Here’s An Unexpected Rockies Statistic

Some articles need an elaborate introduction, but not this one. Let’s cut straight to the chase:

That is a graph showing the number of plate appearances, by team, given to below-replacement-level hitters last season, with pitchers excluded so as to not penalize the DH-less National League. The hallmark of a good team is the strength of its roster, from stars to regulars to the benchwarmers. It’s worth noting that the Angels, with a roster characterized by a serious imbalance of talent, rank seventh by this measure. It’s also worth noting that the Rays, a club littered with usable bats and arms, rank 28th.

We can create a similar graph for pitchers, using total batters faced rather than plate appearances:

It’s a similar story here. Last season in the NL West, we saw the Padres tumble to a losing record due to a rapidly sinking rotation that underwent last-minute repairs, but to no avail. Meanwhile, we saw the Giants soar to baseball’s best record thanks to a pitching staff that had no apparent weaknesses. Naturally, it follows that the league’s best teams minimize the number of plate appearances featuring below-replacement-level players. Combing the hitters and pitchers produces this graph:

The White Sox come out on top, besting even the Rays and the Giants – and that’s despite being forced to rely on Zack Collins for so many games. They’re a great team, no doubt, and have the easiest road to a division crown this upcoming season. But they’re not nearly as interesting as the team I want to talk about. You’ve presumably read this piece’s title, and I even added in the appropriate purple color to highlight their presence further. That’s right: The Rockies were the fifth-best team in baseball at avoiding terrible plate appearances last season. The list goes White Sox, Astros, Rays, Giants, and then a Colorado team that lost, well, 87 games.

One thing I’d like to emphasize is that there won’t be some shocking revelation by the end of this article. It’s not as if the Rockies were secretly good in 2021. Colorado had many, many weaknesses, most of which will take multiple years to address. But the Rockies’ placement on the above graph acts as a gateway into a different perspective – a perspective that’s willing to give them a little more credit than most would offer.

Consider where the Rockies were the previous offseason. They traded away franchise star Nolan Arenado, making them the subject of intense scrutiny and criticism. In return for a perennial All-Star, Colorado received five fringe prospects and ended up sending money the Cardinals’ way: as Ben Clemens put it, it was “an unmitigated disaster.” General manager Jeff Bridich would step down in April. The future didn’t seem so bright for the Rockies.

Indeed, of those five prospects, only lefty Austin Gomber has made an impact so far. But, perhaps to the Rockies’ credit, his contributions are worth mentioning. So far in Colorado, Gomber has reduced his fastball rate in exchange for additional changeups and sliders. The latter, a gyro-heavy offering, isn’t reliant on movement to induce whiffs, making it less vulnerable to the clutches of Coors. All in all, Gomber posted a solid 4.61 FIP across 115.1 innings, good for 1.3 WAR. His presence meant the Rockies didn’t need to rely as much on Chi Chi González, who might have slipped below replacement level with further exposure. The remainder of the rotation held on steady as well. The quartet of Antonio Senzatela, Germán Márquez, Jon Gray, and Kyle Freeland seems to have genuinely figured out pitching at Coors. That’s no simple task, yet they’ve done it again.

Of course, the Rockies’ fatal flaw was never their starting pitching – no, one needs only a single glance at their offense to understand the gravity of the situation. Heading into the 2021 season, Trevor Story and Arenado were the only hitters projected by ZiPS to generate two or more wins, and that’s after accounting for defense. Expanding on this, here’s a list of positions projected back then to be at, or dang near close to, replacement level:

Rockies 2021 ZiPS Projections
Starting Player Position Projected WAR
Tony Wolters C 0.1
Joshua Fuentes 1B 0.1
Ian Desmond LF -0.5
David Dahl CF 0.5

Bleak is the right word. But again, let’s give the Rockies some praise. It would have been easy for them to ignore these holes. It would have been predictable for them to fill those holes with aging veterans. Instead, the Rockies made improvements at the margins while giving opportunities for their prospects to shine. Initially signed to a minor league deal, C.J. Cron immediately took off at first base, his offensive tendencies enhanced by the high altitude. Unlike Tony Wolters, Dom Nuñez seems to be a competent receiver, Elias Díaz had a scorching second half out of nowhere. Raimel Tapia is still his mediocre self, but at least the Rockies finally rid themselves of Ian Desmond; his replacement, Connor Joe, performed admirably in his limited debut (116 wRC+ in 62 games). Center field hasn’t changed much, but Sam Hilliard has proven himself to not be a liability.

