The last 11 years of Colorado Rockies baseball has been hard to watch. The Rockies have two playoff appearances and lost all four of those postseason games. Aside from their 2017-18 seasons, the Rockies have finished at least 12 games under .500 in every other one.
Free-agent pitchers don’t want to pitch in Denver and developing minor-leaguers for the atmospheric conditions is challenging. Spending as much as the Dodgers is impossible, but now the Padres have a top-10 payroll and the Giants are in the top 15. Also, there have been reports of a very small, often disgruntled analytics department in the offices at Coors Field. When you have a distinct home-field advantage but one that becomes a disadvantage on the road, you have to do whatever you can to understand the science and find players that fit. That hasn’t happened.
The Rockies have won only two playoff series in five appearances since coming into existence in 1993. They won’t be a playoff team this season, but there is hope they can at least outperform their season win total expectations.
Grading the Rockies offense is a difficult task. Not only does the thin air and elevation help hitters, but the big, giant outfield at Coors Field allows a lot of batted balls to fall in. Coors Field regularly ranks as one of the best, if not the best, ballpark for batting average on balls in play (BABIP). Not to get thick into the science, but pitches move less in Denver. The thin air provides less resistance on the baseball, so pitchers get less movement.
When you pick depressed strikeout rates with extra carry and a big ballpark, it truly creates an optimal offensive environment. However, when the Rockies go to sea level, pitches do move. The Coors Field effect works both ways, as it benefits the home team but also hurts them when they hit the road.
Using that 2011-21 sample size, the Rockies have slashed .296/.356/.492 with an 18.9% K% and an 8.0% BB% in 32,402 plate appearances at home. On the road, however, the Rockies have slashed .235/.295/.375 with a 24% K% and a 7.2% BB% in 31,610 PA. That’s a 61-point difference in BA, a 61-point drop in OBP and a 117-point drop in SLG. They walk less, strike out more and hit for a lot less power.
Not surprisingly, the Rockies are 437-408 at home dating back to the start of the 2011 season but 332-508 on the road. They’ve finished over .500 at home in every full season except one since 2013. They had two seasons over .500 on the road and made the playoffs both times. Otherwise, they’ve won 33 or fewer road games every year since 2012. Even in those two seasons with a winning road record, the Rockies had a negative run differential in those games.
Most Rockies hitters have big, inflated numbers at home and subpar numbers on the road. The Rockies scored 5.63 runs per game at home and 3.54 runs per game on the road. Even those that analyze the Colorado data struggle to account for how drastic those splits are. The Rockies are one of the worst teams by wRC + every season. I don’t think the Coors Field effect is weighed enough on the road and may be weighed too much at home.
Anyway, the lineup has some good pop. C.J. Cron hit 28 homers last season and he’s back for another year in Denver. Ryan McMahon hit 23. Kris Bryant comes in with some big power upside and should hit 30 or more for the second time in his career, with the same theory applied to Randal Grichuk, who was acquired in a trade with the Blue Jays. Bryant is a well-rounded offensive player. Grichuk is not, as his power tool is his best one but it should play well in Coors, especially with his Hard Hit% of 41.1%.
If Charlie Blackmon can get back to the power that produced an average of 32 from 2016-19, that would help a lot, though he’s 35 now. Another step forward from Brendan Rodgers would be a positive development as well, as he’s coming off of a .284/.328/.470 slash in his first full MLB season.
The problem, as it always is, is how these guys will perform on the road. The numbers don’t lie. Just about every one of these hitters will have noticeable home/road splits. There are only so many home games the Rockies can win when the other team’s hitters also get a boost.
You knew this was coming: The comparison between Rockies pitchers at home and on the road looks vaguely familiar. In 7,640.1 innings at home from 2011-21, the Rockies have a 5.22 ERA. Opposing batters have posted a .284/.347/.467 slash and a .349 wOBA. Colorado pitchers have an 18.5% K% and an 8.2% BB% at home. On the road, Rockies pitchers have a 4.45 ERA and opposing batters have a .259/.333/.425 slash with a .328 wOBA. The K% bumps to 19.7%, but the BB% also climbs to 9.3%.
