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August 3, 2010

Expanded Horizons

Rockpiling On

by Tommy Bennett

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What happened to the Rockies? On July 11, the odds that they would make the playoffs were a healthy 64 percent, the highest of their season. Their third-order win percentage had hovered just below .550 for much of May and June, but their actual winning percentage stayed much more modestly around .500. But by July, the Rockies were finally bringing performance into line with expectations. Even as the surprise story of the early season—the emergence of a devilishly good Ubaldo Jimenez—began to falter, the bats came to life. In the month preceding the July 11 peak, Carlos Gonzalez batted .352/.386/.667, hit nine home runs, and stole five bases in 114 plate appearances. Seth Smith, another great terrorizer of right-handed pitching, hit .352/.413/.611 over the same stretch (albeit in just 63 plate appearances). Dexter Fowler returned from Triple-A Colorado Springs in late June and hit .280/.419/.560 in the 12 games leading up to July 11. Even Chris Iannetta, no stranger on the Colorado Springs-to-Denver express bus, rapped out a .256/.383/.615 line over the course of that month as a signal to the powers that be that he was ready to play.

On July 11, the Padres apparently slashed the Rockies’ sails. The game was in Colorado, one of the best run-scoring environments in baseball. Nevertheless, the stingy Padres (who had allowed the fewest runs in baseball), gave up seven runs but scored two runs in each of the seventh, eighth, and ninth innings to top the Rockies 9-7. A solitary two-run loss won’t move the needle much in the Pythagenpat department, but that game marked a turning point for the run-scoring and run-allowing tendencies. For the first time this season, the trend in the Rockies’ run differential had turned to the red. The following chart illustrates the phenomenon.

The red dashed line on the chart (read from the right-hand axis) shows the number of games the Rockies were above or below .500. As the heavy black line of runs allowed catches the sprightly, dashed purple line of runs scored, the Rockies saw their actual record take a brutal hit. They lost two of three to the Reds. Then they lost three of four to the Marlins. Next they were swept in a four-game series in Philadelphia. By the time they had lost the next two games to the Pirates, the Rockies had lost eight straight and were nine games back in the NL West. The next morning, their playoff odds stood at just 13 percent, the lowest they had been all season.

A Race as Cold as the Rockies

But the chart above is a little misleading, and there’s reason to believe the tails of the trendlines will soon cross again. Last Friday, the Rockies sent a clear message to Pythagoras as they beat the Cubs 17-2. Strangely enough, their third-order winning percentage was higher Monday morning than it had been all season (.562). That would put them on a 91-win clip the rest of the way and give them at least a fighting shot at the wild card. What’s more, the Rockies have faced the fifth-toughest schedule in the NL. Only one playoff contender—the Phillies—has faced a tougher slate of opponents.  

In short, the Rockies have already hit rock bottom. In fact, they’ve begun to dig their way out. Winners of four straight, the Rockies should be able to cover for the likely loss of Dexter Fowler with their cadre of talented outfielders. In the wake of Fowler’s impending DL trip, standing pat at the deadline and refusing to trade any of their bats or starter Aaron Cook looks wiser and wiser. The Rockies have eight more games against the Giants (five at home), 12 more against the Dodgers (six at home), and six more against the Padres (three at home). That’s a lot of games against divisional teams holding playoff aspirations, and a streaking Rockies team could yet make the NL West race interesting.

The trouble for the Rockies is that they don’t have many games left against the other NL wild-card contenders. They host the Reds for a four-game set in early September, which is a good chance to make up ground. They play four in St. Louis to close out the season, but the Cardinals appear to be gaining steam in the Central. The Rockies have three at home against the Braves, but at 70 percent, Atlanta is the favorite to win the East. That leaves just the Phillies, who after their recent four-game sweep, will give the Rockies the satisfaction of only one more game.

Looking for Green Shoots

As the chart above shows, the turnaround will have to start with superior performances from the pitching staff. Since the All-Star break, Rockies pitchers have given up more runs (4.05 ERA before the break, 4.60 after) despite striking out more than a batter an inning (146 K in 144 2/3 IP) and limiting walks at about the same rate they had before the break. Many have focused on Jimenez’s recent struggles, but reasonable expectations have to be that he returns to a medium somewhere between his mediocre June and stellar May. In fact, given their home park and with particular emphasis on peripheral stats, the Rockies’ biggest asset may be their pitching staff.

The hitting remains a bit of a mystery. The most striking split this lineup has produced is the yawning gulf between their home and away performance. On Blake Street, the Rockies have collectively hit .304/.374/.494. On the road, the bats have feebly managed a .229/.307/.363 line. I’m as skeptical about home/road splits as the next saberist, but even after we expect those numbers to revert to the mean the evidence is clear the hitters are more successful at home. The point is illustrated starkly by the splits of their opponents, who have hit worse in Coors Field (.251/.311/.388) than they have at home (.257/.336/.390). I doubt the trend will continue in such relief (what trend does?), but it certainly explains the Rockies’ struggles on the road this year (they’re 20-32). As the split narrows, the Rockies should improve on the road, and perhaps in the standings.

Question of the Day

 Are the Rockies’ 26 percent playoff odds a mirage, given the number of teams they have to leapfrog and games they have to make up? What strange alchemy gives them the highest third-order winning percentage in the NL?  

Related Content:  Colorado Rockies,  The Who,  Rockies

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