Friday, November 22, 2013

Team Postmortem: Colorado Rockies

Record: 74-88, -54 Run Differential

Summary: Well, the Rockies gave their fans hope this season ... for a little while. For the first few months of the year, the Rockies were in contention. On June 17, they were three games over .500 and only a solitary game behind the Arizona Diamondbacks for the lead in the NL West. They would never be that close to the division lead or that many games over .500 again, ending the season in last place in the NL West. Then again, they weren't the only team who saw a similar crash; the entire division saw hopes crushed by the Dodgers' ridiculous surge. It should be noted that the Rockies were incredibly bad on the road in 2013, going 23 games below .500 away from Coors Field. The highlight of the season ended up being a touching and well-deserved farewell to career Rockie Todd Helton.

Offensively, it's easy to jump out and say the Rockies were good. They scored 706 runs (10th in baseball) while hitting .270/.323/.464 with the 5th best wOBA in baseball at 324! That's good! Real good! Better than the Orioles, Rangers, or Cardinals! Unfortunately for the Rockies, things aren't so simple since they play in, y'know, Coors Field. Weighted Runs Recreated+ (wRC+) is based on wOBA, but adjusted for, among other things, park effects (think of wRC+ being akin to what OPS+ is to OPS, only for the much more valuable wOBA). The Rockies' wRC+ of 90 plummets them all the way down to 22nd in baseball--behind even the Mariners. Ouch. They were actually pretty decent at avoiding strinking out with the 14th lowest K% at 19.6%, but unfortunately paired that with never, ever walking (BB% 6.9% - 25th).

That's not to say it was all bad news. The Rockies still have two true superstars in Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez. Tulowitzki posted another dominant  season hitting .312/.391/.540 with a stellar 143 wRC+ along with above-average defense at shortstop for a 5.6 fWAR, despite being limited to 126 games thanks to a broken rib. Carlos Gonzalez alos had a fantastic season with a .302/.367/.591 line and a  149 wRC+ while playing excellent defense in left field for a 4.9 fWAR. Unfortunately, Cargo was also limited by injuries, getting in only 110 games. The team also benefited from a surprisingly excellent year from Michael Cuddyer who posted a 140 wRC+, though his defense in the outfield was extremely poor, limiting his overall value. While rookie Nolan Arenado didn't hit at all, he was one of the best defensive third basemen in the game (despite being decidedly average at best in the minors).

Pitching-wise, the Rockies were, as is the norm, horri--wait, what? The Rockies had an pretty good pitching staff this year? Turns out, it's true! From what I've read, the team made a conscious effort over the past year (throughout all levels of the organization) to focus on working low in the zone and inducing weak contact. For 2013, at least, it may have worked--or at least be on the right track. While the Rockies' staff did allow the 760 runs (the third most in the game), the advanced metrics loved them. Their FIP of 3.96 may have ranked 20th, but if we remember again that we have to account for Coors Field, we can turn to FIP-. (Note: Much like wRC+ and OPS+, FIP- adjusts FIP for league and park effects. While, like wRC+ and OPS+, 100 is average for FIP-, like ERA, lower is better.) The Rockies had a FIP- of 92, which would make them the third best staff in baseball behind only the Tigers and the Rangers.  The staff was led by career years from Jhoulys Chachin, Jorge de La Rosa, and Tyler Chatwood.  Chacin lead the staff with 4.3 fWAR and a 3.47 FIP in 197.1 innings. Jorge de le Rosa (3.76 FIP) and Chatwood (3.66 FIP) were similarly good, but limited by durability issues (167.2  and 111.1 IP respectively). The real question for this staff is whether any of that improved performance is real, or all just freak year (it's happened before). These numbers are all the best these pitchers have put up in years, if ever. As a point, here are all three players' FIPs from the past two seasons: 5.15, 4.23, 8.63, 3.36, 5.17, 4.89. Answering that question will be a big part of defining the Rockies off-season plans.

