 Rockies’ very short peak look like a lost opportunity. What is closer to the truth, I think, is that the team was never very good. The offense is performing about as well as can be expected and the pitching far worse. Injuries have affected the latter more than the former, and it has made a middling squad one of the worst in baseball.
Despite it all, the Rockies remain an interesting team to watch, and not just to see if they will get the first pick in the draft next year (a possibility directly correlated to the number of games Brett Tomko ends up starting this year). On the performance end, Corey Dickerson, Troy Tulowitzki, and Arenado remain rare viewing pleasures for Rockies fans. The worst outcome of the 2014 season is that Troy Tulowitzki’s incredible season is all for naught, but that doesn’t make it any less fun to watch Tulo play on a daily basis. It is a privilege that shouldn’t be wasted. From the transaction side, we should pay attention to the trade deadline, and (as Ryan Hammon points out) savor what might be the final starts by Jorge De La Rosa in a Rockies uniform. Finally, we can forestall overwhelming frustration by holding out hope that Franklin Morales has some front office voodoo dolls to go along with his well-worn starting pitcher set. In a season full of uncertainty, at least we know those things work.