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March 5, 2013

Western Front

Different Ballparks, Same Problem

by Geoff Young

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Two of the most extreme ballparks in baseball are home to National League West teams. Coors Field inflates offense, while Petco Park destroys it. Neither the Rockies nor the Padres are expected to contend in 2013, and a lack of quality starting pitching is a large part of the reason in both cases. Despite their different environments, these two teams face the same problem.

Who are the candidates for each rotation? What do they have to offer?

Rockies
Last year's staff was a mess. Injuries played a role, as did the four-man rotation with 75-pitch limits on starters that forced the club to rely more heavily on middle relievers. Well, definitely the former and maybe the latter. Whatever the cause, it resulted in Jeff Francis breaking a seemingly unbreakable record and the Rockies stumbling through their worst season ever.

As a group, the Colorado rotation sported a 5.81 ERA, last in MLB by plenty. Even by Coors Field standards, last year was bad. Only once in the club's 20-year existence had Rockies starters posted a higher ERA, and that came when more runs were being scored in baseball. Here are the bottom five:

Year

 

ERA

IP

Col

MLB

1999

935.1

6.19

4.71

2012

765.0

5.81

4.01

1996

918.2

5.68

4.61

1998

983.1

5.62

4.43

2000

923.1

5.59

4.77

The best, in case you were wondering, wasn't all that long ago. In 2009, Colorado starters posted a combined 4.10 ERA. So it can be done.

Note also how few innings Rockies starters pitched. This was easily their lowest total (by more than 100 innings) in a non-strike season. Even the 1995 rotation worked 7 1/3 more innings despite starting 18 fewer games. Colorado starters worked the fewest innings in MLB by 115 innings. The gap from 29th-ranked Minnesota to sixth-ranked Tampa Bay was only 113 1/3 innings. The Rockies, with their pitch-limit experiment, were playing a different game.

Their innings total from starting pitchers was lowest in MLB in a non-strike year since at least 1916, when data is first available. Your bottom 10*:

Team

Year

IP

Rockies

2012

765.0

Rangers

2003

832.0

Mariners

1977

833.2

Rangers

2007

838.0

Royals

2006

848.2

Nationals

2007

856.0

Angels

1980

856.1

Marlins

2007

857.0

Athletics

1997

858.2

Royals

2005

861.1

*Okay, technically the 1918 Yankees would be 10th with 861, but they played 126 games. This goes against the spirit of the thing. What we're really interested in is innings pitched per start, which, oh look another table (this includes strike years):

Team

Year

IP/GS

Rockies

2012

4.72

Tigers

1995

5.07

Rangers

2003

5.14

Mariners

1977

5.15

Rangers

2007

5.17

Royals

2006

5.24

Nationals

2007

5.28

Marlins

2007

5.29

Athletics

1997

5.30

Royals

2005

5.32

Athletics

1964

5.32

So Rockies starters averaged a third of an inning less than any other team's starters in at least 96 years, probably longer because relievers served a different purpose back then.

The good news is that some of the guys who were hurt last year for the Rockies are no longer hurt, at least not to start the season. The bad news is, they still come with a lot of questions. Working from the current BP depth charts, here is a quick rundown of Colorado's leading candidates:

Jorge De La Rosa
Question:
Can he stay healthy and be effective?

Good: De La Rosa gave the Rockies 5.3 WARP in 2008 and 2009.

Bad: He has pitched 69 2/3 innings since signing a two-year, $21.5 million deal with an $11 million player option that he exercised this year coming off Tommy John surgery. His 90th percentile PECOTA projection is 79 2/3 innings and a 3.90 ERA.

Yesterday's optimism, courtesy of BP2010: “It looks like his talent has finally translated to production, and his wanderin’ days are through.”

Jhoulys Chacin
Question:
If two halves make a whole, what does Chacin make?

Good: He was brilliant before the All-Star break in 2011, posting a 3.16 ERA in 18 starts and holding the opposition to a .201/.287/.365 line.

Bad: His ERA is 4.37 since then. Arm problems caused him to miss four months last year.

Yesterday's optimism, courtesy of BP2009: “There's no reason he couldn't be a second or third starter in the majors in short order.”

