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September 2, 2008

Prospectus Today

Another Rocktober to Remember?

by Joe Sheehan

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A year ago today, the Colorado Rockies were six games out in the NL West, an identical amount behind in the wild-card race, and that was with the seventh-best overall record in the NL. They would go on to close the season on a 21-7 run, capped by a one-game-playoff victory over the Padres, then win their first seven postseason games before being swept out of the World Series by the Red Sox.

Today, the Rockies are six games out in the NL West, but little else is the same. While last year’s team had a winning record and a positive run differential at this point, this year’s squad is 65-74, and -53 in run differential, the 11th-best mark in the league. Last year’s team could target both the wild card and the division; this year’s squad has no chance to win the wild card. Last year’s team played fantastic defense, which made up for a pitching staff—and especially a rotation—that didn’t strike out many batters. This year’s team doesn’t get to nearly as many balls in play.

That the 2008 Rockies nevertheless find themselves in something like the same place as the 2007 team did has as much to do with the competition as any other factor. The Diamondbacks, despite having two of the top five starters in the league and an impressive array of young hitters, have been unable to climb much above .500, and in fact are just 43-52 since the middle of May. The Dodgers, also loaded with young talent and having added Manny Ramirez to the mix, are under .500. It’s this environment that allows a team that would be dead and buried in the other five divisions to have life.

The Rockies are probably not as bad as their record indicates. Missing Troy Tulowitzki for much of the first half hamstrung them badly, and Tulowitzki’s brutal performance at the plate when he was available was a key reason why the Rockies were seen as a seller at the trade deadline. The Rockies are 36-38 when Tulo starts, as opposed to 29-36 when he doesn’t. They’re 22-17 with him since he returned from the DL on July 21, a stretch in which he’s batted .333/.392/.447. More importantly, his defense has improved a shaky infield that often includes two guys playing out of position. Since his return, the Rockies have allowed 4.79 runs per game, nearly 10 percent less than their 5.16 RA prior to July 21. With Tulowitzki, it’s fair to say that the Rockies are a .500 team, maybe slightly better.

Being a .500 team won’t get it done over the next four weeks, not with needing to catch two teams and being six out. Of course, we know that a .500 team can have a .700 stretch, and we even know that the Rockies—who are fairly similar now to what they were a year ago—have that kind of kick in them. To catch the Diamondbacks and Dodgers, they will need to improve on a handful of areas, however. First, Willy Taveras has to perform better. Stealing 65 bases at a 90 percent success rate and playing excellent defense in center field are good things, but making an out in 69 percent of your plate appearances swallows all of that value up. Taveras doesn’t need to be Jose Reyes; he just needs to bump his OBP to .330 or .340 for a month, because Clint Hurdle doesn’t seem inclined to bat him outside of the top two lineup spots when he plays. The combination of Taveras (.312 OBP) and Clint Barmes (.323) cripples an offense that actually has a very productive middle.

The Rockies play those two because of what they mean to a defense that has to make plays. The Rockies are 14th in the NL in pitcher strikeouts, meaning lots of balls in play in an environment that rewards contact. Attempts to play Jeff Baker at second base have largely been unsuccessful, in part because Baker hasn’t hit well enough (.257/.314/.440) to justify the tradeoff. With the return of Todd Helton unlikely—his back won’t allow it—Ian Stewart and Garrett Atkins will remain on the corners, so there’s no alternative to a low-OBP second baseman. The Rockies need to get more runners on base at the top of their lineup.

Of course, being 14th in strikeouts is a matter of both chance and choice. The Rockies have used soft-tossing Mark Redman and Glendon Rusch this year, and when Livan Hernandez became available on waivers, they jumped at the chance to get him. Aaron Cook and Jeff Francis are homegrown starters and known quantities as far as their ball-in-play tendencies, but the Rockies should have been looking for the opposite of Hernandez—a guy who can miss bats—when trying to replace Rusch. Hernandez has been a disaster in four starts, with just one quality outing—at AT&T Park against the Fresno Grizzlies—to his name.

I’d like to call for a reprise of the Franklin Morales Experience here, but Morales has been a disaster throughout the season: 83 strikeouts and 82 walks in 110 1/3 innings at Triple-A after washing out of the Rockies’ rotation in April. You could make a case for trying Taylor Buchholz or Jason Grilli in the rotation, although the reason both are relieving is that neither has ever been able to pitch effectively as a starter. Almost anyone, however, would be a better choice than Hernandez, who nearly killed the Twins’ season. and is now well on his way to torpedoing the Rockies’ slim hopes.

The single biggest factor in the Rockies’ favor is the schedule. They play just nine of their final 23 games against teams above .500. Three of those are against the Astros, who have been outscored on the season; the six others are against the Diamondbacks on the last two weekends of the season, in Phoenix first, and then in Denver. Being six back with 23 to play looks less daunting when you have six games against the team you’re chasing. The Rockies also play three games starting September 12 with the Dodgers, a series that might well serve to eliminate one of the two.

As I said last week about the Yankees, all the Rockies have to do is focus on making that last series relevant. Instead of being six back with 23 to play, they’re three back with 20 to play. They have their second-most important player back in Tulowitzki, their bullpen is pitching as well as it has all year, and they don’t play another tough road game until game 160. If anything, because of the soft competition the 2008 Rockies may look better, looking forward, than the 2007 Rockies did. That team had to close 21-7, and win 14 of its last 15, to reach October.