Going forward, it's hard to know what the make of the Rockies. At times, it seems like even the front office isn't sure what direction the franchise is taking. They have two true young--though oft-injured--superstars in Tulowitzski and Gonzalez. They have a couple of young guys who took steps--however small in some cases--forward, including Chatwood, Chachin, Arenado, Rex Brothers and Charlie Blackmon. Fans and analysts that I've read seem divided on whether the Rockies are headed in the right direction--and thus somewhat close to contention--or if the pitching was a complete mirage and the youth aren't ever going to fully break out. It looks like the Rockies could be close to respectability even in 2014, while contention may be a bit further out. They'll need to fill some holes, however, notably at first base where fan favorite Todd Helton (decidedly unproductive in 2013) will no longer be penciled in for the first time since 1998. That will depend alot on GM Dan O'Dowd's ability to bring in major league talent to supplement the roster, something that he hasn't been very successful with in his tenure. Also, it'd sure be nice if Tulowitzski and CarGo could be healthy for a full season for a change.

MVP: Troy Tulowitzki, 5.6 fWAR

LVP: Jordan Pacheco, -1.4 fWAR

Down On The Farm: Overall, the Rockies had a rough year in the minors. Top prospect Trevor Story struggled significantly both in the field and--more concerning--at the plate, despite playing in the offensively-charged California League. David Dahl, a 2012 first round pick, missed almost the entire season with a hamstring injury. It's not a very deep system and a disappointing season has left it ranked 23rd by Bleacher Report's end-of-season rankings (preseason it was ranked 21st by Baseball America).

Eddie Butler, a 22-year-old RHP, had the biggest year of any Rockies prospect. Butler possess an excellent fastball with velocity in the 93-97 mph range and excellent movement. He also throws a slider and a change-up that both possess plus velocity and plus movement.  Butler logged a lot of air miles this year as he started the season in A-ball, moved up to A+ and then finished the year in AA. Across those three levels, Butler posted a 1.80 ERA, 8.54 K/9 and a 54.9% GB%. The biggest question for a kid with so much movement on his pitches is his ability to throw them for strikes; Butler has shown great improvement on that front, decreasing his BB/9 with each promotion going from 4.14 to 2.79 to 1.95. Butler could see the mound at Coors by 2015.

Jonathan Gray, 22, was considered a potential first overall pick in the 2013 draft and was grabbed by the Rockies with the #3 pick. Gray is a classic right-handed power pitcher, with a fastball that clocks in at 94-98 mph and has hit 100+ on occasion. He also possesses a vicious wipe-out slider. After being drafted, Gray got in nine starts split between Rookie-ball and A+. He posted a 10.13 K/9, 1.35 BB/9 and 4.05 ERA in Rookie and a 13.50 K/9, 2.25 BB/9 and 0.75 ERA in A+. His ultimate potential is that of a true ace and a perennial All-Star, but first he will have to improve his changeup, which is currently a very rough offering. The difference in his ERA between the two levels, is that for his A+ starts he had abandoned the changeup that had been hammered in Rookie ball. If he can refine that third pitch, he'll be a big part of the Rockies' future.

If APOD Was GM: Given the lack of depth  in the minors and the mixture of youth and superstar talent on the major league roster, I think the Rockies should be looking to move towards contention rather than rebuilding. Unfortunately, they have already missed out on Jose Dariel Abreu who would have been an excellent fit, dropping right into the hole left by Todd Helton. Given the lack of first-base options in free agency, I'd expect the Rockies to take a long look at moving Michael Cuddyer from RF to 1B. If Cuddyer's .396 wOBA in 2013 is even semi-real (and thats a big 'if'--a career-high 140 wRC+ at age 34 seems like a fluke) his bat will play at first and the position will mask his defensive flaws. While financial limitations will price them out of outfielders like Jacoby Ellsbury and Sin-Soo Choo, they could make a play for a guy like Nelson Cruz (who's suspension will probably decrease his price) or aim for a cheaper platoon option in the outfield. The Rockies almost certainly won't be contending in 2014, but with the right moves a winning record is within reach. That would be an excellent first step for the organization.

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