It’s Time for the Rockies to Innovate

I can understand why you would dream on the Rockies if you live in Denver or if you just want to see some new blood in the NL playoff field. Nolan Arenado is a MVP-caliber player. Trevor Story could settle in as a two- or three-win shortstop. Brendan Rodgers will soon arrive to help in the middle infield.

Carlos Gonzalez can still hit. Charlie Blackmon can, too, and there are other intriguing young outfield options ready to complement them. While signing Ian Desmond to play first base remains a curious decision, he could be a30-homer threat while offering positional versatility.

Tony Wolters has gone from middling shortstop prospect with the Indians to an above-average, pitch-framing catcher with the Rockies. As Jeff Sullivan noted Thursday, the Rockies could have their best framing team in history.

There are certainly questions about the fielding capabilities of the position-player group: the Rockies ranked 28th in baseball in defensive efficiency last season according to Baseball Prospectus, and have a spacious outfield to defend. But the Rockies could score enough runs — and save enough runs through framing — to be interesting.

Then, of course, there’s that whole element of pitching.

The Rockies own an MLB-worst ERA since coming into existence in 1993, a nice round 5.00 mark. The Rockies have often allowed the most runs of any team each season. It shouldn’t be a surprise, either, given how their first-ever home game ended.

Of course, Coors Field is an extreme offensive environment that inflates run production. But when adjusting for Coors Field and the league-average run environment, the Rockies’ pitching has still generally been below average. Since 2012, the Rockies’ league- and park-adjusted ERA- (103) is the second worst in the NL. Since the turn of the century, the Rockies’ ERA- (103) is tied for the fifth-worst mark in the NL. The Rockies have been league average or better according to ERA- just eight times in franchise history, including last season.

Rockies’ decision makers have tried all sorts of strategies over the years, from high-priced, proven starting pitching, to ground-ball specialists, to arms developed right in the system. Nothing has worked.

So, in an offseason in which the Rockies have done some unorthodox things, perhaps now is the time for the Rockies to be bold and unconventional with their pitching staff.

Coors Field should be a laboratory for pitching innovation. Rockies’ decision makers are freed to operate in unorthodox fashion because we understand that more conventional approaches haven’t been effective. Denver should be a place of experimentation and innovation, not just because its thin air allows fly balls to travel further and takes the bite out of breaking pitches, nor because its spacious park allows for more balls in play to become hits than anywhere else.

Rather, Coors Field should be a place of innovation because of how elevation taxes the body, a point explored by Patrick Saunders of Denver Post a few years ago. The Rockies haven’t seen a pitcher reach 200 innings since Ubaldo Jimenez in 2010. And the Rockies probably shouldn’t be trying to push pitchers reach that threshold, either. There’s a reason U.S. Olympic training centers are based in nearby Colorado Springs.

The Rockies also have another high-elevation research lab with their Triple-A affiliate in Albuquerque, New Mexico, a city situated more than 5,000 feet above sea level.

Moreover, the current Rockies don’t have a front man like Clayton Kershaw or Madison Bumgarner to lead their rotation. According to FanGraphs projections, the Rockies have just two starters who will Jon Gray and Tyler Anderson.

The Rockies should be bold and creative.

The general idea with most sabermetric-based approaches to pitching strategy is to reduce innings pitched by starters in favor of innings pitched by relievers. In speaking to former Rockies general manger Dan O’Dowd a year ago, he regretted not implementing such a plan.

“If I could do it all over again,” O’Dowd said. “If I knew what I knew now… If I could inspire to share this philosophy, I would pitch via bullpens.”

Part of the idea is tied to knowing starting pitchers are less effective each time through the opposing lineup. The following is Baseball Reference data from 2016 on effectiveness by times through order and pitch count:

Part of the idea is tied to the strain of pitching in Coors Field. Recall what Mike Hampton said of the day following his first start with the Rockies at Coors Field – tossing eight shutout innings – as recounted in a 2004 Baseball Prospectus story on the challenges of pitching at Coors: “I felt like I had been hit by a truck when I got up.” Hampton allowed 11 hits and nine runs in his next start, also in Denver. He was regularly allowed to exceed 100 pitches, and it’s perhaps more difficult to recover from such a workload at altitude.

Part of the idea is to reduce the number of at-bats taken by pitchers over the course of the season, particularly beneficial at Coors Field. Part of the idea is to more often create platoon advantages, by, say, following a left-handed starter with a right-handed, multi-inning reliever. And perhaps another part of the idea is taking advantage of what the amateur system is feeding professional baseball: high-velocity arms, but arms that often lack refinement, arms that often end up in the bullpen.

“We are going to have an industry with a lot of guys that throw really hard for very short periods,” O’Dowd said. “I think the evolution of the bullpen is a direct byproduct of the direction of the game for the younger levels.”

Moreover, it is cheaper – per inning – to pay relievers over starting pitchers.

It’s true the Rockies have tried radical practices before in regard to their rotation. The Rockies tried four-man pitching staffs in 2004 and 2012. The Rockies attempted a four-man rotation for a while under Clint Hurdle in 2004 because their fifth-starter production was so poor. In 2012, under different leadership, the Rockies’ starting pitching was again so ineffective the team again briefly went away from convention to evaluate a four-starter system that limited starters to 75 pitches.

