by: Ryan Waldis
Over the next 30 days (March 1st through March 30th), I’ll be previewing each of the 30 MLB teams in reverse order of the 2017 league standings. The series will conclude on March 31st, when I’ll be releasing my predictions for the 2018 season. With that said, let’s jump into the 22nd team preview of the series, featuring the Colorado Rockies.
Manager: Bud Black (2nd season)
2017 Record: 87-75, 3rd in NL West
Playoffs: Lost in NL Wild Card to Diamondbacks
Run Differential: 67
Top Position Player: Nolan Arenado (7.2 WAR)
Top Pitcher: Kyle Freeland (3.2 WAR)
Since their inception in 1993, the Rockies have found themselves in the postseason four times. 2017 was one of those times, as the club posted their first winning record since 2010 en route to their first postseason appearance in eight years. Heading into the season, Colorado definitely had a lot of intriguing talent, and they were expected to take another positive step forward after increasing their win total from 68 to 75 in 2016. A .500 record or slightly better wasn’t out of the question, but most people weren’t expecting the team to secure a playoff berth. They did, though, on the back of a .781 OPS (5th-highest) and a 4.51 ERA (17th).
As the second Wild Card team, the Rockies traveled to Arizona to take on the Diamondbacks. While they had Jon Gray on the mound, the lineup faced a tough task going up against Zack Greinke. Things didn’t start off very well for Colorado; they found themselves down 6-0 by the end of the third inning. Paul Goldschmidt started off the scoring with a three-run shot to left field in the first inning, putting the Rockies at an early disadvantage. Gray couldn’t bounce back in the second, allowing a one-out single to David Peralta before allowing an RBI triple to Ketel Marte. Marte would be the last batter Gray faced as he was pulled after just 1.1 innings. Tyler Anderson replaced Scott Oberg in the third inning and proceeded to let up a two-run home run to Daniel Descalso, increasing the deficit to six.
Colorado wouldn’t go down without a fight. The club plated four runs in the fourth inning, chasing Greinke out of the game. Neither team would score in the fifth or sixth inning, but Colorado brought the game to within one run in the top of the seventh via a Charlie Blackmon sacrifice bunt. The D-backs would answer right back in the bottom half of the frame on, of all things, an Archie Bradley triple that pushed the lead back up to three. Nolan Arenado and Trevor Story hit back-to-back bombs in the eighth which made the score 8-7, but Arizona scored three more runs in the bottom of the inning, essentially putting the game out of reach. The Rockies scored one more run in the ninth inning, but obviously it wasn’t enough. The Diamondbacks won the game 11-8 and advanced to the NLDS, where they would play another NL West team in the Dodgers.
Tony Wolters handled most of the catching duties for the Rockies until the acquisition of Jonathan Lucroy. Lucroy was considered one of the best backstops in baseball for a period of time, and was at the forefront of the pitch framing era. After struggling with the Rangers over the first several months of the 2017 season, he was moved to Colorado, where he thrived once again. In 46 games with the Rockies, Lucroy slashed .310/.429/.437 with a higher walk rate (15.4%) than strikeout rate (10.9%). His performance behind the plate was a bit of an issue, though—he finished 109th out of 110 in adjusted FRAA (-18.2), and was dead last in Framing Runs (-16.5).
Mark Reynolds had another solid year with the Rockies in 2017, hitting to a line of .267/.352/.487 while contributing 30 home runs. His strikeout rate of 29.5% was his highest since 2013, but the 11.6% walk rate was his highest since 2012. He definitely benefited from being able to call Coors Field home; his career BABIP is .305, but he’s posted totals of .361 and .343 since moving to Colorado. The defense (-1.2 UZR) leaves a bit to be desired, but Reynolds lived up to his calling card, which is power and a solid ability to get on base.
One-time Cubs prospect DJ LeMahieu has slowly become one of the more consistent offensive players in the majors. The second baseman logged 682 plate appearances in 2017—the most of his career—and finished with a triple-slash of .310/.374/.409. He doesn’t hit for power and doesn’t provide much value on the base-paths, but LeMahieu has made a living getting on-base at a high clip thanks in no small part to playing at Coors Field and hitting the ball to all parts of the field. LeMahieu was even solid in the field—he produced a 3.8 UZR in the 1,302 innings he played at the keystone.
