It has the makings of a long season in Colorado as the Rockies as the team is projected to be looking up at its National League West counterparts for the third straight season. The Rockies have finished 64 games below .500 over the last three seasons as a lack of pitching depth and various injuries have made life difficult for the team. Despite a great home field advantage that allows the team to be built accordingly, the Rockies have failed to find success and that appear to be the case again this season.
The Rockies were very good at home, posting a 45-36 mark in 2013. It was on the road where the Rockies suffered, finishing 29-52. Only the Marlins had a worse road record. Surprisingly, the Rockies were 38-38 against NL West competition, but that was made possible by a down year overall from the division, with just the Dodgers finishing above .500. For the second straight year, the Rockies were terrible in interleague play. They went 5-15 after an abysmal 2-13 record in 2012. Another two-year trend for the Rockies has been their struggles against left-handed starters. The Rockies were 20-33 against southpaw starters in 2013 and 15-35 in 2012.
Are these things fixable in 2014? Time will tell, but the oddsmakers don’t expect much improvement from the Rockies. LVH Superbook and William Hill both opened with the Rockies at 75.5, with Atlantis Sportsbook in Reno, NV at 76.5. BetOnline.ag opened their Rockies win total at 76.5 (-115 on both sides).
Key additions: Brett Anderson, Drew Stubbs, Brandon Barnes, Jordan Lyles, LaTroy Hawkins, Justin Morneau, Boone Logan
Key losses: Todd Helton, Jeff Francis, Dexter Fowler, Rafael Betancourt, Drew Pomeranz, Josh Outman
There have been a lot of moving parts this offseason for the Rockies. Todd Helton, arguably the best Rockie in franchise history, called it quits at the end of last season. The team signed Justin Morneau in an attempt to fill the void. The Rockies were also one of the league’s most active teams in terms of trading this offseason. In separate transactions, the Rockies added Brett Anderson, Drew Stubbs, Brandon Barnes, and Jordan Lyles. They traded away Dexter Fowler, Drew Pomeranz, and Josh Outman.
The Brett Anderson deal was the first surprise of the winter. The Athletics, who pride themselves on finding value out of inexpensive pitching, were unwilling to pay the price tag the oft-injured Anderson was going to receive. So they took a chance on former top-five draft pick Drew Pomeranz, originally acquired by the Rockies in the Ubaldo Jimenez deal with Cleveland.
The Dexter Fowler trade to Houston has been under a microscope much of the offseason, leading Fangraphs’s Dave Cameron to consider it the eighth-worst transaction this offseason. The Fowler deal opened up the financial resources to sign Justin Morneau and the Rockies were in dire need of starting pitching depth.
After the trade of Josh Outman to the Indians for Drew Stubbs, the team filled its matchup lefty role with Boone Logan. The seemingly ageless LaTroy Hawkins is expected to be a cheap closer in place of Rafael Betancourt, who required major surgery. The Rockies certainly look different this season than they did last season, but are they better?
Why bet the over?
The Rockies offense did put up some gaudy stats, albeit influenced by their park factor. The Rockies had the league’s fifth-best wOBA at .324, tied with the Indians and Rays. The Rockies led the National League in that category and were right up with the American League big boys, which is impressive because, as you all know, the pitchers hit in the NL and that is going to lower offensive production relative to AL teams with a DH. They took advantage of the hitter-friendly conditions at Coors Field to post the league’s third-best home OPS at .808 and second-best slugging percentage behind the Red Sox.
Troy Tulowitzki managed to stay pretty healthy and matched his usual WAR totals, accumulating 5.6 fWAR. He was on par with his 2010 and 2011 seasons both offensively and defensively and he still posted an .850 OPS and a 135 wRC+ away from Coors Field. He’s a legitimate elite talent at the shortstop position, even if Coors Field does inflate his overall numbers.
A sprained finger ended Carlos Gonzalez’s season early, but he was on pace for a career year prior to that. Even still, in just 110 games, CarGo racked up 4.9 fWAR, the second-highest total of his career. This is his age 28 season, so he’s firmly in the prime of his career and his injury was just a freak sort of thing that happens. It wasn’t leg or shoulder or elbow or back-related, injuries that may linger or hinder production, so it’s nothing to be overly concerned about. CarGo will also stay in left field this season, which should help his overall health.
