June 2, 2006
Historically, the most significant problem in Rockies baseball is the lack of pitching talent. The lineup has never really been as potent as it is believed to be--the 1995 playoff squad made it as far as it did on the strength of an incredible bullpen--but the starting pitching has always been the downfall of any potential success in Colorado. ERA is a misleading statistic for the most part, but for the sake of quickly showing Colorado's historical pitching problems, here are the top ten seasons by ERA:
Rank Player/ERA Rank Player/ERA
1. Joe Kennedy, 3.66 6. Brian Bohanon, 4.68
2. Armando Reynoso, 4.00 7. John Thomson, 4.71
3. Kevin Ritz, 4.21 8. Armando Reynoso, 4.96
4. Roger Bailey, 4.29 9. Darren Oliver, 5.04
5. Jason Jennings 4.52 10. Pedro Astacio, 5.04
is the only Colorado starting pitcher to have an ERA under 5.00 twice in his career. Two of the top ten seasons are earned run averages over 5. Let's quickly take a look at the top career ERA leaders in Colorado (min. 500 innings pitched):
Rank Player/ERA Rank Player/ERA
1. Armando Reynoso, 4.65 5. Kevin Ritz 5.20
2. John Thomson, 5.01 6. Jamey Wright 5.40
3. Jason Jennings, 5.02 7. Pedro Astacio 5.43
4. Shawn Chacon 5.20
Reynoso takes the top spot, and holds the only career ERA under 5.00 in Colorado history. The fact that only seven pitchers have made it past the 500 inning threshold is alarming in itself, never mind the ERA figures.
Why is this significant? The Rockies currently sport two pitchers with ERA's under 4.00 this season, and they appear to be succeeding on the strength of high groundball percentages. Colorado needs some sort of stability they can trust in the rotation through their homegrown pitchers so that they can concentrate on building a successful lineup and bullpen; throwing money at free agent pitchers has not worked in the past, and it will certainly not help in a market where a league average pitcher makes $7-8 million per year.
Aaron Cook is succeeding despite a low strikeout rate due to the high number of groundballs he has induced this season. His Batting Average on Balls in play is roughly league average, coming in at .316. Jeff Francis is also succeeding due to the high number of groundballs he has induced, and although his strikeout rate is around the league average, his walk rate is atrocious--4.48 per nine innings pitched--and his BABIP is a well below league average .250. Jason Jennings has also had a season worthy of note in Colorado, with an ERA of 4.54 to go along with a league average BABIP. Let's take a look at their batted ball data to see how sustainable their success may be.
Player LD% GB% IF/F HR/G HR/F%
Aaron Cook 20.2% 56.3% 5.1% 0.62 8.1%
Jason Jennings 19.0% 45.0% 9.6% 0.99 9.7%
Jeff Francis 18.0% 40.2% 12.3% 0.82 7.7%
The line drive percentage of all three of these pitchers is above the league average--roughly 15%--as is their Infield Fly ratio. Their IF/F is well above the average 3% mark, but some pitchers have a knack for inducing popups. Jeff Francis' mark is in line with his career rates, while Jennings is actually a few percentage points under his norm. Aaron Cook's have jumped around--9.2%, 3.4% and 5.1% the last three years--so making any assumption about his numbers is difficult. All three pitchers induce many more groundballs than the league average, which is around 32% of all batted balls, but it is all in line with their career norms.
Based on that data, this trio should be able to succeed to some extent in Colorado over time. BABIP may get in the way at some point, as it is higher at Coors than in any other ballpark, but if they can continue to induce groundballs with a capable defensive infield behind them, success should follow. Success relative to what Colorado has previously experienced, anyway.