The difference in BA is 25 points but in OBP it’s only 14 points. The 42-point drop in SLG is great, but these numbers don’t line up with the home/road splits for hitters. Colorado’s pitchers don’t improve enough on the road to offset the huge drop in offensive production. As a result, the Rockies have bad win-loss records away from home.
This is where analytics would really help, as it seems easier to make adjustments with pitchers than it does with hitters. Pitchers are throwing their pitches to one spot at home because there’s less movement and then throwing pitches to another spot on the road. You do see more strikeouts with more movement but also more walks.
The rotation appears to have minimal upside this season. German Marquez posted a 4.40 ERA with a 3.86 FIP last season, as he ran his third straight season with a LOB% under 70%. League average is 72% most seasons, so Marquez has gotten unlucky, but that can also be a byproduct of the spacious outfield in Colorado. Last season, his BB% spiked to a career high at 8.5%, which is still decent but high for him. He also had a velocity decrease, which merits watching. Marquez had one of the highest regular-season workloads in 2020, throwing 81.2 innings over 13 starts. He pitched really well and still had a fine 2021 season, but there could be some wear and tear.
Kyle Freeland had a Houdini season in 2018 when he worked 202.1 innings and posted a 2.85 ERA with a 3.67 FIP. He rode a lot of soft contact and an 82.8% LOB% to an outstanding year. Since then, it hasn’t gone nearly as well, as he’s battled some injuries and has posted ERAs of 6.73, 4.33 and 4.33, with FIPs of 5.99, 4.65 and 4.63. He’s a low-strikeout guy that has allowed a lot of homers over the last three seasons.
The Rockies have tried to load up on ground-ball guys in hopes of negating some of the Coors Field effect. Antonio Senzatela was north of 51% in GB% last season and had a solid year with a 4.42 ERA and a 3.61 FIP. Freeland is a career 48.5% GB% guy. Marquez is in that range as well. Senzatela is over 50% for his career. Austin Gomber, the most notable piece in the Nolan Arenado trade with the Cardinals, was a 48.6% guy in the short 2020 season before regressing to 44.3% in 2021.
Gomber was fine with a 4.53 ERA and a 4.61 FIP, and he probably deserved a better fate based on his contact quality metrics. For the Rockies, it comes down to the occasional homegrown talent and whichever journeymen and trade pieces they can acquire. One of the homegrown talents, Jon Gray, left as a free agent, so the Rockies have to find a way to make up for his lost production. Unfortunately for the Rockies, most of their better prospects are hitters.
The Rockies bullpen was a bottom-five unit in ERA last season at 4.91. Just about all of last year’s key contributors are back, but Colorado also added Alex Colome to be the closer. Colome is trying to bounce back from a down year in Minnesota with a 4.15 ERA and a 4.23 FIP. Colorado isn’t the place I’d have chosen to do that, but the closer role was open after Carlos Estevez posted a 4.38 ERA with a 4.03 FIP and Daniel Bard had a 5.21 ERA with a 4.28 FIP. Scott Oberg is Colorado’s best reliever, but he hasn’t pitched since 2019 and is working his way back from having blood clots removed from his pitching arm.
Player to Watch
2B Brendan Rodgers: Rodgers has been the best prospect in the Rockies system for a while. He started 5-for-26 last season but ultimately got on track and posted a solid .296/.325/.490 slash in the second half, good for a .346 wOBA and a 103 wRC + . Oddly enough, Rodgers had a .280/.319/.404 slash at home and a .289/.337/.536 slash on the road, so he was the rare player to overcome the road Coors Field effect. Rodgers consistently hit well in the minors to overshadow a low walk rate. He’s an aggressive hitter, and that plays well at Coors Field. I would expect further growth this season.
I’m not high on the Rockies, but their season win total of 68.5 looks to be on the low side. They went over that number in each of the last five full seasons, and I don’t find this team to be worse than any of those. Make no mistake, this team won’t challenge for a playoff spot or anything like that. However, they’re going to win at least 41 games at home and likely more, which gets you a big percentage of the way to the win total. As the season approaches, I’m on the fence just enough to refrain from calling this one a pick, but it’s a fairly strong lean and one I will consider adding over the next few days.
Win Total Lean: Over 68.5