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From the Archives: "Rockies on the Rocks"

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The Joe Sheehan Newsletter
Vol. 10, No. 83
September 19, 2018

So, one way to alter a timeline is to say something like, “I’ll be writing about the Rockies for Tuesday’s Newsletter.” On Monday, the Rockies got run out of the gym by the Dodgers, 8-2, turning over first place in the process. That wasn’t even the worst thing that happened to them; shortstop Trevor Story, who had become the team’s second-best hitter behind Nolan Arenado, injured his right elbow on a swing during the defeat. The initial concern was that Story had torn his UCL; an MRI showed that there was no structural damage. Story should be back in the lineup shortly.

The Rockies responded to this good news by losing 3-2 in extra innings. In two days, they’ve gone from division leader to out of the playoff picture, a game-and-a-half behind the Dodgers in the NL West and the Cardinals for the second wild card.

However this ride ends for the Rockies, it’s worth taking a look at this remarkable season. On the heels of an 87-win 2017, 2018 will be just the third time in franchise history the Rockies have had consecutive winning seasons (1995-97 and 2009-10 being the others). As it was in ’09-’10, it’s been about the caliber of pitching. The 2018 Rockies have a FIP- (fielding-independent pitching ERA, adjusted for run environment and scaled to an average of 100) of 95. That’s the third-best mark in franchise history; the three ahead of it are 2017, 2010, and 2009.

I’ve argued vociferously that the way for the Rockies to win is to build a thousand-run offense and let the pitching fall where it may. The team’s history, however, shows that its success is driven not by run creation, but by run prevention. I’m simply wrong about what works in Coors Field. When the Rockies pitch well, they win. The Rockies are pitching very well; that FIP- is the third-best in the NL behind the Dodgers and Phillies. They’re sixth in K-BB%, fourth in xFIP. They’re not getting particularly fortunate on contact, with a DER than ranks 13th in the league (the size of the Coors outfield is a big factor in this number), and as you would expect, the third-highest HR/FB (13.7%) in the league.

Speaking of being wrong...the other plank in my Coors Field case has been that because of the effect of thin air on breaking pitches, the Rockies would need to find the hardest throwers they could. They wanted fastball pitchers, and lots of them. This year’s team? It throws fastballs at the lowest rate in the NL, by far the lowest rate in team history, and down more than 10% from a year ago. The Rockies may throw more non-fastballs than fastballs this year for the first time, aligning themselves with the Yankees, Astros, Indians, and Red Sox as teams moving rapidly away from the country hardball of yore.

It’s something to consider just how planned this has been. The Rockies have used just seven starters this year. None have ever thrown an inning for any other team. Five were originally signed by the Rockies, and the other two were acquired as prospects. We talk about the Rays being able to use “the opener” in part because they have a lot of young pitchers years from being able to go to arbitration, pitchers who may be eager to have a job and worry less about their role. What the Rockies have done is brought together a group of young starters -- no one over 29 has started a game for the Rockies -- and gotten them to buy in. Unlike the Pirates, though, who tried to jam Gerrit Cole into their two-seam fastball approach with poor results, the Rockies are flexible. Antonio Senzatela is throwing his four-seam fastball almost two-thirds of the time.

The biggest success story this year is Kyle Freeland. Freeland, the eighth overall pick in the 2014 draft, came to the majors throwing 64% fastballs last year. This year, that figure is 52%, with a greater reliance on his change-up. Freeland doesn’t throw hard, and what I see when I watch him is Dallas Keuchel: a lefty with terrific command of average-plus stuff. Freeland’s run prevention is running a bit ahead of his performance -- he’s allowed a .276 BABIP and a 9.2% HR/FB, both far from the Rockies’ team numbers -- but in that way he’s having Keuchel’s 2015 season, when he won the Cy Young Award. Freeland isn’t a #1, despite having a #1’s ERA. He’s a low #2, though, and he’s going to be inexpensive for a while.

Freeland, Senzatela, Jon Gray, Tyler Anderson...all homegrown Rockies. This is where we get to...the rest of the story. There are few teams in baseball getting the kind of value from homegrown ballplayers that the Rockies are. There are also few teams in baseball burning money the way the Rockies are. There’s no team in memory with such a split between the players it has developed and the players it has acquired, and if the Rockies don’t make the playoffs, they have no choice but to blame the work Jeff Bridich has done in the free-agent market the last few years.

Uh, Jeff? (Rockies’ Roster, by origin and 2018 bWAR)

Developed         30.4
Traded For, MLB    0.4
Free Agents       -3.3
Other              0.3


Nitpicky note: Players like Gabriel Marquez and D.J. Lemahieu, who were acquired as low- or no-profile minor leaguers, go in the first bin. If you never played for anyone else in the majors, you’re in that first group. Season to taste.

So the Rockies have developed, within their system and using the work their prospect team has done in identifying prospects to acquire in trades, a championship-caliber team. Around that team, with all the other work they have done, they have provided sub-replacement talent. That “-3.3” above is the work of a dozen players who are making about $80 million this season. That’s “sign Machado and Harper” money, and it’s being spent on pushing the Rockies away from the postseason. The Rockies tried to bolster their offense, and their offense is terrible: 11th in the NL in wRC+. It’s one of the worst offenses in franchise history.

Seriously, Jeff?!? (Worst wRC+, Rockies, 1993-2018)

      wRC+
2002   82
2000   82
1999   84
1993   84
2005   85
2018   85


The Rockies are the best current example of a team that simply doesn’t get free agency. Buying from the middle of the market is death; it’s how you end up with Ian Desmond and Gerardo Parra and Chris Iannetta killing a lineup. Now and again, it works and you land on Nelson Cruz; more often than not, you simply end up paying for past performance that is never going to happen again.

If the Rockies miss the playoffs, they will have paid dearly for the privilege of doing so.