It is nearing the end of May, and there are still many double takes coming from baseball fans taking a glance at the National League West scorecard so far. Roughly a month and a half into the season, with just over 40 games played, the Rockies aren’t in the cellar.
You can call it the benefits of a team reaping the benefits of some thus-far underperforming division behemoths, or the team’s typical early season overperformance pattern. Nevertheless, the Rockies’ record continually hovers near .500, and it’s time to point out what is becoming increasingly obvious:
This Rockies team is much better than we thought. They may even be…good.
No, nobody should be running out to by Rocktober 2016 gear, and yes, we are only about 1/4th of the way through the season. But I recently wrote about some promising signs from April baseball, and as the season edges from infancy to adolescence, we are starting to see some relatively sustained signs that the Rockies can finish as a near-.500 team when the season pulls into its final weeks.
So, in the tradition of negligent early-season optimism, we ask ourselves: can the Rockies maintain a .500 record in 2016; is mediocrity within our grasp? And even more crucially: are the Rockies closer to being competitive than we thought?
Overcoming Their Saboteurs
So far in 2016, there have been the miserable losses — the blowouts, the blown saves and the late-inning enthusiasm crushers. But the signs of positivity that have led to a near-.500 record throughout the season are a mix of both expected and hoped-for upticks and unexpected developments.
I already wrote about Chatwood’s strong start, but it’s worth recapping for how exciting it really is. After missing 2015 and most of 2014 to Tommy John, Chatwood has returned more than serviceable as a middle-of-the-rotation arm. His ERA sits at 3.02 while his SO/9 checks in at 7.5 with his BB/9 at only 2.5.
His home starts have been his most turbulent, but on the whole his season is off to a tremendous start. This coming from a player who was considered, at best, a question heading into spring training.
The good news on the rotational side doesn’t stop at Chatty. As much as the starters are regularly the focus of fan frustration, several starters have made their cases and legitimately earned their spots thus far.
Look at the next name on that list — Chad Bettis. It wasn’t long ago that Twitter was filled with “Bad Chettis” jokes, but after monumental steps forward last year, Bettis is becoming another point of stability in the rotation. In 56 innings pitched, he has seen his walk rate drop to just 1.9, a historical point of difficulty for him. His 3.71 FIP and 4.18 ERA are fine for a man expected to give his team a chance to win, and that’s just what Bettis has done thus far. Say hello to Good Chettis — he’s, hopefully, here to stay.
Finally, and probably the most exciting of the trio, is Jon Gray. After being held back from the start of the season to an abdominal strain, Gray has turned in several dominant performances that look like the front-of-the-rotation starter that has been advertised since he was drafted in 2013.
Yes, his ERA sits at 6.75 right now, but anyone who has watched Gray’s six starts this season can tell you that several of his performances have been stronger than numbers would indicated, which can be seen in the peripheral stats. Just look at his FIP for evidence, a statistic which seeks to isolate individual pitching performance. Jon Gray’s FIP is just 2.57 (measured on the same scale as ERA). His SO/9 is an outstanding 11.0, and his BB/9 rate is 2.8.
The statistic that points to Gray’s high ERA so far is his BABIP against, a striking .376. That’s a number that will have to stabilize, as it’s indicative of a lot of hard luck for Jon Gray, which anyone watching the game doesn’t need a statistic to tell them.
Especially exciting is that Gray seems to be expanding his pitch repertoire according to Brooks Baseball. As Eric Garcia McKinley observed on Purple Row, a sinker has suddenly started showing in Gray’s pitching breakdown.
In fact, use of the sinker in his last two starts has superseded any other single pitch — and according to Brooks, it has only appeared in his last three starts. Check out this sudden meteoric rise:
It remains to be seen how Gray will utilize this pitch, once more fully developed, in his arsenal, but it may become a strong fourth pitch complementing his devastating slider. Jon Gray has still only made 15 major league starts, folks, and this more than anything is a reminder that he is still a work in progress with a lot of fantastic potential.
Last season’s scapegoat was, unquestionably, the bullpen. Despite having to cover more innings than any ‘pen could reasonably handle without cracking, the bullpen nevertheless was one of the weakest and most criticized portions of last year’s team.
That’s almost funny to think about now. So far this year, the Colorado Rockies bullpen; yes, your Colorado Rockies bullpen, lands in the tenth spot in bullpen value league-wide this year.
Their ERA ranks in the lower half of major league teams, sure (24th at 4.32) but they make up for it as a bullpen that has handled the 10th most innings in the majors (143.2) and has, most notably, maintained the 10th lowest walk rate (3.07 BB/9).
Integrated into this success are names like Carlos Estevez, now slotted into the eighth inning setup role, and Miguel Castro, who joined the team as part of the Troy Tulowitzki trade last year. Both are young relievers who represent the upturn for the Rockies pitching staff based on hard-throwing strikeout pitchers, a type we should start getting used to here in Colorado, and both are players who will continue to be instrumental in the bullpen’s success this season and moving forward.
As if the growth in the ‘pen is not exciting enough, this is an area we have reason to hope for continued improvement this year. Soon, the reliable arm of Jason Motte — formerly a closer for the Cubs — will make a return, and later into the summer we can expect to start seeing the wicked break of all three of Adam Ottavino’s sliders again.
A bullpen that is already good, and looks set only to improve? These certainly aren’t the Rockies of yesteryear.
Nothing asserts the Rockies’ sharp break from some of the trends that sent them spiraling last year like the road record. Last season, the Rockies finished with a 32-49 record on the road, just a .395 winning percentage.
This year’s record so far stands in stark contrast: so far, the Rockies are 13-11 on the road this season. That even includes a historical road trip out West:
For the first time in franchise history the Rockies finished above .500 on a 10-game west coast road trip. (H/T @ROOTSPORTS_RM)
— Jake Shapiro (@Shapalicious) May 8, 2016
How have they earned a majority of those wins? The pitching. On the road, Rockies hitters have held a .257/.310/.413 slash line, respectable given that every team struggles more outside of their own ballpark.
But pitching on the road has been better than at home, and good enough to record four shutouts on the season so far. Just to put that in perspective, the Rockies record four shutouts all of last year, including home and away, last in the major leagues.
Their team ERA on the road is 3.47, with 3.3 BB/9 and a SO/9 rate of 7.7, in 210 innings pitched.
The Rockies hitting remains strong, another piece that could have been covered here, and Nolan Arenado, Trevor Story, Carlos Gonzalez and other continue to give us plenty of further reasons to watch. But these are things we expected, at least on some level, and reasons we already expected to see listed for why fans should tune in.
But what we didn’t expect were the big steps forward by Chatwood, Bettis and Gray; what we didn’t expect was a strong bullpen only set to get stronger. These are benchmark traits of teams that are good, and competitive. Sure, with the strength of the team’s farm system and quickly approaching major prospects, fans had every reason to be optimistic about the Rockies’ future.
But that future may be here sooner than we thought. No, the Rockies will not win the division this year and no, they in all likelihood will not see the playoffs. But we are seeing signs now that this team is taking definite, significant steps forward. We are seeing signs that it may not be long before Coors lights shine under an October sky again.
Fans may have expected a tedious summer of baseball before Broncos training camp kicked off again, but if fans aren’t tuning in now, they may be missing a new chapter of Rockies history as it’s written.