The problem was those plans were put in place on the fly, in the middle of the season. The Rockies still produced an NL-worst ERA, and NL second-worst ERA- (113), when the four-man rotation was employed for part of the 2012 season. It didn’t appear to work.

Or did it?

Writing for the Community blog last week, contributor kevinroshay suggested that the Phillies employ a 3-3-3 rotation. In the piece, the Rockies’ experiment was revisited:

The Rockies pitching staff performed much better after the change was made. In the first 21 games that it was implemented, the starting pitchers improved from a league-worst 6.28 ERA to a league-worst 5.22 ERA. That’s more than an entire one-run improvement! Still the league worst (control your laughter), but that’s a major improvement.

What would have happened had a successful team tried the same approach and reduced a 4.28 ERA to a 3.22 ERA? There would probably be many more adopters.

Others like Dave Fleming of Bill James online have explored 3-3-3 rotation. And Bill James himself advocated for a three-man rotation with this pitching staff arrangement:

Starting Pitchers (3)

Closer (1)

8th Inning guy (1)

6th-7th i nning pitchers (3)

Left-handers (2)

This season, Gray (R), Bettis (R) and Anderson (L) could comprise the three-man rotation and be limited to 50-60 pitches per start. The Rockies could still have Adam Ottavino as their closer, perhaps Greg Holland in the eighth, and two lefty arms in Mike Dunn and Jake McGee.

That leaves room for three middle-inning roles to be absorbed by starter-type arms in Eddie Butler, Tyler Chatwood and Jeff Hoffman — and one mop-up role for when the plan on a particular day goes sideways.

Beyond performance efficiency, one of the big potential positives about reducing innings and pitches per start could be injury prevention. Wrote James:

Starting pitchers would be pitching a few more innings, but in a pattern that reduces the stress load associated with those pitches. …. It is universally accepted, I believe, that pitches thrown when a pitcher is tired are more likely to contribute to injury than pitches thrown when a pitcher is less tired. …. Does it not follow, then, that a pitcher can pitch more innings in a season if the number of “fatigue pitches” is reduced? … A pitcher working in a three-man starting rotation can pitch (a few) more innings in a season than pitchers now pitch, with no increase (and probably a decrease) in the risk of injury.

Let’s revisit the case of Mike Hampton.

Over the first full six seasons of his major-league career, Hampton had produced a 82-49 mark and a 3.35 ERA. He signed an eight-year, $121 million deal with the Rockies in 2001, and posted a 5.41 ERA over 32 starts and 203 innings in his first season in Denver. The next season he missed time with injury, failing to reach 200 innings for the first time since 1996, while posting a 6.15 ERA over 178 innings in 2002. In 1999 and 2000, Hampton produced ERA- marks of 67 and 71. With the Rockies in 2001 and 2001? 104 and 127, respectively.

He was traded to the Braves in 2003, and he went 14-8 with a 3.84 ERA and 89 ERA-.

Hampton was the biggest bet the Rockies ever made on a pitcher and it failed like so many of their other bets. But Hampton and most Rockies pitchers have been employed in conventional fashion.

There are so many challenges at pitching at Coors Field. There is the physical tax. There is the mental toll, where confidence that can be eroded which can lead to a change in approach. There is the element of physical law: pitchers’ pitches simply don’t work the same way there. Former Rockies pitcher Rob Scahill told me one underappreciated challenge is not only does a pitcher’s stuff not work the way he is accustomed to at Coors Field, but then it works differently at 29 other major-league road venues. Scahill said it’s so difficult to develop consistency and feel while pitching for the Rockies.

So to find a pitching breakthrough at Coors, innovation is required.

According to a more recent piece by Saunders, the Rockies will implement a new pitching philosophy under new manager Bud Black and general manager Jeff Bridich, but it doesn’t appear to be a radical one:

It’s clear Bridich is overhauling the franchise’s pitching blueprint. Long gone is the four-man piggyback rotation. The Rockies also have scrapped the idea that only a certain type of pitcher — a sinkerball specialist as a starter, or a flamethrower out of the bullpen, for example — can tame the beast that is Coors Field.

“We talked about that in my (job) interview,” Black said. “Is there a certain style that works here? I don’t think so. You know what works here? Good pitching, and making pitches and getting outs.”

After a postseason in which there are hints of a bullpen revolution beginning, after Dave Cameron noted the Marlins’ creative thinking regarding the future of starting rotations, now is the time for the Rockies to get ahead of the industry. Given their history and geography-based challenges, the Rockies should be leading the industry in pitching innovation and experimentation. I suspect there is a more efficient way to construct pitching staffs. I suspect in a game that is ever evolving, staffs will be constructed differently in the future. This revolution should begin in Colorado

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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7 years ago

I know Coors is nice and will hopefully be around for some time, but when it’s time to replace, I really hope they build a presurized stadium.

7 years ago
Reply to  d_i

I think in the next 40ish years all stadiums will be domed, or at least have a retractable roof. It just makes too much sense.