Michael Cuddyer may have found a home in Colorado. He’s the reigning National League batting champion with a .331 batting average and he posted a career-best mark in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, wOBA, and wRC+. Like all Rockies hitters, Coors Field gave his numbers a nice bump, but he still posted a road OPS of .852 and a wRC+ of 136.
Wilin Rosario took the next step in his career, proving that 2012 was no fluke. Rosario is a very valuable player for the Rockies since offensive value from the catching position is hard to find. Another player to watch for the Rockies is Nolen Arenado. Arenado wasn’t regarded as a great fielder in the minors, yet it was his glove and not his bat that shined last season. If Arenado’s offensive numbers begin to translate to the Majors and his glove remains above average, he’ll be a very valuable player that could add a couple more wins to the Rockies. Given the Coors park factor, Arenado was below average offensively. His minor league track record, especially his walk rate and power, could definitely show up in his second season with more familiarity with the pitchers.
Justin Morneau is intriguing in Coors Field. Even though he’s not the player he once was before the concussion, he was still an above average offensive player over the last two seasons. Coors will help his numbers and possibly reinvigorate his career.
Jhoulys Chacin returns to anchor a rotation that went through a lot of turmoil in 2013. By default, this group should be better, as the Rockies were forced to use 11 different starting pitchers last year. Chacin was a wonderful story after missing most of the 2012 season with shoulder inflammation. He posted a 3.47 ERA and suppressed his home run rate in a tough environment. More sliders from Chacin led to an increased ground ball rate and keeping the ball on the ground in Denver is helpful.
Jorge de la Rosa returned from Tommy John surgery in 2011 to have a strong 2013 season. He went 16-6 with a 3.49 ERA. Because of the injury, de la Rosa’s velocity didn’t return and he had to become more of a control pitcher that changed speeds and mixed his pitches. It kept hitters off balance and led to a spike in ground ball rate, fewer walks, and less home runs. If de la Rosa and Chacin can stay healthy, they’ll be the constants in the rotation.
Brett Anderson is the “X Factor” for the Rockies. Exhibiting dynamic stuff when he’s healthy enough to pitch, Anderson once had tremendous control and was one of the league’s top guys at inducing ground balls. Anderson’s mechanics and reliance on a slider really took its toll on his elbow, forcing Anderson to miss large chunks of time over the last three seasons. Since the start of 2011, Anderson has made just 35 appearances covering just 163 innings. He gets a fresh start with the Rockies and still has good stuff if he can stay in the rotation long enough to showcase it.
Joining Anderson in the mix for the final three rotation spots are Juan Nicasio, Tyler Chatwood, and recently-acquired Jordan Lyles. Nicasio is a near-lock to make the rotation as one of the three Rockies that made over 30 starts last season. Nicasio’s 5.14 ERA was ugly, but his FIP was 4.25, signaling that improvement is possible in 2014. His left on base percentage was well below league average and his home run per fly ball rate was a few ticks above average. It’s the third straight season that Nicasio has posted a much lower FIP compared to his ERA and baseball study tells us that Nicasio should start receiving some good fortune.
Tyler Chatwood is an interesting player for Coors Field because of his very extreme ground ball rate. Among starters that threw 100 or more innings last season, Chatwood’s ground ball rate ranked third at 58.5 percent. The Rockies infield combined for 28 defensive runs saved last season, so having a good defense behind Chatwood would maximize his ability. As for Lyles, who moves back to the National League, he’s just entering his age 23 season, so there’s some untapped potential there. Having a better infield defense will also benefit him. If nothing else, the loser of the rotation battle will give Colorado a decent sixth starter.
The bullpen features a lot of interesting arm angles, which makes them difficult to face in a short series. The projected bullpen has three lefties, Rex Brothers, Boone Logan, and Franklin Morales, who started his career with the Rockies. Matt Belisle comes a little bit more over the top than most relievers. A wild card in the bullpen is Chad Bettis, who possesses swing-and-miss stuff, but the Rockies may be hesitant to put an end to their desire to extend him as a starter.
Back in the National League, LaTroy Hawkins’s strikeout and walk rates went in a favorable direction and he did some closing for the Mets late in the season. He’ll enter the season as the closer for the Rockies, but talents like Rex Brothers and Matt Belisle will be breathing down his neck. The saving grace is that a veteran like Hawkins should adopt the right mindset, whether he remains the closer or doesn’t and his insight could be invaluable for the bullpen.