Drew Pomeranz
Question:
Can he throw strikes?

Good: Kevin Goldstein ranked him 34th among all prospects entering the 2012 season, up from 43rd a year earlier. If there's anyone to get excited about here, it's probably Pomeranz.

Bad: A high walk rate (4.3 BB/9 last year) is dangerous at Coors Field. He should watch Jeff Francis.

Yesterday's optimism, courtesy of BP2012: “Assuming he doesn't go Full Nuclear Poreda with the walks, Pomeranz should be a fixture at the top of Colorado's rotation for years to come.”

Juan Nicasio
Question:
Is he okay and, if so, for how long?

Good: After surviving a horrendous injury that ended his 2011 season early, Nicasio made good on his vow to return to the mound. If he does nothing else in life, this is an awesome story.

Bad: His season ended early again, this time thanks to left knee surgery.

Yesterday's optimism, courtesy of BP2010: “A little old for the Sally League, Juan Nicasio nonetheless impressed by posting a ridiculous K/BB ratio in a notorious hitter’s park; he might surprise.”

Jeff Francis
Question:
What is he still doing here?

Good: Francis pitched very well for the Rockies from 2005 to 2007, totaling 10.1 WARP in that time. He has 65 strikeouts and five walks against left-handed batters over the past three years.

Bad: Since 2008, opponents are hitting .299/.341/.469 against him, which is basically Dave Parker's career line or what Adrian Gonzalez did last year.

Yesterday's optimism, courtesy of BP2005: “Highly touted, Grade-A prospect. Francis throws hard, has good command and control, big K rates, nothing here not to like.”

Tyler Chatwood
Question:
Is he a big-league pitcher?

Good: Chatwood is 23 years old. He was once compared to Roy Oswalt, because... short right-hander.

Bad: In a full season's worth of innings, he owns a 4.5 BB/9 and a 5.0 K/9. His 90th percentile PECOTA projection is 103 2/3 innings and a 5.25 ERA.

Yesterday's optimism, courtesy of BP2010: “Chatwood drew inevitable comparisons to Roy Oswalt due to his diminutive size and combination of a mid-90s fastball and a knee-buckling curve.”

Christian Friedrich
Question:
Can he keep the ball in the park?

Good: Friedrich is a former first-round pick and top prospect (ranked 22nd in 2010, one slot behind Madison Bumgarner).

Bad: He owns a 4.78 ERA and 1.1 HR/9 in 250 2/3 innings in the high minors, and allowed 10 homers in 187 plate appearances at Coors Field in his big-league debut.

Yesterday's optimism, courtesy of BP2010: “Friedrich’s curveball may be the best in the minors, while his low-90s fastball is more than just a show-me pitch.”

Chris Volstad
Question:
If he couldn't get hitters out in Chicago, how will he get them out in Denver?

Good: Volstad used to be a top prospect and is still only 26 years old. He is durable, having made 30 or more starts (including the minors) in each of the past four seasons.

Bad: Opponents hit .306/.365/.482 against him last year (Andre Ethier/Luis Gonzalez territory). His career K/9 is 5.7.

Yesterday's optimism, courtesy of BP2007: “Scouts like his ability to keep the ball on the ground, and everybody likes his ability to throw strikes with low-90s heat, curves, and changeups.”

Padres

I've addressed San Diego's pitching woes briefly in a recent Lineup Card, and in greater detail at my Padres blog. The team's big off-season moves were to add Freddy Garcia and Tyson Ross, and retain Jason Marquis and Tim Stauffer. The utility of these moves is left to your imagination.

The Padres weren't historical like the Rockies. San Diego did lead the league in different starting pitchers used with 15, but 67 teams in history (65 if you're not comfortable going back before 1901) have used more—most impressively the 1915 Athletics, who used 24 in 154 games.

To San Diego's rotation candidates (you could add Andrew Cashner and Ross to this list; heck, for all I know, you could add John D'Acquisto and Juan Eichelberger):

Edinson Volquez
Question:
Will his command ever match his stuff?

Good: Vólquez made it through the season healthy and racked up a ton of strikeouts.