Despite a spate of injuries that has prevented all but one player--Rafael Furcal--from playing in more than 47 of the team's 54 games, the Dodgers are in excellent shape as June opens. They've won 18 out of 24 since a May 4 loss to the Padres left them at 12-17, they're currently running second in the NL West by a mere half game, and they're ranked seventh on most recent Hit List. They can thank both the offense and the pitching for this. At the plate, the Dodgers lead the NL in scoring (5.49 runs per game), On Base Percentage (.359) and Equivalent Average (.276). On the hill, their 3.94 ERA is third in the NL, while their 4.38 Runs Allowed per game ranks fifth. Overall, their +61 run differential leads the Senior Circuit, and is fourth in the majors behind the Yankees, Tigers, and White Sox. Them's good company.
One of the top assets new GM Ned Colletti inherited when he took over for Paul DePodesta was a prized farm system chock full of prospects. Dodger fans held their collective breaths, fearing Colletti would trade many of those prospects in an effort simply to make the team more competitive in 2006. But Colletti's offseason moves centered around short-term commitments to veteran free agents, and the only prospects of note to be traded were pitchers Edwin Jackson and Chuck Tiffany; Colletti even netted the Dodgers a prospect in outfielder Andre Ethier, acquired from Oakland in the Milton Bradley trade. The one- or two-year deals the Dodgers handed to Nomar Garciaparra, Kenny Lofton, Bill Mueller and Brett Tomko were done with an eye to keeping the team competitive in a weak-looking NL West in 2006, but they were also designed not to block any of the team's key prospects, or to require rushing them.
The best-laid plans of mice and GMs often go awry, however, and injuries have opened the door to several Dodger rookies. Fortunately for the team, they've risen to the occasion thus far--and then some. Here's a quick rundown of the key contributors (all stats through Wednesday):
- Russell Martin (.253/.345/.387, .261 EqA, 1.7 VORP): When a foul tip-induced bone bruise felled Dioner Navarro (himself no graybeard at 22) on May 4, the Dodgers recalled the 23-year-old Martin from Las Vegas, where he was hitting .297/.389/.419. His arrival might be seen as the turning point of the Dodgers' young season, because it coincided so directly with the team's hot streak that he's been viewed as a good luck charm. Martin helped that perception by going 2-for-4 with an RBI double in his major-league debut, a 4-3 win over the Brewers, and was hitting .306/.394/.468 through May 27.
An 0-for-13 slide has taken the shine off of his line, but Martin's been contributing with the glove as well, or more precisely the arm. Opposing base stealers are just 8-for-13 against him, while they're 27-for-28 against Navarro and backup Sandy Alomar Jr. Additionally, Martin has a total of 16 assists in his 21.4 adjusted games behind the plate and has yet to make an error or allow a passed ball, while the other two have combined for just five assists in 31.6 adjusted games while making two errors and allowing two passed balls. Meanwhile, Navarro has yet to begin a rehab assignment because he's been unable to swing a bat. He had an MRI on his wrist on May 24 which revealed no tears, and received a cortisone shot the next day. When he finally returns, the Dodgers may well opt to keep both youngsters around, but that bridge hasn't needed crossing yet.
- Willy Aybar (.327/.448/.491, .322 EqA, 6.0 VORP): Despite a disappointing .297/.356/.419 season at Las Vegas last year (remember, we're talking about the offense-friendly Pacific Coast League), Aybar shined during a September cup of coffee, hitting .326/.448/.453 in 105 plate appearances. He missed the cut in spring training, but when Mueller went on the DL on May 12 to undergo arthroscopic surgery on his right knee, Aybar picked up where he'd left off last fall. Perhaps the biggest surprise is his plate discipline. Aybar had a decent track record in the minors, walking once for every 10.1 at-bats over the past three-plus years and posting a K/BB ratio of 217/143 as he's progressed from High-A to Double-A to Triple-A. He's dramatically improved that as a Dodger, walking once for every 5.2 at-bats and putting up a tasty 18/27 K/BB ratio through 141 big-league at-bats.
