The Colorado Rockies beat the Chicago Cubs in the Wild Card game and almost toppled the reigning NL champion Dodgers in the West, but fell to the awesome power of Wade Miley and Jhoulys Chacin. Colorado was a solid team in 2018, but remained a bundle of confusing inconsistencies. Unlike many good Rockies teams, they figured out how to field a rotation that was little fazed by Planet Coors, only to have a shallow, unsteady offense prove to be their downfall.
Coming off an 87-75 season, the team’s first winning season in seven years and first playoff appearance in eight, and with a few glaring holes, the opportunity existed for the Rockies to make an aggressive push to challenge the NL elites over the 2017-2018 offseason.
Instead, the team spent $106 million on three free agent relievers – Wade Davis, Bryan Shaw, and the returning Jake McGee. The bullpen was actually a strength for the team in 2017, finishing sixth in the majors in WAR among relievers; their 3.94 FIP was quite impressive for a team that played half their games at Coors Field. If you don’t buy into WAR for relievers, that 3.94 FIP was good enough for the team to rank sixth in the majors in FIP- and seventh in ERA-.
Now, it was reasonable to make bullpen additions, especially after 2017 All-Star Greg Holland, who ended up doing a poor job evaluating the market for his services, departed in free agency. It may have been necessary to make an addition even if they had kept Holland, of course, given his 6.38 second-half ERA (I wouldn’t fault the Rockies for Holland’s 2018 in this scenario, Jeff Bridich not being a Time Lord as far as I know).
What was unreasonable was what the Rockies did about the significant holes they had outside of the bullpen.
The team’s 90 OPS+ in 2017 was the 10th-worst in modern baseball history among teams that made the playoffs, though it has since been knocked down to 11th by the 2018 Rockies. Their 87-75 record, while a positive given the team’s recent history, felt a bit disappointing considering it took six above-average starters (German Marquel, Kyle Freeland, Tyler Chatwood, Antonio Senzatela, Jon Gray, and Tyler Anderson), a top-tier bullpen, and two legitimate MVP candidates on the offense just to get that point.
There’s a fair argument to be made that OPS+ and similar measures can underrate the Rockies. One longstanding explanation has been the Coors Field hangover theory, which has been demonstrated with mixed results over the last decade, and generally holds that Rockies hitters are hurt somewhat by the difference between Coors Field and the parks closer to sea level. The problem for the Rockies’ offense is that this effect has a limit; there isn’t enough wiggle room to make them anywhere near a 105 OPS+ team or something.
And furthermore, if Rockies hitters face a special disadvantage from playing at Coors that simply makes hitters worse overall in terms of their value, it doesn’t excuse the front office’s role in that underperformance; it means that they have to overengineer things when putting together an offense. It’s an aggravating factor for a crime of apathy, not a mitigating one.
The front office made exactly one move to improve the offense, bringing in Chris Iannetta, who hit .254/.354/.511 for the Diamondbacks in 2017; he’d turn 35 near the start of the 2018 season. And that was it.
Whether due to ignorance or incompetence, the front office ignored the fact that their 1B/LF/RF offensive triad were all at the bottom of the league in 2017. Despite the noise about giving Ryan McMahon and David Dahl real shots in spring training, Ian Desmond and the injured Gerardo Parra were given their jobs back on a silver platter, along with Carlos Gonzalez, who re-signed with the team in the middle of spring training.
The ZiPS projections had the Rockies at 82-80 coming into the season, facing significant trouble behind the Dodgers from the Diamondbacks (a good call for 5/6th of the season) and the Giants (oops). ZiPS was very optimistic about the pitching staff, with Jon Gray, German Marquez, Kyle Freeland, Antonio Senzatela, Tyler Anderson, a returning Chad Bettis, and even Jeff Hoffman all projected for an ERA+ of at least 96 for the season. But ZiPS only saw 1.0 combined WAR from the Trio of Sadness at 1B/LF/RF, and another blazing hot 0.7 WAR from Iannetta.
For a nine-win miss, ZiPS didn’t do too badly with the Rockies, getting the team’s essential contours right but missing on the magnitude of just how good the starting pitchers were. From a projected solid-and-deep mix of no. 2 and 3 starters came two stars in German Marquez and Kyle Freeland, the latter of whom was a legitimate Cy Young ballot contender (depending on your philosophy on FIP vs. ERA and related adjusted measures when it comes to evaluating past contributions).
