The Rockies’ Road to Success on the Road

Earlier this week, Travis Sawchik took note of some steps that Colorado Rockies pitchers have taken this year to better succeed in the context of the team’s challenging home park. Jeff Sullivan added to the conversation the next day, observing that the Rockies have been fantastic on the road this season. To continue the investigation of Colorado’s strong campaign, I’ve attempted here to understand what factors have contributed to the Rockies’ road record — which stands at 25-13 entering today, the second-best mark in the majors. My conclusion? A good bullpen, the club’s first decent defense in quite some time, and some luck.

The Rockies have one of the best records in the majors this year. Examining merely the raw numbers, one might conclude that the club’s offense, which ranks fourth in runs per game, is largely to thank for that. That would be a bad conclusion to reach, however. For the Rockies, in their stadium, fourth is actually quite bad. After adjusting for park, the team’s offensive is 15% worse than league average, fifth worst in the majors. One might argue that the park adjustment penalizes hitters too much for Coors Field. Perhaps that’s the case. Even so, the Rockies have recorded a below-average offensive mark away from Coors, as well. Their offense, by most measures, just hasn’t been that great.

There are also suggestions that the club is perhaps getting a bit lucky. While the Rockies have compiled a 47-27 record overall, Pythagorean win percentage (which estimates a club’s record based on runs scored and allowed) has them at 43-31, while BaseRuns (which strips out sequencing) has them at 40-34. That could go a long way in explaining the Rockies road record: just chalk it up to luck and be done.

We can’t actually do that, though, because most of that luck has come at home for the Rockies. In 36 home games, Colorado has outscored their opponents by just 19 runs; on the road, that margin is 46 runs. At least in terms of runs scored and prevented, the Rockies have earned their road success.

At both locations, the Rockies have excelled at one-run games, going 6-1 on the road and 5-1 at home. Part of that is going to be luck, but part of that is also likely a product of Colorado’s bullpen. The Rockies have a solid bullpen — situated among the top 10 in terms of WAR — anchored by strong performances from Greg Holland and Jake McGee. The team’s 3.75 bullpen FIP on the road ranks behind only the Arizona Diamondbacks among NL teams. While the peripherals have been good, the results have been great: the bullpen’s a 3.06 ERA has been bested by only the Yankees and Blue Jays’ bullpens in all of baseball.

Some of the bullpen’s success on the road is random variation, and we can’t really expect it to continue. That said, we should note both that (a) the bullpen has been good regardless of their great results and (b) the team has already “banked” those great results and getting the expected (and “merely” good) results over the rest of the season would still qualify as a very good outcome.

Let’s quickly look at just how good those banked results have been. The bullpen’s Win Probability Added (WPA) is 5.8 runs right now, a full run ahead of the second-place Red Sox. In terms of Shutdowns — that is, times when the pen has increased WPA by .06 — the Rockies are fourth in baseball, with 68. In terms of Meltdowns — that is, times when the pen has decreased WPA by .06 — the team’s total of 24 ranks second to Cleveland’s 22. Combine the two, and the Rockies are ahead of everybody, as the graph below shows.

Those results help explain why Colorado has been good in close games, but it doesn’t explain all of it. On the road this season, the Rockies have a 4.09 FIP (which is decent) and a 3.39 ERA (which is excellent). Only the Diamondbacks have been better, but their 3.46 FIP suggests the pitching performance is more sustainable. In the NL,the Dodgers’ road ERA is third, but at 3.87, it’s well behind Colorado. When an ERA is significantly better than the FIP, there are generally two factors that bear watching: left-on-base percentage (LOB%) and BABIP.

With regard to LOB%, that’s part of the sequencing luck that BaseRuns attempts to remove. It won’t show up in a team’s Pythagorean record because a Pythagorean record can’t tell you if the runs that did score were a product of luck or not. Pythagorean record only knows that runs were scored, period. The Rockies’ LOB% this season is 74%, not too far from the league average of 73%. When we separate home from road, we see a big difference, however. The club’s road LOB% sits at 79%, best in baseball. When you account for the park, Rockies pitchers have pitched roughly the same on the home and the road, but the inflated LOB% on the road indicates they’ve had a bit of luck.

It’s not all luck, though. Rockies pitchers are average when it comes to strikeouts, but their 49% ground-ball rate is third in baseball. That makes a difference, because the Rockies also have a very good infield defense. When you see balls fly out of Coors Field, it has to be pretty tempting to build the team around hulking sluggers. Hulking sluggers tend to give back a little on defense, and in the past the Rockies have been hurt by poor defenses. The chart below shows Rockies’ team UZR over the years.

This is easily the best team defense the Rockies have fielded since 2007 — the last, and only, season in which the team has reached the World Series. The outfield defense is decent, with a solid Ian Desmond and Carlos Gonzalez and a slightly below-average (when it comes to range, at least) Charlie Blackmon. The infield defense, however, is very good. Nolan Arenado is excellent and DJ LeMahieu is good. We don’t know enough statistically to say much about Trevor Story, but Mark Reynolds is decent at first base.

Together, the team excels at two things: turning double plays and avoiding errors. The team has been two runs above average on turning the double play this season, which is sixth best in baseball. They’ve also been 11 runs above average when it comes to errors, which is first in baseball by a ton. Merely looking at errors and fielding percentage to determine value on defense is a bad idea, as such a simple method totally ignores range, but the Rockies have combined their sure-handedness with average range. The Error component of UZR tells us how much that is actually worth, and Colorado’s defense has been one of the best in baseball.

It’s impossible to do a good job preventing hits at Coors Field, but on the road the defense has helped the pitching staff put up a .267 away BABIP, which is the best in the NL. (The Twins have a .256 away BABIP.) That figure might not remain that low all season, but it will likely be better than average if the staff keeps serving up ground balls and the defense continues to field them cleanly. It’s not reasonable to think that the Rockies will continue to be amazing at preventing runs on the road, but their pitching staff — especially the bullpen — and the defense should ensure that the team remains good at it. The Rockies probably won’t ever be good at preventing runs at home, but by putting together a solid defense, a ground-ball pitching staff, and a solid bullpen, they’ve come up with a good formula for the road.

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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5 years ago

My takeaway from these few articles: the Rockies haven’t been quite as good as their record, but they aren’t a complete fluke. They won’t keep up with the Dodgers the whole way, but they definitely belong on the next tier down as a solid Wild Card team.

Considering the recent results of the franchise, and the relative youth and strong farm system, Rockies fans should be on top of the world right now, even after a reality check like this.