A Way Off the Rockie Road
On the morning of August 20, the spread was 8.5 games. With just about forty games left for each team, many would have called the difference "insurmountable." However, over a period of just two-and-a-half weeks, 15 games for one team and 16 for the other, the teams have flip-flopped in the standings. Suddenly, without notice, the Colorado Rockies are no longer the worst team in the National League.
If only they hadn't changed the rules, maybe baseball's quietest bit of news would have made a newspaper today. In the good old days, a.k.a. two years ago, the 2006 draft's top pick would be awarded to the National League team with the worst record. It would have been the "winner" (loser?) of this race fighting for the rights of Andrew Miller. Instead, it's the Kansas City Royals who will scoop up Miller, leaving the Rockies and Pirates to battle for rights of the draft's second prospect.
Dave Littlefield had likely been waiting for the Pirates to make such a slide to fire manager Lloyd McClendon. While I would suggest he fire himself first, the Bucs could be said to be moving in the right direction...at a snail's pace. However, it is the red-hot Rockies that previously wouldn't even be credited with heading the right way. In fact, since a playoff berth in just their third year of existence, the Rockies have been swimming in a pool of mediocrity, and barring a finish even hotter than their recent pace (11-4 since August 20), Colorado will win under 75 games for the fifth straight season.
What was once sabermetric's holy grail, figuring how to win in Coors Field, has now been discarded as an impossibility. Dan O'Dowd has used the high altitude as a crutch, finding a way to stay atop the organization for longer than anyone with such a record deserves. If only his team could find a way to do the same, and pick a season to be on top of the divisional standings.
If anything, this was the season. With Coors Field attendance in a slow decline, and the NL West generating worst-division-ever arguments, the Rockies could have used a big season. Instead they preached patience, again, and put one of their worst products ever on the field. In the first half, in which the Dodgers and Padres pretended to be good before fading, the Rockies had just two ten-game streaks in which they amassed a winning record.
The second half has been a different story...kind of. With a pair of hot streaks (7/31-8/8; 8/20-now), the Rockies have shown they could sneak up on people in 2005 if the NL West has another five-under-.500 type season. Don't expect either, although if they continue to play ball like they did during those streaks, amassing 24 games in which the team had an 18-6 record, than surprises could happen.
Unsurprisingly, much of the praise for the solid 24-game stretch (or pair of stretches) should go to Coors Field, itself. A crash course on Rockies history would undoubtedly tell that Colorado's problem has not been high altitude, but leaving the Rocky Mountains. In the 21st century the Rockies have a 259-217 record at home, good for a .544 winning percentage. However, the tide always turns when leaving Denver, as the 2005 record of 20-46 more than attests. And of course, during the 24-game stretch in question, the Rockies win percentage at home (1.000, 8-0) is substantially better than away (.625, 10-6).
Another unsurprising fact is that in many of the wins, it has been the offense that has carried this team. Again, this is an organization that consistently ranks in the bottom twenties (or 30th) in team ERA. In eight of the games (coincidentally matching the number of home games?), the club scored eight or more runs, winning each time. However, the team also received some semblance of pitching, limiting opposing teams to three runs or less in half of the games. Their record in such a scenario? A perfect 12-0.
So wait, not only have the Rockies been kinda-winning (10 out of 16 ain't bad!) on the road, but they also have been pitching well? What gives? Well, in the 24 games, the starters have an ERA of 3.45 (thanks, Dave). A look at the seven players that started during that time:
GS IP ERA
Jeff Francis 5 28 5.46
Jamey Wright 4 24 6.38
B-H Kim 5 33.2 1.87
Jose Acevedo 1 6 1.50
Aaron Cook 5 30 1.80
S-W Kim 3 14.1 2.51
Zach Day 1 5 3.60
Wow, wasn't expecting that! Has anyone else noticed that Byung-Hyun Kim has suddenly become one of the more hot pitchers in baseball? Certainly, he's proving to be a bargain considering his acquisition allowed the team to rid themselves of Charles Johnson and his Charles Johnson-sized contract. His namesake has also pitched well since being put into the rotation, replacing Jose Acevedo. Now it appears that Zach Day, acquired for Preston Wilson (and his Charles Johnson-sized contract), will take Jamey Wright's place in the rotation. And Jeff Francis, despite his recent struggles, will likely have a Dan O-Dowd type tenure within this rotation.
The wild card here, it appears, is Aaron Cook. Returning from injury, Cook is just starting to catch fire and resume his old status. With yesterday's victory, Cook is 4-0 in his last seven starts, lowering his ERA from 14.54 to 3.47. The cause has been a substantial rise in his groundball outs, as he has caused at least 11 in all seven starts, and at least 14 in each of his last four. For a pitcher that lives and dies by the sinker, this is a very, very good sign. Odd arm angles and sinkerballers? Could the Rockies be onto something?
Going forward, my suggestion to the Rockies would be to take their newfound pitching discovery to the next level. Start to teach all (most?) pitchers in the system how to throw a sinker, similar to the Toronto Blue Jays' new obsession with the cutter. Try acquiring many relievers with different arm angles, and for floundering minor league relievers, see what moving to side-arm would do. Experimentation will prove to be the key to success in this environment.
This offseason, Dan O'Dowd should be happy he has four good starters in Francis, Cook, Byung-Hyun Kim and Zach Day. Moving Sunny Kim to the swingman spot would be a good idea, and scouring the free agent/trade markets for the next bargain-turned-Kim. The important counting and rate stats to consider? How about groundballs and G/F? Don't go overboard with another Mike Hampton-type signing with A.J. Burnett, instead asking what the A's are charging for Kirk Saarloos. Or how about taking a chance/risk on the recently-released Sidney Ponson? Not good for public relations, sure, but at this point, the only thing that can help that department is a big improvement in the win column.
In 1995, the Rockies paid only four pitchers (Bret Saberhagen, Bill Swift, Darren Holmes, Bruce Ruffin) seven figures. Instead it was the bargain-basement signings teamed with the big offensive names that led the Rockies to their one-and-only playoff appearance. This is what the Rockies must build towards. For every Byung-Hyun Kim there must be two Ian Stewarts and Troy Tulowitzkis.
Even if that means sometimes missing out on the #2 pick, though Dallas Buck would look really good in purple.