clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Have the Colorado Rockies upgraded their rotation?

The Colorado Rockies traded for starters Jordan Lyles and Brett Anderson earlier this offseason, but have they really improved their starting rotation?

Jennifer Stewart

The Colorado Rockies entered the offseason in need of a couple of starters. The "why" isn't hard to decipher, as Colorado starters managed a combined 4.11 FIP (11th-worst in baseball), 4.17 xFIP (fifth-worst), 15.4 K% (second-lowest) and 8.4 BB% (sixth-highest) this past season. Really, not many numbers are needed to say that Rockies starters weren't very good in 2013.

The problem, in regards to improving the team's rotation, is that free-agent starting pitchers don't want to pitch at Coors Field. You know its reputation: It's a hitters park, not a pitchers park. Sure, I knew the Rockies desperately needed a starter (and still might). You knew it. The front office definitely knew it. It didn't take much to reach that conclusion. But the phrase "it takes two to tango," fits well here. Free-agent starters rarely want to tango with the Rockies, unless they're in line to be significantly overpaid, which is an incentive the Rockies aren't able to offer.

So, if the crop of free agents is more or less off limits, what avenue does a team then pursue? Trades. Bingo. That's what the Rockies did, flipping Dexter Fowler for Jordan Lyles in a controversial exchange with Houston. A week later, they flipped Drew Pomeranz for Brett Anderson. Two starting pitchers added, just like that.

In a sense, Colorado accomplished its primary offseason goal of beefing up the team's starting rotation. But that's a quick, perhaps deceiving, assumption.

Colorado does have two shiny new starting pitchers, and while new toys are always nice, the goal is to improve.

Did the Rockies upgrade their rotation? Well, it's time for a table:

Player 2013 WAR Player 2014 WAR
Jorge de la Rosa 2.9 Jorge de la Rosa 2.4
Jhoulys Chacin 4.3 Jhoulys Chacin 2.6
Tyler Chatwood 2 Brett Anderson 3.9
Juan Nicasio 2.2 Tyler Chatwood 1.8
No. 5 Spot 1.5 Jordan Lyles 2.3
12.9 13

Notes: I averaged out Anderson's and Lyles' projected WARs assuming they would pitch at least 180 innings--for the sake of the comparison. Also, the "No. 5 spot" consists of the seven other pitchers who started at least one game.

A few more notes before we dive in. One, I took Colorado's projected 2014 rotation from MLB Depth Charts. Spots one through four don't need much explanation. Chacin and de la Rosa could be flipped--Anderson and Chatwood would then presumably be flipped as well. Those are minor adjustments, though.

As for the No. 5 spot...that's a bit foggier. Lyles is the projected No. 5 starter, with Juan Nicasio, Franklin Morales and perhaps prospects also in the mix.

If I had to pick an outcome, I'd put my money on a Spring Training battle between Lyles and Nicasio. Top prospects Jonathan Gray and Eddie Butler aren't quite ready, and Morales is probably better off in a long-relief role, as he has started just 25 games in his seven-year career.

So if it does come down to Lyles and Nicasio, at least statistically, there is a clear choice:

Player ERA- FIP- WAR/100 IP
Nicasio 113 93 1.6
Lyles 137 117 0.4

*Since 2011

The numbers don't lie, as the gaps are pretty considerable. Still, there are a couple of other factors to consider.

For one, Lyles is Colorado's shiny new toy. He's about four years younger than Nicasio. And he's the return from the Dexter Fowler's deal, so you'd presume that he'd be given a chance to paint the Rockies' front office as wise dealers, something that this particular swap, well, didn't. On paper, that is.

Either way, Steamer projects some similarity, with Nicasio's projected fWAR at 2.9 and Lyles' fWAR at 2.3 (I averaged his projected 0.6 fWAR in 48 innings to 2.3 in 180 innings). Numbers-wise, they're basically interchangeable.

So with the nitty-gritty details out of the way, let's again propose the question: Have the Rockies really upgraded their rotation?

Well, if we solely go off of Steamer's projections, yes, the Rockies have successfully upgraded their rotation. The catch, of course, is that the upgrade is very marginal, and that's not what the Rockies will be hoping for. 2013 was pretty bad, and a minuscule improvement isn't going to boost "pretty bad" to "good," or even "average."

And the table above doesn't come without its flaws.