Bad: He tied for the major-league lead in walks. His ERA since 2009 is 4.62.

Yesterday's optimism, courtesy of BP2009: “If he could shave one walk per nine off his 2008 performance, we'd be looking at someone special.”

Clayton Richard
Question:
How will Petco Park's new dimensions affect his game?

Good: Richard is a workhorse with a winning smile.

Bad: He led the NL in homers allowed last year. His career ERA away from Petco is 4.99. He can't make a throw to first base to save his life.

Yesterday's optimism, courtesy of BP2010: “Between the rhythm, the stuff, and the durability, he should settle in nicely as the Padres' third or fourth starter.”

Jason Marquis
Question:
When does he turn into a pumpkin?

Good: Marquis has made the playoffs with four different teams and owns a career .202 batting average.

Bad: Since 2010, his WARP is -0.2. The Twins, who desperately needed pitching last year, released him in May.

Yesterday's optimism, courtesy of BP2000: “He has good command and gets points for his intelligence, so there’s not much here to not like. With the usual health caveats, Marquis is an excellent pitching prospect.”

Eric Stults
Question:
What the heck was that, and can he do it again?

Good: Dan Evans drafted him.

Bad: Stults has accumulated 2.1 WARP in 256 innings. His career K/9 is 5.6, and his single-season high in IP at the big-league level is 99, set last year at age 32.

Yesterday's optimism, courtesy of BP2007: “With an 88 to 92 mph fastball, a plus changeup, and an average cutter, he generates enough ground balls that he could find a spot in the bullpen.”

Freddy Garcia
Question:
Remember 2001?

Good: García had a 4.01 ERA in his 20s, averaging 31 starts and 205 innings a year.

Bad: García has a 4.57 ERA in his 30s, averaging 16 starts and 90 innings a year.

Yesterday's optimism, courtesy of BP2000: “He has the stuff and makeup to be a number one starter.”

Tim Stauffer
Question:
What might he have been if not for all the injuries?

Good: Stauffer made it through 2011 healthy and put up good numbers before tiring toward the end.

Bad: He worked five innings last year and had elbow surgery in August.

Yesterday's optimism, courtesy of BP2006: “He's still a solid mid-wattage pitching prospect, and will be in the mix for a rotation spot this year.”

Casey Kelly
Question:
Should we be concerned that his comps include Justin Germano?

Good: Kelly has been a highly regarded prospect since the Red Sox took him in the first round of the 2008 draft. He showed signs of fulfilling his potential last year and is just 23 years old.

Bad: An elbow strain kept him out of action for 3 ½ months in 2012. He doesn't miss a lot of bats.

Yesterday's optimism, courtesy of BP2010: “Kelly throws strikes with a low-90s fastball with good movement, an excellent curve, and a developing change, all of which could be plus pitches.”

Cory Luebke
Question:
How good will he be when he returns, and can he stay healthy?

Good: Luebke led NL rookie pitchers with 21.6 VORP in 2011 and started strong last season after signing a four-year contract extension.

Bad: He blew out his elbow five starts into the new deal and in May had Tommy John surgery, which will keep him out of action for the first half of 2013.

Yesterday's optimism, courtesy of BP2011: “Luebke hits 89-91 with his four- and two-seamers to go with a slider/changeup combo, both of which are in the low-to-mid 80s—but his command of all four pitches is a plus skill.”

Robbie Erlin
Question:
When will he arrive?

Good: Erlin is a polished strike-thrower who owns a 10.1 K/9 in 326 2/3 minor-league innings and a Saberhagenesque 7.4 K/BB.

Bad: An elbow injury limited him to 84 1/3 innings in 2012, including winter ball.

Yesterday's optimism, courtesy of BP2011: “Despite not possessing a top-of-the-rotation ceiling, Erlin has a combination of polish and promise that make him a legit prospect and a player who could reach Double-A as a 20-year-old.”

* * *

There are other reasons why these two teams probably won't contend in 2013 (we've got the Rockies at 72 wins as of this writing, the Padres at 76), but when we look back on the season, the starting rotations will have played a large role. Either that, or I've just offended the baseball gods by dismissing two teams in March, in which case Chris Volstad is your World Series MVP.

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