And lest we forget, Ryan McMahon was surprisingly adequate filling in for Arenado. The way in which his career year unfolded was also unexpected – rather than through his bat, McMahon achieved new heights through his glove. Now, I don’t know how much of this will carry over. We know how finicky defensive metrics are, and DRS in particular seems to glorify infielders who call Coors their home. But maybe this isn’t entirely a fluke, which means McMahon will produce a string of above-average seasons. The Rockies certainly wouldn’t object.

I’ve yet to talk about the bullpen. That’s because there’s not much to talk about. Rockies relief arms went out there, pitched a couple of innings, and returned with roughly replacement-level results. Actually, Yency Almonte did far worse than that, with -0.5 WAR in 47.2 innings. I’m not sure why the Rockies didn’t pluck a reliever off waivers to replace him. Almonte single-handedly ruined his team’s chances at making it to number four on the total bad plate appearances leaderboard. Great job, Almonte!

But on a more serious note, the ‘pen would have been worse if not for Robert Stephenson, whom the Rockies brought in after a disastrous 2020. I’d long been Stephenson supporter, in large part because his strikeout surge in 2019 looked genuine after an uptick in slider usage. He’d go on to become the Rockies’ second-most valuable reliever two years later, making this writer feel like a proud father. There’s a twist, though. Here’s a graph showing the changes to Stephenson’s pitch usage in recent years:

With the Rockies, he headed in the opposite direction. He ditched the slider and focused on the new curveball, which features a few additional inches of vertical and horizontal break compared to the slider. It’s also a couple of ticks slower. As a result, Stephenson relied more on his four-seamer than ever before, and I’ll add that it generates a ton of horizontal movement relative to its velocity. Hitters did ambush the fastball last season, but this is presumably a change Stephenson felt comfortable with.

So that’s it. That’s how the Rockies managed to not sink beneath the replacement level mark. Now, there’s certainly a lot to nitpick. First, the number of plate appearances from below-replacement-level players aren’t weighted – that is, a player who put up -99 WAR is treated equally as another who put up -0.9 WAR. So yes, simply tallying the total number is an imperfect method of determining which teams constructed and maintained a balanced roster. Second, it says nothing about teams’ future longevity. Charlie Blackmon and Tapia did end up with positive WAR values in 2021, but they’re approaching replacement-level territory. Counting on them next season and beyond would be a grave mistake.

But the point is that the Rockies, somehow, by this measure, ended up in proximity to the Giants and Rays. Despite all their flaws, they managed to avoid the replacement level mark. And in doing so, they arguably put out a better on-field product than that of other rebuilding teams. I know that’s a backhanded compliment, but this is unlike the Rockies of before. This offseason, the team beefed up its front office with a focus on analytics, though bringing it in-line with other teams will take more than a winter’s work. They signed an overlooked reliever and (gasp) asked him to take on a new approach! These are baby steps, but they are real.

That isn’t to say the Rockies are a good team yet. Far from it, actually. After Bridich’s departure, the team named vice president of scouting Bill Schmidt interim GM; he was named the permanent GM in October without the club having conducted the external search it had previously indicated it would. The recent decision to promote owner Dick Monfort’s son, Sterling Monfort, to director of pro scouting has raised eyebrows, another internal promotion for a team that would perhaps be better served by bringing in fresh talent. The team mishandled a potential Story trade, frustrating the shortstop and other teams; it parted ways with Gray, a solid rotation arm, without having extended him a qualifying offer. Maybe you’re skeptical that there’s been any progress, which is fine. This can just be a 1,000-word fun fact! But by one measure, the Rockies were one of the best teams in baseball at staying above a crucial baseline. That’s gotta count for something.

Justin is a contributor at FanGraphs. His previous work can be found at Prospects365 and Dodgers Digest. His less serious work can be found on Twitter @justinochoi.

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Lunch Anglemember
7 months ago

Well I’ll be. The Rockies did something well. Well well!