Young shortstop Trevor Story could not follow up a strong 2016 rookie campaign last year. He battled through bouts of inconsistency, slashing just .239/.308/.457 a season after hitting .272/.341/.567. He did hit 24 home runs, but the 34.4% strikeout rate represented a three percent increase over 2016, although the walk rate of 8.8% was roughly the same. He posted a UZR of 1.5 at shortstop, but overall Story’s season was a bit of a disappointment. His GB% went up by four percent, his HR/FB rate fell by seven percent, and he made four percent less hard contact than in 2016. He also struggled against breaking pitches; he posted wSL and wCB values of 4.3 and 2.5 in 2016, but those numbers fell to -6.1 and -0.8 in 2017.
What can you say about Nolan Arenado that hasn’t been said already? He can do almost anything out on the field, and has become one of the best players in the game. The third baseman appeared in 159 games and posted the best overall slash-line of his career–.309/.373/.586. Arenado cranked 37 home runs while posting a strikeout rate of just 15.6% and a walk rate of 9.1%. All of this culminated in a wOBA of .395 and a wRC+ of 129, a career-high. Nolan is also phenomenal in the field; the 6.7 UZR he posted was good for 15th overall and 2nd among third basemen, behind just Anthony Rendon.
To the surprise of many, the Rockies were the team that locked up Ian Desmond to a multi-year contract last offseason. The longtime National was coming off of a solid season with the Rangers, and Colorado decided to lock him up to play both first base and the outfield. Suffice it to say, Desmond had an uncharacteristic season. He produced a wRC+ of just 69 (the lowest of his career) and hit .274/.326/.375 with just seven homers and 15 stolen bases. The strikeout and walk rates of 23.3% and 6.4% were right in line with his career averages, but everything else seemed off. His batted ball profile could possibly be an indication—his FB% dropped by six percent, his LD% dropped by four percent, and his GB% increased by nine percent. He was also making more soft contact than ever before. Due to Desmond’s track record, it’s probably fair to assume that 2017 was an outlier, not the new norm.
Charlie Blackmon has, perhaps not so quietly, become one of the best outfielders in the league. 2017 was the best season of the 31-year-old’s career, as he hit .331/.399/.601 with 37 home runs, 14 stolen bases, and appealing walk and strikeout rates of 18.6% and 9.0%. This was a guy who finished with an OPS of 1.000. Playing at Coors Field aside, that’s not something that’s easy to accomplish. The one knock on his 2017 resume was the -0.6 UZR he posted in center field. Still, the 2nd round draft pick in 2008 has become better than almost anyone expected.
It’s almost easy to forget that 2017 marked Carlos Gonzalez’s 10th big league season. The final slash-line of .262/.339/.423 wasn’t awful, but it’s clear the CarGo is a shell of his former self. The 10.5% walk rate was a career-best, but the 22.3% strikeout rate was the outfielder’s highest since 2013. As Scott Strandberg of FanGraphs points out, Gonzalez slashed .228/.301/.338 from April to the start of August. However, over the final two months, he hit .327/.411/.591. Strandberg wrote, “Gonzalez’s own explanation was that he started going to bed earlier, and also eating breakfast every morning, which honestly just makes me wonder why he spent most of the season staying up until 3-4 a.m. and not eating well.” CarGo was once a very intriguing outfielder. For most of the 2017 campaign, he proved why he’s not one anymore.
Gerardo Parra accumulated 425 plate appearances in 2017 and hit to a respectable line of .309/.341/.452 with 10 home runs, a strikeout rate of 15.8% and a walk rate of 4.7%. The 90 wRC+ was his highest in two years, and he provided solid defense in both corner outfield positions. In 654.1 innings in left field, the former Diamondback posted a UZR of 5.9, and in 168.2 right field frames, Parra had a UZR of 2.4. He even played some first base, finishing with a UZR of 0.2.
