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September 14, 2010

Expanded Horizons

Don't Call It a Comeback

by Tommy Bennett

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Rockin’ It Like Camp Lo

The Rockies started the month of September with two losses that pushed them 7 ½ games back in the National League West. They had, as recently as August 22 (which was just two and a half weeks ago), been 11 games back. Yadda, yadda, yadda, and a 10-game winning streak later, the Rockies still have lost only two games in September and are just 1 ½ games behind both the Padres and Giants, who now stand tied atop the division. During their winning streak, which was extended on Sunday on the strength of a bottom-of-the-ninth Jason Giambi walk-off homer, the Rockies have outscored opponents 63-30. In so doing, they have also swept two likely strong playoff contenders in the Padres and Reds, batted .296/.381/.512 as a team, and allowed just 29 runs in 90 innings (2.90 RA). After the win on Sunday and a Padres' loss, the Rockies now hold a one-in-three lottery ticket for October baseball. It has, not to put too fine a point on it, been a good week and a half in Denver.

It seems fair to ask where all this has come from. It’s not that a Rockie resurgence was such an unpredictable thing, it’s just that a dramatic comeback of the sort the Rockies have put together demands an explanation. After all, they released one of their 2009 All-Star representatives in late August—not something typically done by teams harboring playoff ambitions—even as they made plans to acquire Luis Ayala and Manny Delcarmen to shore up the bullpen. Brad Hawpe’s departure is understandable, particularly given that he had played his way out of Type A free-agent status, which he had been on pace for as recently as August 10. Hawpe was also made less relevant to the Rockies' plans by the solid play of Carlos Gonzalez, Seth Smith, Ryan Spillborghs, and the return of Dexter Fowler.

Super Jhoulys and Ghosts

More or less coincidentally with the moves noted above, the Rockies recalled 22-year-old pitching phenom Jhoulys Chacin from Triple-A, and since then he’s been a revelation. In 35 IP, he’s allowed just nine earned runs and struck out 32, while recording more grounders than fly balls in four of those six starts. He needs to watch his walk tendencies (he’s walked 17 since his recall and 55 in 117 1/3 IP on the season), but his stuff remains good and so far he has been just what the Rockies have needed. His 3.66 SIERA is just barely behind Ubaldo Jimenez’s 3.59. Chacin’s strikeout rate—24.1 percent—leads all Rockies starters. 

They Are Who We Thought They Were

Part of the reason that Rockies’ success has not been more surprising is that the underlying fundamentals of the team have always been strong. Since the beginning of May, the Rockies' third-order winning percentage (as determined by our post-season odds report, which is explained here) has not fallen below .528. Since the beginning of August, it has not dipped below .538. The chart below compares the Rockies’ percentage chance of making the playoffs to their third-order winning percentage.

Note that the scale for the x-axis is measured in days, not games, since outcomes for other teams can and does impact the Rockies’ odds of making the postseason.

What you should notice is that while changes in their third-order winning percentage have tended to track changes in their post-season odds, they have been a much better team than their post-season odds would suggest. For example, on August 22, the Rockies had a 2.3 percent chance to make the playoffs despite their .538 third-order winning percentage. So while that figure—.538—represented their lowest mark in weeks, it still is much better than your average team with a 1-in-43 shot at the postseason. Just to put it in perspective, the Rockies playoff odds on August 22 were approximately as good as the Red Sox’ were on Monday morning (2.1 percent, and never mind for the moment that the Red Sox have a .565 third-order winning percentage!).

Now, we have to talk about the home-away splits thing for a moment, because it has been a big part of the discussion recently not just about the Rockies in general, but also about their very own MVP candidate, Carlos Gonzalez. As a team, the Rockies have gone 50-22 at home and just 29-42 on the road. Needless to say, this disparity appears dramatic. On this point, Matt Swartz is the resident expert; he wrote last year that, “to analyze home-field advantage, we should keep in mind that every team except for the Rockies has pretty much the same home-field advantage.” He also found that the Rockies have had a consistent home-field advantage of about 15 percent, which is nearly double the league average. This year, the Rockies have a home-field advantage of 28.6 percent, which is off the charts high and almost certainly the result of both random distribution in favor of success at home combined with their already sky-high home-field advantage.

In any event, the Rockies have a relatively balanced schedule (at least as between home and away) from here on out. While most teams would not relish the thought of playing series against the Giants and Padres in the homestretch, it’s essential for the Rockies' chances of success that they have a series left on their schedule against each rival. Even better for the Rockies' playoff hopes is the fact that, while they close the season with a series against the Cardinals in St. Louis, the Padres and Giants will be facing each other in a three-game series at San Francisco. If neither San Diego nor San Francisco sweep that series, that might give the Rockies just the boost they need to make the playoffs for the third time in four years.

Question of the Day

Of course, the Rockies have two teams they must pass if they want to turn their calendar over to Rocktober. Those teams will no doubt have something to say in all this. How optimistic are you about the Rockies’ chances?

Related Content:  The Streak,  Rockies

3 comments have been left for this article.

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