Let’s Get the Rockies to 94 Wins

Last week, Rockies owner Dick Monfort made headlines by predicting a rock-solid 94 wins for his franchise this season. It seemed wildly optimistic; the team won 71 games in 2019 and didn’t make any major changes this offseason. We project them to be one of the worst four teams in the National League, not one of the best four.

But Monfort used interpolation, as he was quick to point out. And we can’t simply ignore something with math behind it. So I’m taking out a special, purpose-built Rockies model to investigate the team: M.O.n.F.O.R.T., or the Model for Official non-Fake Obvious Rockies Truths.

First things first, let’s establish a baseline. On our Depth Charts page, you can see FanGraphs’ projected winning percentage for each 2020 club against neutral opponents. This only uses Steamer projections at the moment, but it will soon fold in ZiPS. The Rockies are projected for a .462 winning percentage.

That sounds bad, but it doesn’t consider their opponents. The Rockies play the AL Central in interleague play, which helps. And they play the Marlins seven times, but the Cardinals and Cubs only six. Do these small schedule quirks help them? Nope! In aggregate, we expect Rockies opponents to have a .501 winning percentage. What you see is what you get, in essence; we have the Rockies down for around 74.5 wins. With that baseline in mind, let’s start using M.O.n.F.O.R.T.’s findings to boost the Rockies.

Daniel Murphy Rekindles the Flame
Something you should know about my model is that every player’s closest comparable is Babe Ruth. But I asked it for a second comparable for Daniel Murphy, and it spit out “Daniel Murphy, but when he was good.” So there you have it — Murphy is going to defy age and start hitting again. As recently as 2017, he was putting up a .322/.384/.543 line. Imagine adjusting that up for altitude, and you can see some upside.

What’s changed since then? Mostly the power. Murphy compiled a piddling .174 ISO in 2019, looking more like the slap-hitting Murphy of old than the peak, world-striding version. At 34, there could still be magic left in that bat. Let’s give him his 2017 self back; a 126 ISO+, a 135 wRC+, and 24.5 runs above average over 593 plate appearances.

Now we don’t want to go too wild and project him back to defensive competence at second base, so let’s keep 2019’s poor defensive value; over 560 plate appearances, that makes him a 3 WAR player rather than a 0.4 WAR player, so add 2.5 wins to the totals. 77 wins and counting.

Kyle Freeland Bounces Back
Another player, another Babe Ruth comp, though this one is as a pitcher. Giving Kyle Freeland credit for his microscopic 2018 ERA (2.85 in Coors!) isn’t in the cards, but maybe he could go back to limiting damage on contact a little bit better? In 2018, he allowed a .338 xwOBA on contact, closely in line with his .328 wOBA versus the same. In 2019, those numbers ballooned to .408 and .429, respectively. At first glance, it doesn’t look fake; he allowed a 31.6% hard hit rate in 2018 and a 40.8% hard hit rate in 2019.

At second glance, it still doesn’t look fake: opposing batters barreled up 5% of the batted balls he allowed in 2018, and then 8.8% in 2019. That sounds bad! But M.O.n.F.O.R.T. sees a silver lining — a lot of the problem was Freeland’s four-seamer, which dipped lower in the zone than he’d like — with 1% more fastballs in the bottom two-thirds of the zone than in 2018. Meanwhile, his sinker strayed upwards, and that’s a rough combination. If he straightens those two out, his hard contact rate will dip, and that’s another 1.5 WAR. 78.5 wins, headed to 94.

Nolan Arenado Goes Full Mike Schmidt
Nolan Arenado’s comp in my model is “Babe Ruth, but, like, with better defense.” But let’s compare him to a third baseman instead. Schmidt found increasing power as his career went on, though he already had good pop from the start.

Arenado is no Aaron Judge — he’s not clobbering the ball to the outer limits of the universe every time he makes contact. But what if he could? What we’re going to need is a big spike in hard hit rate. Ten batters raised their hard hit rate by 10% or more last year, and their wRC+ went up by a weighted average of 17 points. Let’s just arbitrarily add that to Arenado’s projected line — that’s an extra 1.5 wins worth of offense from him, and a new best season yet.

