Rockies have become a safe bet in the National League; 'We can play with anybody'
Thanks to sturdy pitching and an organization-wide culture that in many ways mirrors that of last year’s champion Cubs, the Rockies are playing like the team to bet on in the National League.
For much of the season, Colorado has held or flirted with the best record in the National League, and with 42 wins, the Rockies — tied with the Dodgers for first in the NL West — are just a handful of games behind the Houston Astros for the most wins in baseball. Despite finishing the 2016 campaign 12 games below .500, they were still a popular pick to reverse that standing this season, and through the first two weeks of June, the Rockies are fulfilling those preseason expectations.
As a staff, their 4.03 ERA ranks eighth-best in baseball, and manager Bud Black cites the pitching as the primary reason for the club’s success so far.
“Baseball over the course of six months truly boils down to how well you pitch, and we’ve pitched well,” Black said last week before a win at Wrigley Field. “There hasn’t really been a soft spot in our pitching, and every night, we have had a chance to win.”
Charlie Blackmon, centerfielder and offensive catalyst in the leadoff spot with his .373 on-base percentage, shares this sentiment, crediting the work of the Colorado arms for his team’s dominance.
“This year we have pitched the ball really well, much better than in years past. I think that’s really the main difference,” Blackmon said.
He added that the defense has played a role in this, noting especially that newcomer Mark Reynolds’ work at first base gets overshadowed by the likes of D.J. LaMahieu and Nolan Arenado in the infield. Colorado’s 23 defensive runs saved (DRS) ranks third in all of baseball.
Black credits some of the resurgence in his pitching staff to the defense behind them, but there’s another factor; one that has been a puzzle to solve for the Rockies for many years: pitching successfully in Coors Field. The Denver stadium has been tragic for many an ERA since it opened for the 1995 season, and there have been attempts at mitigating the effects of the ballpark’s altitude — such as the well-documented humidor for the baseballs that get used in each game — but as an organization, the Rockies may have found a better, simpler approach.
“We haven’t done anything magical with our pitching staff. There’s a mentality and confidence in each of our pitchers that’s required to handle some of the things that can happen in Denver,” Black said. “Chaotic innings and unsightly pitching lines that you just have to look past. They have to look past the selfishness of their own statistics. That’s growing amongst our pitchers, and it’s happening throughout our minor league system. There’s a mental toughness that they just have to have.”
Rookie starter Kyle Freeland, who is 7-4 in his first 13 starts with a 3.57 ERA, was the eighth overall pick in the 2014 MLB draft when the Rockies took him from the University of Evansville in Indiana, and he has experienced this organizational philosophy toward pitching firsthand.
“For us young pitchers, it’s not letting the hype of pitching at Coors, at that altitude, get to us,” Freeland said. “Our focus is on pitching down in the zone and getting weak contact and balls on the ground. As long as we can keep that focus and that mindset when we’re pitching at that altitude, we should continue to have success there.”
At nearly 49 percent, the Rockies have the third-highest groundball rate in the majors, slightly behind the Padres and Astros. Eliciting this many grounders is certainly an effective strategy for pitching in Denver, but it’s working on the road as well. In fact, they’ve been better when traveling, posting a .658 winning percentage when they leave Coors Field, compared to .567 at home.
To go with the surprisingly strong pitching and solid defense, the Rockies have worked as an organization to establish a clubhouse culture that embraces high expectations and character in its players. Outfielder Ian Desmond, a nine-year veteran who spent seven seasons with the Nationals and one with the Rangers, recognizes the value in the locker room atmosphere.
“The one thing that doesn’t really get quantified these days is chemistry,” Desmond said. “I think this team is really close. A lot of the guys came up together, and they know each other really well, so they operate or function really well as a unit. We pick each other up really well.”
Freeland, who came up through the Rockies system, said that the clubhouse culture is both a product of the work the organization is doing throughout their minor league affiliates and of the willingness of veterans like Reynolds and Desmond to come in and embrace the vibe.
Desmond said that this strong sense of camaraderie is the product of a deliberate effort from the top of the organization. General Manager Jeff Bridich, Desmond said, is the spearhead in this movement.
“I think it starts with ownership, with Jeff and his team, and they’ve done a great job of uniting good guys,” Desmond said. “You look around our clubhouse, and there are guys who are athletic and can do many different things. There’s no one-dimensional player on this team. Jeff has made a really good effort to change the culture here. He wants to be the GM that cracks the code, that’s very evident. Their openness to make the team better and to help us perform better was evident to me when I signed here.”
Is this the team to crack the World Series code? Just over two months into the 2017 campaign, that’s looking favorable. Since the Rockies’ inaugural season in 1995, they have been to the postseason just three times and the World Series once — an ill-fated sweep at the hands of the Red Sox in 2007 — so expectations in the Rockies' clubhouse are understandably tempered.
“I’m not going to say what you want me to say,” Black said in response to being asked whether he thought he was managing a World Series-caliber team. “But I like where we are. We have expectations about what we can do. We think we can play with anybody.”
Desmond said what many already know — that a team needs to focus on just getting to the postseason first. But once there, he said, the Rockies have the right pieces and the mentality to win. Not only that, but the left-fielder sees parallels to last year’s champs, including in his manager.
“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Buddy was with Joe in Anaheim,” Desmond said, referring to Black’s time as a pitching coach with the Angels, where from 2000 to 2005, Joe Maddon was the bench coach under Mike Sciocia. “They have similar characteristics. Obviously not the same because Joe stands alone in a lot of things he does, but I see their [the Cubs] versatility — guys who can play multiple positions and hit in multiple spots in the order — and we have that. There’s an energy to how you play the game, and I think we share that with them. We play hard, we play fast, and we look for outs.”
So far the recipe has come together for Colorado to stand atop the National League well into June. This past weekend, Colorado paid visit to the defending World Series champions and left looking more like the team on course to play deep into the postseason. As they have all season, the rotation played a large role in downing the 2016 champs in three games of the four-game set. Two of those three wins came thanks to quality starts from their rotation, one from Tyler Chatwood last Thursday, and one from Jeff Hoffman on Saturday.
With continued quality pitching like this from their rotation to go with sterling defense and a positive clubhouse culture, this could be the Rockies’ year.