Assuming Mueller returns on schedule in late June, Aybar will have to contend with the numbers game. He can play second base (+8 runs there in 147 minor-league games over the past two seasons) as well as third (+10 in 68 games at Las Vegas last year), which helps his cause. But Cesar Izturis, who was supplanted at shortstop by Furcal, is making his way back from Tommy John surgery (he recently began a rehab assignment) and Jeff Kent's had woes linger; he's gone on the DL after missing four games in a row. Additionally, the Dodgers are probably more likely to keep Colletti favorite Ramon Martinez (they wish it was Pedro's brother) around than Aybar. Martinez has already beaten him out once, he's been swinging a ridiculously hot bat (.352/.417/.463 in 54 ABs), and has seen time at all four infield positions. But even if Aybar draws the short straw in the near term, the trade of Izturis will likely clear a spot.
- Andre Ethier (.324/.395/.577, .308 EqA, 6.7 VORP): When injuries felled Ricky Ledee and the surprisingly productive Jason Repko (with Jayson Werth still in wrist injury hell and unable to swing a bat), the Dodgers tapped the 24-year-old Ethier, who won the the Texas League MVP award in 2005 as a member of the Oakland A's organization, ahead of 21-year-old Joel Guzman, nominally L.A.'s top hitting prospect. Both had just a month of Triple-A experience under their belts, and both were swinging hot bats (.349/.447/.500 for Ethier, .330/.350/.543 for Guzman). Part of the decision was that Guzman, 14th on our Top 50 Prospects list had only converted to left field from shortstop back in spring training. Ethier's superior plate discipline (16/14 K/BB ratio in Vegas, compared to Guzman's 23/3) was likely a factor as well.
Ethier homered in his second major-league game on May 3, and he hasn't looked back yet. He has six multi-hit games so far--including a 5-for-5 against the Angels on May 19--and has three three-RBI games as well. He's been shielded from most lefties, having batted just nine times against them to date, but he came through with a game-winning RBI single against Atlanta southpaw Mike Remlinger on May 29. With J.D. Drew now dealing with recurring shoulder pain, Jose Cruz Jr. a threat to do his exploding Pinto routine at any moment, and 39-year-old Lofton having already hit the DL once this year, healthy outfielders are at a premium for the Dodgers, so much so that they've also recalled Matt Kemp from Double-A (he's 5-for-13 with two walks thus far) and, with the Kent transaction, Guzman as well. Even when Repko and the notoriously injury-prone Ledee return from the DL, the Dodgers will need some depth, and Ethier has done nothing but earn his spot.
- Jonathan Broxton (16 IP, 1.13 ERA, 11.25 K/9, 7.4 VORP). For his foresight in dealing with a potential Eric Gagne-free stretch, the Dodger GM might as well have earned the sobriquet "Ready Neddy" Colletti. When Gagne went on the DL for a nerve excision back in April, the Dodgers simply handed the reins to Proven Closer Danys Baez, acquired for Jackson and Tiffany. Despite a few hiccups, Baez has been solid, though his 2.30 ERA belies the fact that he's in the red according to our Reliever Expected Wins Added stat. But the combination of Baez's taking over closer duties, Yhency Brazoban succumbing to a UCL tear which required Tommy John surgery, and the failures of Lance Carter and Franquelis Osoria led the Dodgers to recall Broxton from Las Vegas.
The 6'3" 288-pound behemoth, who saw his velocity increase from about 93-95 mph to 99 when he was switched to the bullpen last year, has rapidly asserted himself as one of the team's top relievers, and manager Grady Little hasn't been afraid to use him for two-inning stints. Most importantly, Broxton has shown improved control from his stint with the team last year (20/6 K/UIBB as opposed to 22/10). He's currently third on the team in WXRL (0.459) behind 36-year-old Japanese League veteran Takashi Saito, technically an MLB rookie (1.430), and journeyman Joe Beimel (0.763). Broxton figures to remain in the mix, and with the increasingly fragile Gagne's free agency looming at the end of the year, the Dodgers may conceivably be auditioning the heir apparent.