The Colorado starters finished 16th in the league with a 4.59 ERA. Of course, it’s sometimes hard to accurately judge a Colorado pitcher. Due to the fact that they pitch at Coors Field more often than every other pitcher around the league, their numbers might be a little skewed. This is because Coors Field is over 5,000 feet above sea level meaning that, according to a Sports Illustrated article, “air resistance is 20% less, baseballs carry 20% farther and breaking pitches mover 20% less. It’s also no secret that pitchers are at a disadvantage because reduced oxygen levels at altitude tax the body and make recovery after each game and workout more difficult than at sea level.” With that said, the Rockies rotation was solid in 2017 considering the circumstances.
Jon Gray has improved each season since his major league debut in 2015. The young right-hander posted an ERA/FIP/xFIP line of 3.67/3.18/3.45 over 20 starts in 2017, which is great for a Rockies starter. The strikeout rate of 24.3% was solid as was the 6.5% walk rate. He only let up 10 home runs in 110.1 innings. His pitch values last year—-4.2 wFB, 9.9 wSL, 1.5 wCB—were very intriguing, and he posted the highest average velocities of his career. His fastball averaged 96.4 MPH, while his slider and curveball averaged 90.1 and 80.6, respectively. Colorado went a while without a true ace, but Gray has proven that he can be that guy for years to come.
Kyle Freeland and German Marquez were also a pair of intriguing arms in the Colorado rotation. Freeland made his major league debut in 2017 and took the mound 33 times, 28 of them as a starter. He pitched to a solid 4.10 ERA over 156 innings, but the 4.57 FIP and 4.70 xFIP suggest he might have been a little lucky. Freeland is a pitcher that relies on his control to succeed, so the 9.2% walk rate was a little concerning; it was 12th highest among pitchers who tossed at least 150 innings. The 53.9% GB rate was nice, though, and Freeland showed enough positive signs to give the fanbase hope in 2018. Marquez finished with an ERA of 4.39 over 162 innings, but the xFIP of 4.18 was appealing. He let up his fair share of dingers (1.39 HR/9), but the strikeout and walk rates were okay (21.0% and 7.0%) and he established his curveball as a solid offering, posting a value of 3.7. As with Freeland, Marquez showcased enough flashes to be considered an intriguing arm for the future.
While Tyler Chatwood has historically performed much better on the road than he has at Coors, there is a bigger red flag with him. The 12.2% walk rate in 2017 was really ugly, and with a career walk rate of 10.7%, it’s not like it was a fluke. You can’t even blame that percentage on the Coors effect, either—Chatwood’s walk rate was actually higher on the road (12.5%) than at home (11.9%). If it wasn’t for the control issues, he’d be a really intriguing young pitcher. As it is, the 4.69 ERA/4.94 FIP he possessed in 2017 were uncharacteristic, but even getting away from Coors won’t immediately make him a low-threes ERA pitcher unless he works on his command.
Antonio Senzatela made 33 appearances in his rookie season, 20 of them as a starter. Overall, he finished with an ERA of 4.68 and a FIP of 4.52. His main issue as a starter was his repertoire. The mindset is the same anywhere the a major league pitcher takes the mound but it especially holds true at Coors Field—two-pitch starters probably won’t find much success. The young arm threw his fastball 71.8% of the time and tossed his slider 22.1%. That’s not a great ratio for a starter. Combine that with a low strikeout rate (18.1%) and a walk rate close to 10% (8.3%), and the 22-year-old provided some answers but a lot of questions in 2017.
