June 15, 2009
Rocky Mountain High?
With nods to Cliff Lee and the never-ending dramas in New York City, the story in baseball on this June 15 is the Colorado Rockies, who two weeks ago were rumored to be firing their manager, and now find themselves on an 11-game winning streak. The streak, tying the franchise record set two seasons ago, is bringing back memories of that late-season run that culminated in the first pennant in Rockies history.
Look a more closely, however, and you see that the 11-0 run hasn't even gotten the Rockies to .500. They're 31-32, and what this streak is really showing us is the variability of team performance over short stretches of play. The Rockies are a .500 team, more or less, and likely to finish the season between 77 and 84 wins. That doesn't mean they'll trade off 4-6 and 6-4 runs every 10 games all year long, though; they played .400 ball into June, endangering Clint Hurdle's job, and they ripped off this streak out of the blue. Getting caught up in the swings would lead you to underestimate them at their worst and overestimate them at their best.
The first place you look at a time like this is the schedule, and it's a little surprising to see how strong it's been. The Rockies haven't been served up a soft slate for whipping; the meat of this streak happened on the road, eight straight wins including sweeps of NL Central leaders the Cardinals and Brewers. That's as impressive a road streak as you'll see any team have all season long. They then came home and took three from the Seattle Mariners over the weekend.
The Rockies aren't squeaking out these wins, either. They've outscored their opponents 73-28 during the streak, winning just two of the games by one run. They've allowed no more than four runs in any game. Starting pitchers have gotten the win in 10 of the 11 games, including the first nine before Manny Corpas blew a two-run lead in the eighth inning on Saturday night against the Mariners. (Two in the bottom of the frame made him a winner. Ah, stats.) The offense has improved during the streak, averaging 6.7 runs per game while delivering a .297/.386/.489 line that is almost entirely the result of better in-play numbers and a slightly improved contact rate. The Rockies have gone from a below-par .288 mark on balls in play to .343 in the last 11 games, and cut their strikeout rate by about 10 percent, from one in 5.2 PA to one every 5.7 PA. That's pretty much the entire difference in the offense.
The streak is more about run prevention, and in particular, the job the rotation has done in its last two turns. The Rockies have allowed 2.6 runs per game in their last 11, half the 5.2 they'd allowed in their first 52 contests. The pitchers are responsible for some of that, jumping to 3.0 K/BB (without intentionals) from a 2.2 mark prior, with both more command and more missed bats. The Rockies' home-run rate ticked down slightly, and their doubles and triples allowed have been about the same.
That leaves the singles, which have disappeared off the face of the earth.
The Rockies' defense has done an outstanding job of turning balls in play into outs over the course of the streak. A team that was allowing a .331 BABIP has held opponents' to a .252 mark since June 4, and the entire difference is in its performance in preventing singles.
Now, it's 11 games, and heaven knows I'm the first person to talk about small sample size and how using two weeks of baseball to reach conclusions is the connecting road from Sanity Avenue to Hell Highway. (Let's hope the editors take that one out. [Ed. note: Not a chance.]) However, in the Rockies' case it's worth mentioning two recent personnel decisions that may be showing up in the stats. On June 6, the team called up Carlos Gonzalez from Triple-A. While Gonzalez's ability to overcome his plate-discipline issues remains in question, his range in the field does not. He's started seven of nine games since his call-up, and five of those alongside Dexter Fowler, giving the Rockies two center fielders in their outfield. The Rockies have allowed nine runs in the five games with that alignment.
Beginning on June 7, Ian Stewart wrested a chunk of the third-base job from Garrett Atkins, starting seven games in a row through Saturday. While this move is largely designed to get his bat into the lineup ahead of the collapsing Atkins, playing Stewart at third base instead of second or an outfield corner allows the Rockies to play without a defensive hole on the field. Stewart at third and Clint Barmes at second is much better defensively than Atkins at third and Stewart at second.
The defense, moreso than the streak, is the really valid comparison to that team of 2007. That squad featured the best Rockies' defense in franchise history, as Troy Tulowitzki took over at shortstop and Willy Taveras improved the outfield's play, with the humidor tamping down the altitude effects as well. The Rockies' 11-0 run features two personnel changes that, while not as radical or thorough, have made the team better at turning balls in play into outs. At this point, Stewart is better at Atkins at everything and should play every day. Gonzalez's bat is a work in progress, but the combined effect of him and Fowler together-akin to what adding Adam Jones to Nick Markakis did for the 2008 Orioles-may justify his playing time if he can muster even a .320 OBP. That the competition is Seth Smith and his .419 OBP makes that case harder to make.
The Rockies' 31-32 overall record may understate their situation. They have outscored their opponents by 22 runs, the third-best mark in the NL, and by the Adjusted Standings, only the Dodgers and Mets have clearly outplayed them this season. When Stewart and Smith play, there's not a below-average bat in the lineup, and when Gonzalez plays, the defense is an above-average one. The staff has followed Aaron Cook's lead to become the stingiest in the NL at giving out walks and in relying on the defense for outs (12th in strikeouts). There are legitimate comparisons here to the Cardinals' staff, which has a similar make and the same number of walks allowed. As with the Cardinals, then, the issues are whether the Rockies can keep the ball in the yard, continue minimizing walks, and get good defense behind them.
Don't evaluate the Rockies as an 11-0 team, or as a 31-32 club. See them as a 32-31 team (their third-order record) that may be getting its personnel in order for the last 100 games, and that has a real chance to steal the NL Wild Card from the more famous franchises in the other divisions.