This team may not have to finish quite that hot, but it will have to ape one key characteristic: the Rockies went 13-3 in September against the three NL West teams they were chasing. If the Rockies are going to reach October, they have to go at least 7-2, and probably 8-1, in their last nine games against the Dodgers and D’backs. That’s the path to Rocktober, The Sequel.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

Related Content:  Colorado Rockies,  The Who,  Rockies

10 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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jjgreen33

One point - any notion that Willy Taveras would be an asset over the last month if he posted a .330 OPB but would not be an asset at .310 is absurb. Over the course of a single month, the difference is less than 3 times reached base.

There are, of course, reasonable arguments as to Taveras's effectiveness (or non-effectiveness) as a player. But the notion that there's any meaningful difference over the course of a month between a .330 and a .310 OPB player fails.

Sep 02, 2008 12:09 PM
rating: 1
 
BP staff member Joe Sheehan
BP staff
(17)

Fair point, JJ, and one I've made myself in the past. Taveras does need to be on base more for the Rockies' offense to work, for some values of "more." .020 of OBP is variance, not a change in ability or performance.

Acres, I'm not convinced Spilborghs hits righties well enough to justify that role, as this is the first year in which he's touched them up at all. Then again, it may be worth finding out, and pushing Taveras into the role as Brad Hawpe's legs.

I'd probably settle for leading off Ian Stewart and dropping Taveras to eighth, but Clint Hurdle doesn't play that way.

Sep 02, 2008 13:38 PM
 
fairacres

Does Taveras' speed and defense justfiy is horrible OBP and total lack of power? I would give the CF job to Spilborghs the rest of the way; his .375-.400 OBP over the 2007-08 stretch would be a huge improvement over Taveras.

Sep 02, 2008 12:12 PM
rating: 1
 
jlebeck66

Going from a 50/50 Iannetta/Torrealba split to 80%(?) Iannetta will help a bit. Torrealba got a lot of post-season hero rope; Melhuse won't get that.

Sep 02, 2008 14:06 PM
rating: 1
 
mars2001

I say, try to catch lightning in a bottle... call up Eric Young Jr. & plug him in at 2B (his Defense (at least by FRAA) has to be an improvement over Stewart)... Ride I.Stewart like they did Seth Smith last year (though his performance really warrants more than PH duties) while keeping WillyT for PR duty & partially platooning CF between Spilly & Podsednik.

Spilborghs & E.Young would likely be a slightly stronger pair than Willy/Pods & Stewart.

At best, they make the post-season. At worst, you get to evaluate Young 6 months early for a starting gig at 2B.

Sep 02, 2008 14:09 PM
rating: 0
 
royalsnightly

Don't sleep on the Astros and their just shy of being legitimate miracle run here.

Sep 02, 2008 19:31 PM
rating: 0
 
Norsib

It's sad when an injury to Yorvit Torrealba is going to result in us having a better team due to a smarter playing time distribution. It's ridiculous that Hurdle was splitting them nearly 50/50 when Iannetta is 50 points better in OPS+. They're comparable defensively, and Iannetta is unquestionably our future at the position. Every at-bat given to Torrealba beyond those to give Iannetta's legs a rest is a total waste.

I'm looking forward to seeing if Dexter Fowler can produce at all at the major league level. Obviously he's most likely not quite ready to face MLB pitchers, but it'll still be fun to see a piece of our future now that he's on the expanded roster.

I just don't understand the thought process of Hurdle when tonight for example he batted Scott Podsednik (.265/.329/.351) and Omar Quintanilla (.245/.290/.362) 1st and 2nd. Having a player the caliber of Garrett Atkins batting 6th is a travesty, not to mention Stewart in the 7th spot. That's a lot of plate appearances going to our worst offensive players just since they're small/scrappy/fast. I guess the only good thing about Hurdle is that he doesn't abuse pitchers. Then again he also has an obsession of putting in scrubs like Glendon Rusch, Mark Redman and Livan Hernandez.

I really think we should trade Atkins this off-season for a pitcher capable of missing a bat. Stewart's shown that he's more or less ready to face MLB pitching, and there's no reason to keep him on the bench.

Sep 02, 2008 21:10 PM
rating: 1
 
RoxGirl

While your observation that Livan Hernandez needs to be removed from the rotation yesterday is astute (if easy) I think you fail to give enough credit to the remarkable job Jorge De La Rosa has done being exactly the kind of miss bats pitcher you advocate the Rockies should get. While Tulo's resurgence has been a large part of the gains the Rockies have made this season, JDLR's part in stabilizing the rotation over the second half has been just as vital.

I don't know if it's at all sustainable given his career and how the season began, but as long as he does keep this up, the Rockies have 4/5 of their rotation at a level where they give the team at least a halfway decent chance to win much of the time. The big issue with Morales would be a bullpen tax, I don't know if he's gone past six innings in any start with Colorado Springs this year, but if the Rockies could come up with a dual starter solution (Morales plus a Redman/Rusch/Hernandez scrub?) in the roster expansion, they could minimize this effect and get at least something worthy of fifth starterdom. I don't know if the team's management is creative enough to see this, however.

Sep 03, 2008 08:22 AM
rating: 0
 
brian8065

The Rockies should go to a 4 man rotation the rest of the way. They play 22 games in 26 days. Easy.

Sep 03, 2008 09:34 AM
rating: -1
 
brian8065

I just figured it out. They could go 4 man rotation the rest of the way, spot starting Hernandez once, and making Jorge De La Rosa and Cook pitch the last two days of the season on 4 days rest.

Sep 03, 2008 09:43 AM
rating: 0
 
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