Jeff Hoffman and Tyler Anderson were the two other Rockies pitchers who made double-digit starts for the club. Hoffman was not only a top prospect for the Rockies but one of the best prospects in all of the minor leagues. He was definitely fast-tracked; he made his professional debut in 2015 and was up in the bigs by 2016. Hoffman improved from 2016 to 2017—the strikeout rate (18.6%) jumped by three percent, the walk rate (9.1%) decreased by two, and he posted a HR/9 mark (1.36) that was roughly 70 points lower. He showed flashes of his tantalizing potential, but struggled with inconsistencies. Anderson regressed in 2017 after a solid rookie campaign. He tossed 86 innings of 4.81 ERA/4.67 FIP ball, although the 3.95 xFIP was interesting. His strikeout rate (22.4%) jumped by about two percent, as did his walk rate (7.2%). His HR/9 mark also increased by almost 70 points. His GB% also fell by seven percent, which is never ideal as a Rockies pitcher.
The Rockies bullpen pitched to an ERA of 4.40 in 2017, which was good for 20th in the majors. Over 550.2 innings of work, the squad struck out 549 while walking 213. Some notable performances:
Greg Holland: 61 appearances, 57.1 innings, 3.61 ERA/3.72 FIP, 70 strikeouts, 26 walks
Jake McGee (left-hander): 62 appearances, 57.1 innings, 3.61 ERA/2.93 FIP, 58 strikeouts, 16 walks
Chris Rusin (left-hander): 60 appearances, 85 innings, 2.65 ERA/3.64 FIP, 71 strikeouts, 19 walks
Pat Neshek: 28 appearances, 22 innings, 2.45 ERA/1.70 FIP, 24 strikeouts, 1 walk
Scott Oberg: 66 appearances, 58.1 innings, 4.94 ERA/3.50 FIP, 55 strikeouts, 24 walks
Mike Dunn (left-hander): 68 appearances, 50.1 innings, 4.47 ERA/4.63 FIP, 57 strikeouts, 28 walks
The Rockies had a very quiet offseason, seemingly opting to stay the course and wait for some more of their young talent to arrive as opposed to handing out big contracts in free agency or making a big trade. The most notable addition was Wade Davis, who has been one of the best relievers in baseball over the past several seasons. Obviously, pitching in Colorado will somewhat hurt his value. Still, he’ll provide a nice punch for that Rockies ‘pen.
The Rockies definitely lost a fair amount, especially from their pitching staff. The most notable loss for Colorado was probably Tyler Chatwood, an intriguing rotation piece for several seasons that will now be throwing for the Cubs. That’s not to discredit the losses of Pat Neshek and Jonathan Lucroy were also equally important.
All Additions: Wade Davis, Scott McGough, Brooks Pounders, Chris Iannetta, Bryan Shaw
All Departures: Tyler Chatwood, Pat Neshek, Jonathan Lucroy, Mark Reynolds, Greg Holland, Alexi Amarista
Best Case: Not surprisingly, the offense is one of the best in the league, finishing top-five. Arenado and Blackmon lead a scary attack, and both finish top-five in the MVP conversation. Story finally finds some consistency, and Desmond bounces back after a sub-par campaign. Young guns like Ryan McMahon, Raimel Tapia, and David Dahl also provide key contributions throughout the season. The pitching staff truly surprises, though. Gray and Marquez are a formidable top-two while Chad Bettis pitches like he did in 2015 and 2016. Some combination of Senzatela, Hoffman, Anderson, and Freeman step up, performing like solid back-of-the-rotation arms. The bullpen is league average, the Rockies win close to 90 games again, and they make the playoffs for the second consecutive season, which would be a first for the franchise.
Worst Case: Not surprisingly, the offense is one of the best in the league, finishing top-five. Arenado and Blackmon lead a scary attack, and both finish top-five in the MVP conversation. Story is inconsistent but manages to hit close to 30 home runs. Desmond bounces back, and the young guns such as McMahon, Tapia, and Dahl provide a lot of reasons for optimism for the future. The pitching staff is the reason the Rockies aren’t a good team, though. Gray is clearly the ace of the staff, but no one else steps up behind him. Marquez doesn’t take that next step, top prospects Freeland and Hoffman both struggle, and the trio of Anderson, Bettis, and Senzatela aren’t able to right the ship. The bullpen is below-average despite the additions of Davis and Shaw, and the Rockies finish under .500 for the seventh time in the past eight seasons.
PECOTA Projected Record: 78-84, 731 RS, 763 RA