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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

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