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June 15, 2009

Prospectus Today

Rocky Mountain High?

by Joe Sheehan

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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.


            AB     1B   1B%   2B   2B%   3B   3B%
First 52   1792   372  .208   85  .047   10  .006
Last 11     360    50  .139   17  .047    2  .006

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.

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:  The Streak,  Ian Stewart,  Rockies,  Streak

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

BP Comment Quick Links

carpoon

Has there been any indication as to what happened to Atkins? He seems to have gone from a top slugger last year to under replacement level this year.

Jun 15, 2009 12:35 PM
rating: 0
 
Bill N

I don't have my Bill James Gold Mine here, but there were some signs Atkins was already declining, which didn't surprise many. I don't think people anticipated the bottom would fall out like this though.

Jun 15, 2009 14:20 PM
rating: 0
 
sroney

ENDANGERING Clint Hurdle's job???

I believe he WAS fired a couple of weeks ago, and that Jim Tracy is now the manager.

Jun 15, 2009 12:41 PM
rating: 5
 
BP staff member Christina Kahrl
BP staff
(11)

Indeed he was, and shame on me for rushing this up without reading it as carefully as it should have been. No excuses, just a boot, pure and simple.

Jun 15, 2009 13:21 PM
 
BP staff member Joe Sheehan
BP staff
(17)

Yeah, Christina, what do we pay you for? Really.

Folks, don't listen to her. This one is completely on me. I truly have no idea what I was thinking. Just a total and complete mental lapse, and I have no excuse. You all deserve better, starting with tomorrow's piece on how John Gibbons is keeping the Blue Jays close in the AL East.

Jun 15, 2009 14:23 PM
 
Evan
(47)

I'm looking forward for the article on Billy Martin's post-season plan.

Jun 15, 2009 14:46 PM
rating: 3
 
Richard Bergstrom

Did Tony Pena get proper credit for the Royals early season performance?

Jun 15, 2009 14:52 PM
rating: -1
 
badhame7

Hey guys,

Go easy on Christina and Joe. No one saw the firing of Don Baylor coming Dante Bichette, Galarraga and Vinny Castilla were completely caught off guard. Let's just hope that Billy Swift and Marvin Freeman keep pitching well this year.

Jun 15, 2009 19:08 PM
rating: 4
 
sbnirish77

So are you willing to credit the Rockies improvement to the managerial change? Seems like quite a blind test. Same team / different manager.

What is the statistial chance that the two events are independent? We know how loathe you are to attributing player performance to player makeup.

Jun 15, 2009 17:45 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Joe Sheehan
BP staff
(17)

I have no idea. Credit Tracy with the Stewart/Atkins decision, which is tangible. He writes out lineup cards with the Gonzalez/Fowler pairing, so there's that. If this is an intangibles question...no.

I'm not sure any manager in the Prospectus era has had such varied evaluations as Tracy, who was written a Valentine in one of the Dodgers book chapters, and who was considered more problem than solution by the end of his Pirates tenure. This will be an interesting tiebreaker.

Jun 16, 2009 06:59 AM
 
jkaplow21

Something about facts and good stories and whatnot...

Jun 15, 2009 12:51 PM
rating: 0
 
sgturner65

Earth to Joe:

Those rumors of them firing their manager turned out to be more than just idle talk.

Jun 15, 2009 12:53 PM
rating: -1
 
Richard Bergstrom

If I was Carlos Gonzalez, I'd be more worried about Ryan Spillborghs than Seth Smith...

I actually wonder if the weather has anything to do with it. I live in Denver and "summer weather" didn't really start until the middle of May this year.

Jun 15, 2009 13:17 PM
rating: 0
 
Ameer

Curious why you say this? Seth Smith hits and hits and hits...

Jun 16, 2009 06:49 AM
rating: 1
 
Richard Bergstrom

Because Spilborghs isn't a bad hitter either, he has received more playing time than Seth Smith overall and he can play a bit of center field.

Jun 16, 2009 06:57 AM
rating: 0
 
harderj

Ianetta also seems to be turning it around, which certainly helps. I just hope the Giants don't actually trade anything too valuable for Atkins...

Jun 15, 2009 14:38 PM
rating: 2
 
Flynnbot

My question about the Rockies is how they can keep on winning in Mile High Stadium.

Jun 15, 2009 15:01 PM
rating: -3
 
jtrichey

Not mentioning Jim Tracy is an error akin to Luis Castillo's muff from Friday night. I love ya Sheehan, but I'm going to have to vote you off the island in Prospectus Idle this week.

Jun 15, 2009 20:12 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Joe Sheehan
BP staff
(17)

Had to happen sooner or later. I, for one, welcome my new Jay Jaffe overlords.

Jun 16, 2009 07:01 AM
 
Richard Bergstrom

Resistance is futile.

Jun 16, 2009 08:38 AM
rating: 0
 
jkaplow21

Joe clearly has a Clint Hurdle bias. The dude is fired, but Joe will have none of that. LALALALALA I am not listening, Clint still has a job...LALALALLALA...

Jun 15, 2009 20:13 PM
rating: 1
 
RaysProf

11 wins in a row - even for losing teams, there is a remarkable high probability of this occurring in a 162 game season.

This leads to a serious mathematical problem. If you continuously follow a signal and your signal has a probability of giving false positives, how many positives do you accept before you are sufficiently certain that the positives are real? This is an deadly serious question for those at NORAD.

As for baseball - we can stop counting now - Rays 12, Rockies 3. And the Rockies played worse than a Single A team.

Jun 16, 2009 23:07 PM
rating: 0
 
Richard Bergstrom

So, let me see if I understand your argument...

An 11 win streak has no bearing on a team's ability, but a one game loss proves your point?

Jun 16, 2009 23:44 PM
rating: -1
 
RaysProf

Great response! I understand your point. My comment is a classic example of analyzing a team through probability and statistics - the "sabrmetric" approach - vs. analyzing a team via single game with one's eyes (I watched the game) - the "scouting" approach.

No, I just wanted people to realize that virtually all teams are very likely to have long win streaks sometimes during the season. Is it a coincidence that the streak started just after the Rockies fired their manager? ... I think NOT! :)

Jun 17, 2009 13:33 PM
rating: 0
 
Richard Bergstrom

Yep I agree that all teams can have long winning streaks.

Better teams are more likely to have long winning streaks, but there have been some very good teams that didn't have a long winning streak. Some very good teams have also looked like Single A teams for a game or stretch of games :)

On the other hand, a Single A team (below replacement level team) is less likely to have long winning streaks, but they can still happen...

As far as whether it's a coincidence that the streak started after the Rockies fired their manager.. it's hard to tell. If the Rockies now flatten out after the next 15 or so games, then it can be argued that the streak had more to do with luck than with Jim Tracy.

In the end, sabremetrics deals with measuring probabilities and probabilities have a big component of luck.. but kind of like poker, the better teams put themselves in more favorable situations more often with good hitting/pitching/defense and thus are more likely to win.

Jun 17, 2009 21:38 PM
rating: 0
 
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