But we’re not done yet. Let’s also say it’s his best defensive season ever, worth another half a win against the projections. That’s 7 WAR Arenado — now we’re up to 80.5 wins.

Garrett Hampson, I guess?
At first glance, Garrett Hampson’s no good, very bad 2019 wasn’t much of an outlier. As a speed-and-singles type, he might be the kind of player Coors doesn’t help. Altitude turns some fly balls into home runs, and the parks turns plenty of balls that would be outs into extra bases by virtue of its enormous outfield. But Hampson’s hard-hit rate was in the bottom 10% of players with at least 300 plate appearances, and his exit velocity on fly balls was even worse.

But there’s a path forward for this type of hitter, and it’s not even that hard to imagine. I cited Hampson’s power limitations, but his speed can turn grounders into singles and singles into doubles. He just has to hit the ball, which is easier said than done. A 26.9% strikeout rate simply won’t work without more walks and dingers, particularly in Colorado.

In September, Hampson seemed to turn a corner with his plate discipline. He struck out just 18.9% of the time, a huge improvement on his prior rate. And he did it with a simple plan: come out swinging. We tend to associate swinging less with better strikeout and walk numbers, and Hampson sports an impressive batting eye — his 23% chase rate is outstanding. But it comes with a low swing rate overall, and pitchers aren’t afraid of him.

The only players who swung less than Hampson did while seeing a higher rate of pitches in the strike zone were Logan Forsythe, David Fletcher, and Jonathan Lucroy. That’s a rough cohort, particularly if you consider the fact that Fletcher is an absolute freak of nature whose contact skills are unmatched.

Hampson swung more in September, however — his zone swing rate went up by 5% (percentage points) even as pitchers continued challenging him. Conveniently, he started hitting the ball with more authority at the same time, as evidenced by these 20-ball average exit velocities on balls he hit in the air:

So yeah — let’s say Hampson holds onto his September form. That’s around a 3.5 WAR pace for the season, depending on what you think of his defense. That’s around three wins of improvement from our current projections. Now we’re up to 83.5 wins.

It’s Gonna Happen, Happen Sometime
These player improvements aren’t really moving the needle. We’ve already made four players a lot better, and only gotten nine wins of improvement out of it. Let’s break out the big guns — and by that, I mean luck.

You see, teams over- and under-perform their true talent all the time. A quick calculation of binomial variance will show you that a team’s standard deviation in wins, for a given true talent, is around 6.5. Sprinkle some good luck dust on the Rockies — they’re going to realize their +1 standard deviation result, getting lucky relative to their talent.

How they do this is up to you. Did some players have lucky seasons? Did they spike some one-run games? Whatever you want. Am I double-counting with the above improvements? No! Because we’re assuming those are true talent levels that we’ve incorrectly calculated. Don’t think too hard about it, please. We can’t let the argument fall apart. Now we’re at 90 wins, within hailing distance of that 94 goal.

The Last Mile
With players and variance eliminated, there’s only one thing to do: have the Dodgers all eat a bad pre-game spread and get food poisoning. On May 25, the Rockies start a four-game set in Los Angeles. Starting June 4, the Dodgers visit Colorado for another four games.

If the entire Dodgers starting lineup has the same bad oysters just before the start of the series, they might not play at all over those four games. Between the ensuing lineup chaos and the rigors of travel, many starters might miss the series in Denver as well. Right now, we project the Rockies to win roughly three of those eight games. Let’s give them seven of the eight instead, playing against Los Angeles’ junior varsity squad. That’s another four wins in the bag. 94 on the dot!

Okay, fine. That last assumption wasn’t particularly sporting, and it wasn’t in the spirit of finding gems in the rough. But the rest could actually happen! The Rockies aren’t hopeless; they aren’t doomed. They have a low projection, but they have some interesting players to go with it. It’s unreasonable to expect everyone’s outcomes to move in the same direction, M.O.n.F.O.R.T. notwithstanding. But while I find a 94 win prediction too optimistic, even with the benefit of interpolation, there’s hope for Rockies fans, and that’s something you can say about precious few of the bottom-feeding teams in baseball these days.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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4 years ago

Babe Ruth isn’t such a bad comp for some of the guys on the roster. I’m sure at least one of them will play like he were 125 years old or dead for over 70 years.