The Rockies should get a ton of credit for their rotation, piecing together a group that received relatively little trouble from pitching half of their games in Coors Field, a feat that has frequently eluded the team over their existence. They’ve built good bullpens before — the mid 90s Rockies had a terrific group — but starting pitching was always a particular bedevilment.
Surprisingly, the bullpen turned out to be a bit of a disaster over the first half of the season. Davis wasn’t horrific, just mediocre, but Shaw and McGee were nearly unmitigated disasters; the three signed relievers combining to make $31 million in return for 171.1 innings of 5.41 ERA ball, which is…not…good. The second half of the season turned out to be sunnier and the addition of Seung-hwan Oh was one of the better trade pickups in baseball.
The offense was a rerun of the 2017 season. Once again, the team had two MVP candidates (with Charlie Blackmon swapped out for Trevor Story) and little production from the key offensive positions. The aforementioned Trio of Sadness, projected at 1.0 WAR, combined for 1.0 WAR, though with the odd wrinkly that they only got that high because of Carlos Gonzalez’s positive defense by UZR. David Dahl grudgingly got playing time at points when healthy, and Ryan McMahon was mostly relegated to the bench. Raimel Tapia appeared in 25 games but only started two of them, generally being used only as a pinch-hitter or pinch-runner.
Given a chance at a mulligan to address the offensive at the trade deadline, the Rockies made the big addition of…Matt Holliday, who received little interest in the offseason and spent his age-38 season out of professional baseball. Holliday did hit, but gave back almost as much value in defense, finishing at 0.1 WAR in his brief return. It’s notable how easily Holliday was handed playing time compared to the team’s young players, getting 65 plate appearances in his five weeks with little of the resistance McMahon or Tapia faced.
Despite the front office hinderance, the Rockies’ rotation and stars got them to 90 wins, a game shy of toppling the Dodgers in the division, and the playoffs, before an embarrassing NLDS sweep by the Brewers, only scoring two runs in three games.
What Comes Next
What’s frustrating about the Rockies is just how many of the tools they have for a great team, rather than a merely good one that wins 85-90 games for a few years. The player development part of the front office has done a terrific job, with almost the entire rotation coming from within; the lone exception is German Marquez, who was obtained from the Rays in the Corey Dickerson trade. The team’s three MVP-candidate position players the last two years (Blackmon, Arenado, and Story) are also farm system products. In the pen, Scott Oberg was homegrown and while Adam Ottavino wasn’t a Colorado product, the Rockies were the team that turned him into a top reliever after being a mediocre starting pitcher prospect claimed off waivers.
And the team has more talent coming. Brendan Rodgers should seize a job in the infield fairly quickly, and Tapia and McMahon, while not technically qualifying as prospects, really should be given their limited opportunities to shine thus far.
It’s at the major league level, however, the team is just not currently run all that well. But there’s still time; despite the problems, they did make the playoffs in consecutive seasons, and the team still has opportunities to add real difference-makers in offense. Why shouldn’t the Rockies be a player for Bryce Harper? I’d argue there’s no team in baseball that needs him more.
And changing how the team is run wouldn’t require a giant teardown and rebuild. It just requires properly evaluating the team’s offensive weaknesses, realizing that Ian Desmond is a sunk cost who should either be a role player or making the league minimum with another team after his release, and treating the team’s offensive prospects as potential contributors who can add value rather that as inconveniences for mediocre veterans. Keep the team, nix the front office.
ZiPS Projection – Nolan Arenado
One problem on the horizon for Colorado is the impending free agency of Nolan Arenado, the prize of their high-performing prospect pipeline. He’s Troy Tulowitzki without the injuries, a player still on the sunny side of 30 who could very possibly have Hall of Fame career, especially if the BBWAA becomes better at evaluating mid-spectrum players.
ZiPS suggests a five-year, $143 million extension for Arenado if signed today. While he’s likely not the type of player who should be signed to an eight-to-ten-year extension, as he’s not hitting the free agent market at as young an age as Manny Machado or Bryce Harper are, he’s a player the Rockies can’t easily replace, and has deserved his MVP consideration the last two seasons.
Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.