I firmly believe that baseball in Denver is different than anywhere else. On the surface, it’s really not hard to get this. Thin air, baseballs fly. In order to attempt a level playing field, they keep baseballs in a place where cigars are normally kept fresh (a humidor). Cigars contain ... perishable? ... ingredients. Baseballs are made of already perished ingredients.
I just can’t fully wrap my head around the effects of thin air on the baseball, nor can I fully understand the enormity of having to store baseballs in a special place just to achieve some approximation of normalcy. Yes, you can go read things that actually explain at a scientific level what’s going on. I’m not referring to that. I’m referring to the fact that baseball is just plain different in Colorado.
That difference has always manifested itself in pitching. The offense in Coors is never really a problem; the Rockies have several hitters with a wRC+ above 100 this year, and Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez have (or, in the case of the former, had) generally been awesome during their Rockies careers. It’s usually been the pitching.
Since 2000, the Rockies rank 24th in overall pitching fWAR at about 210. That’s not to say they’ve never been good; they ranked second in team pitching fWAR in both 2009 and 2010, and they were in the top 10 four out of five years from 2006 to 2010. That stretch of goodness from 2006-2010 has just been flanked by poor pitching.
In 2009-2010, Ubaldo Jimenez was at the height of his powers, grabbing more than five fWAR each year. He was supported by Jason Hammel (3+ fWAR each year), Jorge de la Rosa, Jason Marquis, Jhoulys Chacin, and innings sponge Aaron Cook at various points in those two years. Rafael Betancourt, Matt Belisle, and Huston Street threw pretty well in the bullpen as well.
However, from 2011 on the best ranking for the Rockies’ team pitching fWAR was 17th, achieved in 2013. In 2016, the Rockies rank 13th as of this writing, and they’re doing it with what seems to be the most desirable setup possible. They have a few young guys, and almost everyone is keeping the ball on the ground as much as they can (the Rockies rank 2nd in overall pitching GB% at 49.3%).
At the top is Jon Gray, the third overall pick in 2013. His ERA pretty well matches his peripherals; he’s a power pitcher whose home/road splits so far don’t reveal anything completely out of whack. It’s still early in his career, as he is only 24 and has just 150 innings to his name, but he may be figuring out how to be successful pitching for the Rockies.
Right below Gray is Chad Bettis, a 27-year-old second-round pick from 2010. Bettis’ ERA does not match his peripherals due to a high BABIP and low LOB%, but he seems primed for a little regression and slots in the middle of the Rockies rotation just fine.
Under Bettis is Tyler Chatwood, a 26-year-old second-round pick from 2008 originally chosen by the Angels. The Rockies got him by trading catcher Chris Iannetta back in 2011. Chatwood is a righty who has a career double-digit walk rate without a balancing high strikeout rate.
However, what Chatwood has done well this year is suppress the quality of contact. His BABIP is low, his line drive rate is low, his ground-ball rate is high, and his soft / medium / hard contact quality distribution is good (more soft, less hard).
Despite that, Chatwood has not yet figured out how to pitch in Coors. In an almost equal sample size home vs. away this year, Chatwood has been utterly unhittable away from Colorado and been a bit of a pinata at home. Somehow, Chatwood on the road can generate ground balls AND popups, but that disappears at home. Nevertheless, the overall effect appears to be something approximating average.
Those three have logged the most innings for the Rockies this year; behind them the Rockies have mixed and matched. 35-year-old Jorge de la Rosa is still plying his trade for this version of the Rockies, but his performance this year has not been like years past. His first six starts were generally bad, and he was sent to the bullpen for a bit. He returned to the rotation on June 14th and has had only one truly bad start since then out of eight.
Rounding out the rotation right now is Tyler Anderson, a 26-year-old first round pick by the Rockies from 2011. He made his MLB debut back on June 12th and has pitched incredibly well in his nine starts and 54 innings. His ERA, FIP, and xFIP, both raw and “park-adjusted”, reflect excellence. He’s a big-time grounder guy with a low walk rate, which should do well anywhere.
These five appear to be hitting their stride recently; in the last 30 days, the Rockies rotation is sixth in fWAR.
On the bullpen side, the Rockies acquired Jake McGee from the Rays to be their closer for this year, but he pitched his way right out of the role. He’s having difficulty making the Coors adjustment, which is another article for another time. Boone Logan and Carlos Estevez have been holding down the fort, but they’ve given a lot of innings to poor performance from McGee, Gonzalez Germen, and others.
Overall, however, the Rockies’ bullpen has been in the middle of the pack in both innings pitched and fWAR. Over the rest of this season, redistributing innings from worse-performing pitchers to better-performing pitchers already on staff should help push the Rockies bullpen to better territory.
The Rockies are 51-52 and a distant third within their own division, eight games behind the Giants. They are five games behind the second Wild Card spot. It’s not crazy to imagine a scenario in which a resurgent pitching staff leads the Rockies to the playoffs, but it’s very unlikely at this point with several teams ahead of the Rockies vying for that second Wild Card spot as well.
I’m not sure Rockies fans should care too much about that. This year, the Rockies are succeeding with a ground ball-heavy pitching staff led by four 20-somethings, a few of whom are homegrown, and a grizzled veteran. If they can sustain this success, next year could see the Rockies making some noise in the NL West.
Or Coors could just confound everything like it has me.
Stats current as of Saturday, July 30th.
Kevin Ruprecht is a Managing Editor of Beyond the Box Score and also writes at Royals Review.