Brett Anderson, for example, might be sorely overvalued at a 3.9 fWAR. While he could definitely be a nifty low-risk, high-reward addition, he's pitched a grand total of 188 innings since 2011, an average of 54 per year. That makes penciling him in for 180 innings in 2014 a bold assumption on my part, especially when Steamer sees him starting just 17 games (96 innings). But, again, that's for the sake of the comparison.

With Anderson, we have three possibilities. One is optimistic: Anderson doesn't catch the injury bug and goes on to sniff the 200-inning plateau. Then, there's a middle ground: Shall we say 130 innings with roughly 3.4 fWAR? Finally, there's the worst of the worst: Brett Anderson keeps being Brett Anderson. And you already know what that entails.

Even if you take the best of these three scenarios (3.9 fWAR), the Rockies aren't that much improved (see the table above). Take the "in between" and the Rockies are essentially back to square one. Take the worst, and they're back to juggling around their rotation armed with more depth, but depth that lacks the quality they desperately need.

A couple of new faces? Yeah. A better starting rotation? Not really.

However, Steamer projections tend to be a bit conservative in some cases. Therein lies some hope for the Rockies..

Take Jhoulys Chacin, for example. He's projected to produce 2.6 fWAR, roughly two wins less than his 2013 total. It's not to say that he won't regress (because there's a good chance that he does), but it may not be a steep plummet.

To help gauge that, a good starting point is BABIP. Chacin's 2013 mark of .288 mark wasn't abnormal compared to his .281 career mark, but Steamer sees his BABIP soaring to .310 in 2013. I'd say a 24.3 LD% (second-highest in baseball) has something to do with the uptick.

The number that is a bit more fluky, however, is Chacin's HR/FB% of 6.2% (career-best).

Can Chacin sustain baseball's fifth-lowest HR/FB%? When you're throwing about half of your innings at Coors Field, the obvious answer is "no." And when 24.3% of the opponents' balls in play are line drives, second-most in baseball, the answer is again no.

The counterargument: Chacin has a habit of inducing ground balls, which don't fly over fences.

2010 46.6 3.54 78 3.1
2011 56.3 4.23 96 2.6
2012 38.5 5.15 114 0.5
2013 46.8 3.47 80 4.3

The Cliff Notes version is that a lot of ground balls equals a lot of success for Chacin. So, perhaps the Rockies squeeze a little bit more value out of Chacin if he continues to induce grounders and if his lofty LD% and low HR/FB% don't set him up for a dramatic regression in 2014. In that case, Colorado's starting staff would be a bit better. Though a "bit" isn't enough to raise the overall outlook to that of an even average starting rotation.

Plus, there's Jorge de la Rosa, who's another regression candidate. Steamer sees him losing about a half of a win in 2014.

However, I see indicators of a much more dramatic dip.

de la Rosa 25.1 27.6 47.3 0.303 7.7

*2013 stats only

So yeah, de la Rosa has a weird combination of results that draw a couple of parallels to Chacin. They both yielded a lot of line drives, as only de la Rosa posted a higher LD% than Chacin in 2013. They both mustered pretty low HR/FB%‘s, with de la Rosa's 4.5 mark at Coors Field being a clear outlier. They both pitched to fairly average BABIPs. And most importantly, they posted solid stat lines.

If you think something seems a bit fishy, it's not just you.

Common sense says those line drives that found mitts in 2013 will fall in for hits in 2014 (not all of them, of course). Maybe they start falling on the other side of the fence, or maybe they simply result in more hits. Something's going to change, and de la Rosa probably isn't going to be the beneficiary.

The last man standing is indeed Tyler Chatwood, who, you guessed it, is another regression candidate. Chatwood's candidacy mainly stems from the fact that opposing hitters made contact off him 84.5% of the time, which would tie him with Eric Stults for the eighth-highest total in baseball, if he qualified.

The catch: Chatwood had a .314 BABIP and, like Chacin and de la Rosa, a lowly HR/FB ratio (6.7%). Think about it. He yielded a ton of contact but a BABIP that falls in the average range. Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, Chatwood's 2013 BABIP is much better than his historical numbers at both the major and minor league level. That screams regression.

So, in conclusion, Chacin and de la Rosa, Colorado's two best pitchers in 2013, are both expected to regress. Chatwood is in the same boat. Anderson is a question mark, as is Colorado's final spot in the rotation.

Yeah, a lot of things would have to go right for the huge improvements Colorado is hoping for to come to fruition.

. . .

All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference

Jake Dal Porto is a writer at Beyond The Box Score and Golden Gate Sports. You can follow him on Twitter @TheJakeMan24.