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Are These Rockies the Real Deal?

Are These Rockies the Real Deal?

Contrary to the expectations of even the most optimistic fans, the Colorado Rockies are off to an exceptional start, going 4-1 on the road and sweeping a formidable Oakland Athletics team to start the season. Currently sitting at first place in a competitive NL West, the Rockies’ early success has come on the heels of outstanding starting pitching, a lock-down bullpen and timely hitting. While it’s still far too early to call the Rockies sure-fire postseason contenders, they’ve given fans something to be excited about, and are beginning to insert themselves into the discussion for a spot in the MLB’s expanded playoffs. Ultimately, Colorado’s prospects for a competitive season will depend on a confluence of factors, many of which are discussed below.

Rotation

Germán Márquez could be a dark horse Cy Young contender this year for the Colorado Rockies (image courtesy of the Denver Post)

In their series against both Texas and Oakland, the strength of the Rockies’ rotation was on full display, with each of the team’s starting pitchers allowing no more than three runs in a single start. At the top of the rotation, Germán Márquez and Jon Gray continue to blossom into true staff aces, combining electric stuff with a rare sense of reliability for Rockies pitchers. While Kyle Freeland had a year to forget in 2019, he is young enough to bounce back from a down season with a few adjustments. Freeland’s infectious competitiveness, as well as a strong first start (6 IP, 2 ER), should inspire some confidence that last season’s issues are behind him. Meanwhile, Antonio Senzatela offers a serviceable back-of-rotation starter. While his limited offspeed arsenal and struggles last season raise concerns, he often pitches just well enough to keep the team in games while eating enough innings to keep the bullpen rested.

The Rockies have yet to use a fifth starting pitcher this season, and their lack of rotation depth marks an obvious weakness for the team. When Márquez and Gray inevitably need more rest, Chi Chi Gonzalez will likely start in that fifth and final spot. The real test for the Rockies will be seeing how the rotation fares at Coors Field. While the staff has proven that it has what it takes to excel at altitude, a few bad home outings can snowball into a lost season, as Coors Field is infamously unforgiving to pitchers

Bullpen

Reliever Daniel Bard made his return to the mound this season after a nearly seven-year hiatus (image courtesy of NBC Sports)

The story of the Colorado’s bullpen so far this year has been one of addition by subtraction. With free agent flops Bryan Shaw and Jake McGee no longer consuming a large proportion of late-game innings, the Rockies have handed the ball to a more talented (albeit somewhat unproven) group of relievers. Carlos Estévez, Yency Almonte and Jairo Díaz have been outstanding in multiple appearances so far this season, while the success of journeyman Daniel Bard has been one of baseball’s most compelling narratives. Losing star setup man Scott Oberg to injury is an unequivocal blow, but don’t expect this unit to be the second worst in the entire MLB like it was last year (excluding Wade Davis—who we’ll avoid discussing out of respect for Rockies fans’ collective sanity)

Offense

Third baseman Nolan Arenado is one of baseball’s premier two-way stars (image courtesy of KUSA)

While the Rockies are often lauded for their hitting, the potency of their current lineup is often overblown, mostly because of their park-inflated counting stats and big-name offensive stars. Last season, the Rockies’ offense ranked 26th in the MLB in WRC+, and a lack of consistent hitting was a principal reason Colorado missed out on the playoffs after back-to-back Wild Card appearances. Although the Rockies’ lineup can be counted on to rake at home, the infamous “Coors Hangover” leads to some dreadful offensive stretches on the road. While the difficulty of Rockies hitters adjusting to sea level after an extended home stand is understated (if not entirely unaccounted for) by park-adjusted metrics, Colorado will nonetheless have to improve a woeful .676 road OPS if they plan on meaningfully contending this season.

The good news for Rockies fans is that they have two true offensive (and defensive) superstars in Trevor Story and Nolan Arenado, as well as a confoundingly consistent hitting juggernaut in Charlie Blackmon. If outfielder David Dahl stays healthy and the team’s young crop of role players (including Ryan McMahon, Raimel Tapia, and Sam Hilliard) step up offensively, Colorado should be able to balance a typically top heavy order and improve substantially on the offensive side.

Conclusion

As usual, the Rockies’ season will come down to back end of rotation pitching well at home and Rockies hitters providing decent enough run support on the road. More so than any other team, the Rockies are reliant on a unique winning formula that alters dramatically at home and on the road. In order to succeed, Rockies’ management will have to embrace the unique challenges presented by playing at altitude, an endeavor that’s historically proven difficult for the franchise.

Fortunately, the Rockies are helped out by the league’s shortened season and expanded playoffs. In past seasons, Colorado has frequently gotten off to hot starts before fading down the stretch. The grind of a 162-game season is tough for any team, but is an even greater burden at altitude, with baseball’s typical aches and sprains exacerbated by thin air. Luckily, the team’s usual durability issues should be mitigated by this year’s short season, while a 16-team playoff field exponentially improves the Rockies’ odds of playing on baseball’s biggest stage. The Rockies are just unpredictable enough that, should they find a way to secure a home-series in the MLB playoffs’ Wild Card round, they might just be able to pull off a mile-high miracle.

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