August 26, 2009
The Rockies' Road to the Playoffs
With another extra-inning win, their second straight, the Rockies closed the Dodgers' National League West lead to just two games, the closest any NL West team has been to Los Angeles since April 24, coincidentally a day the Dodgers won at Coors Field. The Rockies have made up 4½ games in 14 days, going 10-3 while the Dodgers were limping in at 5-7.
Dramatics have not been terribly common for the Rockies this season, who had just one extra-inning win prior to Monday night's 14-inning classic against the Giants. They haven't been particularly successful in one-run games, just 15-17 after their 5-4 win over the Dodgers. In fact, the Rockies' incredible hot streak-52-22 since June 4-is remarkable for how little luck has played a part in it. The Rockies have outscored their opponents 398-289 in that timeframe, which would normally create a 48-26 mark. They've outplayed that by a bit, but 48-26 would still be a fantastic record, a 106-win pace over a full season.
Look at that run differential again, and what you'll see is that the Rockies, while playing home games in Coors Field, have held their opponents to less than four runs per game for half a year. That's incredible, but it's also a team-wide effort. The Rockies are third-best in the NL in walks allowed, and fifth-best in home runs allowed. Yes, the team that plays at altitude has allowed fewer homers than all but a couple of squads. The Rockies, led by ground-ball pitchers Aaron Cook and Jason Marquis, don't put balls in the air. It would appear that the strategy that failed nearly 15 years ago is now successful. It helps when you play defense; the Rockies, again fighting the effects of physics, are ninth in Park-Adjusted Defensive Efficiency. Their 2007 pennant-winning team had the highest PADE in team history, while last year's disaster-the one that mostly missed Troy Tulowitzki-had below-average range. The difference is even more dramatic if you go back to June 4; the Rockies had allowed a .330 batting average on balls in play up to that date. Since then, the number is .294. That coincides with personnel decisions by new manager Jim Tracy, giving more time to Carlos Gonzales and Clint Barmes at the expense of lesser defenders.
The Rockies have defended their way to the wild-card lead and within shouting distance of the Dodgers. The offense has been helpful, 10th overall in EqA thanks to balance-no Rockie is above a .304 EqA, but nine of their top 11 guys are at .253 or higher, and the ones who aren't have been losing playing time. The Rockies have become a fantastic secondary-average team, leading the league in walks and extra-base hits, the latter being more than just a park effect: they don't hit for average on the road (.238) but they do slug (.171 isolated power).
It's run prevention that has been the story here, just as it was two years ago when the Rockies won the pennant. The Rockies lead the league in quality starts despite having no pitchers who could get picked out of a lineup. Jason Hammel is here because the Rays had a roster logjam at the end of spring training. He threw seven good innings in last night's game, has a 91/27 K/UIBB ratio, and has allowed a mere 12 homers in 132 innings pitched. He's one of five Rockies starters who have made 123 of the team's 126 starts, remarkable stability that has been another key to the team's success this season. Any team that doesn't have to dip down to its sixth, seventh, and even lower-ranked starters has a big leg up on the competition. The Rockies lost Jeff Francis in spring training, but everything since then has gone right for them where their starting pitching is concerned.
The Dodgers' lead is down to two games, but it's actually six. That's their edge on the Giants for a post-season berth, the critical number. Should they and the Rockies both stay ahead of the pack, the difference between finishing first and second in the NL West is tiny, a seeding decision, and as we've seen in the past, teams play to win a post-season berth, not a division title if the former is already locked up. The Dodgers have no need to panic; they've actually outscored their opponents during their current 13-18 slide, and have a +23 run differential in August to go with a 10-13 record. They have the best third-order record in baseball-the best measure of overall performance-and a 93 percent chance of making the playoffs that includes a 70 percent chance of winning the West.
I wouldn't mind seeing Joe Torre run his bullpen a bit differently; just three days after the inspired decision to use his best reliever against the middle of the lineup in the eighth inning, Torre managed to lose an extra-inning game without using either Jonathan Broxton or George Sherrill, despite both having two days' rest. Instead, he allowed James McDonald to pitch the 11th inning, and five batters later, the game was over. McDonald hasn't been awful, but he's not Broxton and he's not Sherrill. Torre has to do a better job of getting usage out of his top relievers in that kind of situation.
Other than that, the Dodgers don't have much that they need to change. They have a fixed lineup and a deep, if slightly overworked, bullpen. They've been running open tryouts for the final two rotation slots in the absence of Hiroki Kuroda and the failure of Jason Schmidt to stay healthy. In contrast to the Rockies, the Dodgers have used 10 starters, and will make it 11 with Vicente Padilla this weekend. Individually, you'd take their top three against the Rockies' top three, and even their nominal top four, but the stability and performance the Rockies have gotten from Jorge De La Rosa and Hammel has been better than what the Dodgers have gotten from the combination of Kuroda, Kuroda's replacements, and the revolving door in the fifth slot.
You can't get too caught up in the narrative. The Dodgers still have a two-game lead and the better team, although the gap between them and the Rockies has narrowed throughout the season. My real takeaway is that the gap between the Rockies and the other wild-card contenders has been understated. This is much, much better team than the Giants or Braves or Marlins, and having taken a closer look at them, I'm sold on the fact that it's the NL West, not the East or Central, that will provide half the league's playoff teams this season. The Braves simply won't score enough to back their staff, nor will the Giants. The Rockies have a complete team, their sole weakness being a bullpen that is deep but not terribly effective-as we saw last night-and while not 52-22 good, deserve to be considered the favorites in the wild-card chase.