Why bet the under?
Get ready for a lot of sabermetrics to make this case. We’ll start with the Coors Field park factor. Weighted runs created plus, wRC+, is adjusted for park and league factor. The Rockies look better at home because they play 81 games there, but the park factor helps every visiting team as well. The Rockies posted a 94 wRC+ at home, meaning their offensive performance was actually six percent below league average if we consider the Coors Field bump. The Rockies were 25th in wRC+ on the road. Coors Field gives this illusion that this is a good offense. It really isn’t.
Let’s take an in-depth look at the aforementioned Michael Cuddyer. Cuddyer had never posted a BABIP above .328 in his career prior to last season’s .382. Coors Field will inflate BABIPs, since the ball carries more, but for Cuddyer to post a number like that with absolutely no speed in his age 34 season is unquestionably an outlier. Cuddyer could post a good season, especially an above average one for his career, in 2014, but it’s undoubtedly going to be less productive than last season. Add in that Cuddyer is a poor defender and his value will drop.
It’s rare to find a team that relies so much on one player, but when Troy Tulowitzki is hurt, the Rockies suffer. Over the last three seasons, the Rockies are 40 games below .500 without Tulowitzki in the lineup. Even though Tulowitzki is only 29, he clearly seems a lot older with the injuries. He stayed mostly healthy last season, but his production tailed off in the second half and the Rockies went just 28-38.
The Rockies scored 160 fewer runs on the road than at home last season. There’s all the evidence you need to know how much of their offensive production is park-inflated. The pitching staff was about the same at home and on the road. That means they were bad both at home and on the road, allowing a league-high 760 runs.
The Rockies pitching staff is a major area of concern. Jhoulys Chacin has already had a MRI this Spring. For a pitcher with his injury history, that’s clearly not a positive development. Chacin will be shut down with a strained right shoulder and inflammation for at least a week, though likely more. It’d be a surprise if he was ready for Opening Day. Even more than that, however, Chacin is in line for regression. His strikeout rate was well below average and balls in play at Coors Field are never a good thing. His home run per fly ball rate was well below average and any normalization in that will lead to a lot more runs, especially if the increase in ground balls was a one-year thing. Chacin’s SIERA was 4.34, nearly a full run higher than his ERA. SIERA is a form of ERA that takes batted ball data into account and Chacin’s line drive of 24.5 percent is a big red flag.
Rotation mate Jorge de la Rosa looked good in traditional metrics with a nice win-loss record and ERA, but dig deeper and the picture isn’t as pretty. Like Chacin, de la Rosa’s SIERA was nearly a full run higher than his ERA. His line drive rate was over 25 percent and his strikeout-to-walk ratio was just 1.81. He posted a career-low HR/FB rate. There are a lot of “if” statements attached to whether or not de la Rosa’s performance will continue. It could, but if it does, it’s unlikely to be as productive.
With the exception of Anderson, the Rockies will have four below average strikeout pitchers in their starting rotation in one of the best hitter’s parks in baseball. The pitching staff was dead last in strikeouts and walked the fifth-most batters last season. That issue hasn’t really been addressed for this season and the returns from last season weren’t promising.
Pick: Under 76.5 (BetOnline)
Given the depth of the National League West, the Padres and Giants seemingly better this season than last, and the Dodgers projected to be one of the best teams in baseball, somebody has to lose in this division and it looks like the Rockies will be that team. The pitching staff was poor last season and it will take some overachieving to reach that same level this season.
Offensively, the gaudy numbers may be enticing, but they’re park factor based and Rockies pitchers allowed the third-highest wOBA at home. Any bump in offense from the Rockies is negated by their pitchers’ performance at home. This isn’t a very good team and they are a Troy Tulowitzki injury away from being terrible. This under should come in rather comfortably.
Previous team previews:
Arizona, Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago Cubs, Chicago White Sox, Cincinnati, Cleveland
Adam Burke is a freelance writer and amateur handicapper with a knack for finding value through matchup analysis and a deep understanding of the sports betting market. His main area of expertise is baseball, with a background in sabermetrics and advanced statistics. He is the host of The Gridiron Gambling Report and our college football and college basketball BangTheBook.com podcasts on the BlogTalkRadio Network.
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