Colorado Rockies Starting Rotation Showing Promise

Colorado Rockies
OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA - JULY 29: German Marquez #48 of the Colorado Rockies pitches in the bottom of the third inning against the Oakland Athletics at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum on July 29, 2020 in Oakland, California. (Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images)

The Colorado Rockies starting rotation has long been subject to the cruel mistress that is Coors Field. However, they have started strong in 2020 with a winning record through the team’s first five games. This year will be among the oddest in baseball history but the Rockies have shown they are ready to compete this year.

Colorado Rockies Starting Rotation

The Rockies have gotten two starts from German Marquez and one each from three other pitchers. Marquez has combined with Jon Gray, Kyle Freeland, and Antonio Senzatela for a 2.30 ERA, 3.62 FIP, and .6 WAR. That last figure places Colorado tenth among MLB starting rotations to this point. The starters ended 2019 as the 25th-ranked starting rotation at 6.5 WAR. They are off to a much stronger start compared to how last season ended.

The starters are succeeding so far thanks to a significantly reduced home run rate. They are currently giving up the long ball at a rate of just .66 per nine innings. The 2019 rate was 1.74 per nine. Rockies starters had a league-worst home run-to-fly ball percentage of 20.8 last year compared to just 7.7 percent of the time in 2020. They have not yet played in Coors Field so that number could change when the team has its home debut Friday against the San Diego Padres. We also don’t know enough about the ball in 2020. The livelier ball from 2019 could potentially hinder the progress Colorado’s starters are showing thus far.

More Interesting Numbers to Start 2020

There are a few other numbers worth highlighting though the first few games. Colorado has done a great job limiting random fly balls turning into home runs but more work is necessary. They have a groundout rate of just 41.7 percent. That ranks 17th on FanGraphs’ starter leaderboards. The rotation will need to do a better job keeping the ball on the ground if they want to maximize the defense’s potential; Colorado has one of the best infields in the majors but a lack of groundballs limits how effective they can ultimately be.

The Rockies also need to lower their walk rate from 4.28 per nine, which, so far, rates ninth-worst in the league. They rated near the bottom of the league in walk rate in 2019 with 3.45 per nine. The strikeout rate has increased to 8.23/9 in 2020 compared to last season’s 7.49. That is a big improvement but it still results in an environment where Colorado isn’t getting tons of ground outs and is instead getting most of its outs via strikeout or fly ball

That puts more pressure on an outfield that has potential but has some unknowns in terms of defense. Charlie Blackmon is getting older and might move to Designated Hitter if it remains in place for 2021. David Dahl, Raimel Tapia, and Sam Hilliard all have promise as regular defenders but injuries and lack of playing time limit knowledge of how they’ll fare over a full season.

What The Starters are Throwing This Year

The Rockies’ starters are thriving thanks to breaking pitches and velocity. They are in the top 10 for average fastball, slider, and curveball speeds. It’s also worth noting that while the fastball is tied for fifth at 94.5 mph, the rotation is actually near the bottom in terms of fastball usage. The four starters have thrown it just 48.1 percent of pitches. That ranks them 20th between the Kansas City Royals and Chicago White Sox. Colorado is eighth in the percentage of sliders thrown and tenth in curveballs. Only Marquez and Senzatela are relying on fastballs for more than half of pitches thrown so far. Gray has embraced the slider and changeup for almost 48 percent of his throws and Freeland is throwing his four pitches in nearly equal amounts.

It will be interesting to see if the breaking pitches are used as much when the team returns to Coors Field. Some starters have done well despite Coors Field’s effect on pitch movement but it’s still a nightmare for most arms. Strong conclusions about pitch effectiveness will be more possible with a larger sample. The team also has not used its fifth starter, which would affect the rotation’s overall numbers. Jeff Hoffman and Chi Chi Gonzalez are the primary options for the fifth rotation spot. Both bring something unique to the table despite below-average results over their careers.

Can The Starters Sustain Their Success

Consistency has been a major issue in the Rockies’ history. The mile-high air in Denver remains an unsolved puzzle for over 20 seasons. Colorado starters had one of their best seasons ever in 2018 with 14.0 combined WAR but the group collapsed last year. The early returns are promising but the parks for the Texas Rangers and Oakland Athletics are not high-offensive environments. It’s entirely possible that the home run rate will increase as the season progresses. The upcoming home series against the Padres and San Francisco Giants will illuminate things further.

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