With the possible exception of the Twins, the Colorado Rockies are probably the best team story in baseball at the moment. At the beginning of the 2016-17 offseason, the Rockies began to receive some sleeper buzz from the online baseball community. But after some bizarre moves — Ian Desmond at first base? Mike Dunn for how much? — most of the already tepid hype died quickly.
And yet they came out and played like one of the best teams in baseball anyway. Through two full months, they stood alone atop the NL West, ahead of two 2016 playoff teams and the almost equally surprising Arizona Diamondbacks. Though the Dodgers caught up, the Rockies are still playing well and almost everything that could have gone right for the Rockies has gone right.
Notice I said “almost.” There is no such thing as a perfect season, after all. Despite the fact that they are an incredible 11th in team ERA thus far, one of their core rotation pieces, Tyler Anderson, is having a down year. Or he’s having worse results, at least. That’s another important distinction: process vs. results.
Let me explain why, at least as it relates to Anderson. Back in February, my colleague (boss?) Ryan Romano noticed something interesting about Anderson’s approach and results. I encourage you to read the full piece, but I’ll summarize the article as best I can: despite average stuff, Anderson was among the league leaders in percentage of balls in play classified as soft contact. In fact, Ryan gave him the moniker “King of soft contact” for his efforts.
In that sense, not much has changed for Anderson in 2017. His Soft, Medium, and Hard contact numbers — as classified by FanGraphs — are almost identical. By Statcast’s exit velocity, he’s actually shaved almost a full mile per hour off his 2016 figure. So why, then, is his ERA nearly five and a half?
Well the answer to that question, at least, is not hard to find. All you have to do is scroll down to Anderson’s home run to fly ball ratio and there you have it. From 12.4 percent in 2016 to 25 percent in 2017. That’s more than double, for you math majors out there.
But we just talked about how Anderson’s soft contact rate is static, and how his average exit velocity is slower than it was last year. So what gives?
One obvious possible explanation, as it is for all Rockies players, is Coors Field. Balls that wouldn’t be hit hard enough to get over the fences in other parks get in that thin Denver air and don’t come down until they’re banging against the bleachers. Since exit velocities began to be tracked in 2015, home runs at Coors have had the fifth slowest EV despite the fact that its outfield is the biggest in baseball.
So perhaps that’s it. Anderson is just yet another victim of playing half his games a mile above the ocean. But there could be other explanations, too. Another possibility is that despite Anderson’s overall ability to avoid hard contact, because of his soft tossing stuff, when he gets squared up, he really gets squared up.
The 12 homers he’s allowed this season have been hit an average of 104.9 miles per hour, which is 1.3 miles per hour above the league average dinger. Just take a stroll through the home runs he’s allowed in 2017; there aren’t a lot of cheapies in there. But then again, the average home run off Anderson in 2016 was less than 100 miles per hour, so that could be a bit of randomness.
And that leads to our final, and most probable, explanation for Anderson’s home run problems. He’s just getting unlucky. That’s boring, I know, but the panacea is probably just simple regression and patience.
Look at Anderson’s xFIP, for example. Last year it was 3.64. This year it’s 3.57. That’s basically identical. For those unfamiliar with the stat, xFIP “replaces a pitcher’s home run total with an estimate of how many home runs they should have allowed given the number of fly balls they surrendered while assuming a league average home run to fly ball percentage (between 9 and 10 percent depending on the year).”
In other words, Anderson is basically the same guy but owed some positive regression by the baseball universe. Despite pitching in Coors, that’ll come at some point.
Fortunately for the Rockies, they’ve built this cushion without one of their nominally top starters providing them with the kind of results they expected coming into the year. If Anderson can sort himself out, they might not just keep pace in the NL West, but they very well could win the whole damn thing.
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Joe Clarkin is a featured writer for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @Joe_Clarkin.