A version of this story appeared in the ESPN SweetSpot Blog.
Coming off a five game winning streak along with a sweep of the New York Mets at home, there was a lot of excitement going into this recent Rockies road trip. The Rockies were fluttering around .500 and in the middle of the pack in the NL West… until they ran smack dab into the Cardinals. Ah, the life of a fan.
Anyone who has followed the Rockies the last few years has seen the team do well early on, only to crater later as the season takes its toll. Usually, the team’s fortunes are based on whichever guy happened to be the winner of the Rockies Hot April Sweepstakes. In 2014 it was Charlie Blackmon, highlighted by a 6 for 6 Opening Day Performance. Next it was DJ LeMahieu who ended April of 2015 hitting .406. This year, the story’s been Trevor Story.
Usually those hot starts lead to a crash and burn as that player’s performance falls of. Perhaps the many Chicago transplants in the Denver area brought with them some of the infamous June swoons that the Cubs used to be famous for. For fans devoted to the Rockies, always envious of their winning Bronco brethren, a Rockies season can feel like a half-finished love poem lying crumpled at the bottom of a wastebasket. For those in Denver who aren’t die-hards, the Rockies season is well over by the time the Broncos offseason camp starts.
However, there are some reasons to think that, while the Rockies may not be punching their World Series tickets in 2016, that this team might be worth watching past June and in the years to come. As bland as their .500 record might be, the Rockies have faced the 6th hardest schedule in the major leagues according to baseball-reference.com. Unlike previous years, they’ve also had more balanced records split-wise, without horrible home/road or righty/lefty discrepancies like in recent years. Beyond the win-loss record, the underlying rate stats are also better. Instead of the 200 point gap in OPS on offense between the home and the road that there was in 2015, the Rockies difference is closer to 120 points.
The pitching, for one, is not only better, it’s deeper. It may not seem accurate, based on a team ERA in the high 4s, but there are a lot of little things that are adding up to a better staff. For one, the Rockies are starting to get some length out of their starting pitchers. In the month of May, Rockies pitchers have gone at least 5 innings in all but two starts and are in the middle of the pack in quality starts. Usually among the worst in the league in walks allowed, the Rockies as a team are 7th best. They’ve already shut out opponents in four games, tied for the 2016 league lead and equaling their total for the entirety of 2015. In terms of depth, solid performances by Chad Bettis and Tyler Chatwood might mean last year’s starters, Jorge De La Rosa and Jordan Lyles might actually have to earn their way back based on performance instead of necessity. Yep, the Rockies pitching staff is actually good enough where there are actual job competitions. For as much flak as their offense gets for being a “Coors Field creation”, little attention is given to their pitchers because of that Coors Field inflation. Their road ERA of 3.21, good for 6th in all of major league baseball, can attest to that.
On the offensive side, many Rockies hitters are playing near their career levels without anyone going crazy. The hitters who are surpassing their expectations are young guys who are improving their game substantially. The charge is led by Nolan Arenado who is such a joy to watch. When I was asked during this offseason who would be most likely to break out, I immediately thought of Arenado. Remember that he was originally seen as a batting average prospect with little power and no glove. Yet, now that he’s become an elite power hitter in addition to an otherworldly defender, he’s spent 2016 improving his plate discipline by being more selective at what he swings at, reducing his strikeouts and taking more walks without sacrificing power. Nor is he just a Coors Field creation, taking his prestigious bat with him on the road to the pitching parks in the NL West and continuing to do damage. As he joins the conversation for the best player in baseball, there’s even a chance he may add a batting title to his resume. If a Triple Crown is in his future, fans will enjoy the show. Meanwhile, Trevor Story might not be hitting a home run every game anymore, but he’s trotting out with a batting average over .300 in the month of May with plenty of power and a reduced strikeout rate. Carlos Gonzalez, normally a slow starter, went through a recent power drought but is still collecting hits at a pace that shows he should have a healthy and productive 2016. Overall though? No one is on a scorching hot streak on offense and yet the Rockies are still figuring out ways to win games. That says a lot about what the Rockies could do if they get truly hot.
Beyond that, the lauded farm system is starting to bear fruit. Some fans disagreed with the handling of young pitchers Jon Gray and Eddie Butler. But, dare I say it, they do look more promising than they did when initially called up. Though Gray has experienced some growing pains from being on the wrong side of hittable, his outings of sheer dominance justify some of the hopes that Rockies fans have had for him. Butler, meanwhile, has morphed from either being too hittable or too many walks (nibbleable?) into a happy medium where he’s around the zone and producing quality starts. If either young gun falters, the competition gets lively not just from De La Rosa or Lyles but from a farm system busting at the seams with pitching. Let’s also not neglect position player prospects such as David Dahl, Raimel Tapia or Ryan McMahon who could start making an impact as early as this September. Rockies fans have already tipped their cap towards General Manager Jeff Bridich for the impact Story has made.
Then there are all the little moves that Bridich has done. He brought in Mark Reynolds and Ryan Raburn to help turn around a Rockies offense that had an OPS one hundred points lower against left handed pitching. He found Tony Wolters, who may already be one of the best pitch framers in Rockies history, to steal a few extra strikes for a young pitching staff that can use all the help it can get. And those Rockies fans that were angry when Bridich traded Corey Dickerson for reliever Jake McGee have lowered their pitchforks as they’ve seen the job the rebuilt bullpen has done. Since more relief prospects, again, are in the minor leagues fighting for a job, it’s keeping those pitchers already on the roster on their toes.
The team still has some warts. Segments of the lineup don’t click on all cylinders and the Rockies high slugging, low on base percentage approach means they strand a few more runners on third base than they probably should. They’re also a bit infamous among the fanbase for their poor baserunning decisions. #thatssorockies is alive and well. But a lot of the foundation of good baseball such as avoiding giving up walks and hitters maturing in their approach, bode well for the Rockies future. The team looks like it’s playing better baseball, whether it’s at home or on the road, and games no longer feel over by the 5th inning. The Rockies may not be the hottest team in the league (thanks Cubs), but what they’re doing appears more sustainable. It might not be this year, but fans can glimpse that stability leading to a future where the talk of October is no longer the Broncos but the Rockies.