The Rockies Were Bad and Still Almost Won

History won’t look back too kindly on the Rockies’ 2018 playoff run. They were outscored 13-2 in a three-game sweep at the hands of the Brewers. They produced one of the most pitiful offensive performances in postseason history. All in all, it wasn’t a great success.

A look at the team’s lineup reveals that the performance wasn’t completely surprising, either. While the club’s .334 wOBA ranked (tied for) fourth in all of baseball, the Rockies’ hitting exploits were much less impressive after accounting for Coors Field. Indeed, their adjusted batting line placed them among the 10 worst teams in all of baseball by that measure. Nolan Arenado, Charlie Blackmon, and Trevor Story were the only qualified Rockies hitters to produce a 100 wRC+ or better. By definition, that left two-thirds of the lineup to below-average hitters. That was never going to be ideal, and it showed in their loss to the Brewers.

Nevertheless, the series was far from a blowout. Rockies pitchers, particularly the starters, fared well — especially considering that Kyle Freeland didn’t get a start in the series and Jon Gray, who faltered at the end of the season, wasn’t even part of the NLDS roster. Tyler Anderson, German Marquez, and Antonio Senzatela gave up just five runs in 16 innings, keeping things close enough for their teammates. Overall, Colorado trailed by more than two runs in just five of the 28 innings during which they batted. A bloop and a blast would have given Colorado the lead half of the time they stepped to the plate — and also would have tied the game on another eight occasions, as the graph below illustrates.

That the Rockies scored in just one inning out of the 28 they played says a lot — both about their offense and the Brewers’ pitching. Some of that is just bad luck, of course. Even if you drop the Rockies’ chances of scoring to 20% in any given inning instead of the 25%-30% for the average team, they would have scored in six innings around half the time. The odds of plating a run in just a single inning out of 28 is about 65-to-1. Even with the Rockies’ awful offense and Brewers’ good pitching, the outcome was unexpectedly poor for Colorado.

While the Rockies receive (and probably deserve) considerable scorn for starting poor offensive players like Ian Desmond, Gerardo Parra, and whichever catcher happens to be in the lineup, the vast majority of their important plate appearances during the NLDS were taken by the players Colorado would actually want to bat. There were 15 moments in which Rockies hitters came to the plate with a leverage index of at least 2.0. These are those moments, ordered by leverage index.

Rockies’ Biggest NLDS Plate Appearances
Game Inn Play LI WPA
1 9 Nolan Arenado hit a sacrifice fly to center (Fly) 5.52 0.044
1 9 DJ LeMahieu reached on error to shortstop (Grounder). 5.46 0.202
1 9 David Dahl reached on fielder’s choice to first. Charlie Blackmon out at home. 5.21 -0.208
1 9 Charlie Blackmon singled to right (Grounder). Gerardo Parra scored. 4.46 0.171
1 9 Trevor Story out on a dropped third strike. 4.45 -0.114
2 8 Carlos Gonzalez lined out to third. 2.90 -0.069
1 9 Matt Holliday singled to center (Grounder). 2.86 0.122
2 7 Ian Desmond advanced on a stolen base to 2B, advanced to 3B on error. 2.84 0.109
2 7 Matt Holliday struck out swinging. 2.70 -0.114
2 7 Charlie Blackmon lined out to second. 2.64 -0.072
1 10 Carlos Gonzalez struck out swinging. 2.31 -0.059
2 3 Nolan Arenado struck out swinging. 2.21 -0.050
2 8 DJ LeMahieu grounded out to second. 2.16 -0.055
2 7 Chris Iannetta struck out swinging. 2.11 -0.089
2 8 Trevor Story struck out swinging. 2.05 -0.058
3 2 Ian Desmond flied out to left. 2.01 -0.049

The biggest, most important plate appearance of the Rockies’ postseason was taken by their best player, Nolan Arenado. While his sacrifice fly in Game One tied the score of that contest at 2-2, it barely moved the WPA because to the situation. If Arenado had gotten an extra-base hit like he did in 11.6% of his PA during the year, the Rockies would probably have taken a 1-0 lead in the series. If he’d walked, like he did 10.8% of the time in 2018, or singled (14.4% of the time), Colorado would have tied the game or taken the lead and still had no outs and multiple runners on base.

It’s not just that one plate appearance, either. Of the 14 PAs above — with one positive baserunning move by Ian Desmond — six featured Arenado, Charlie Blackmon, and Trevor Story. Charlie Blackmon’s single in the ninth inning of Game One was just inches away from a being a double and would have changed the game. Carlos Gonzalez had two PAs versus a righty, against which he is above average. David Dahl, who played well this season, had another. Matt Holliday, who looked to be a tough out in limited time this year, had two PAs and succeeded in one. DJ LeMahieu, at the end of a below-average season, also produced positive results in one of his two chances. Desmond came up to the plate just once. Gerardo Parra didn’t come up at all.

Obviously, one can’t ignore the Rockies’ ineptitude on offense. That said, the team wasn’t that far away from competing in this series. In the 10th inning of Game One, Ian Desmond lined out on a 109 mph batted ball that, according to Statcast, normally falls for a hit. Gerardo Parra came up next and hit a 99 mph fly out that’s a homer about a third of the time. In the eighth inning of Game Two, Carlos Gonzalez came to the plate with one out and a runner on first. He hit the ball 109 mph away from the shift and still managed to make an out.

The single by Ryan Braun that put runners on first and third with no outs in the next half-inning was of the seeing-eye variety; it’s a hit just 12% of the time. The Brewers then put the game away with three more runs.

In the first inning of Game Three, LeMahieu and then Nolan Arenado made 100-plus mph outs. In the third inning, Blackmon hit a 104 mph line drive into the shift. LeMahieu followed with a double and Arenado hit a ball hard (but foul) in his plate appearance that followed.

None of this provides an excuse for the Rockies’ poor performance. Their lack of runs was mostly earned; their xwOBA was still a very bad .219 for the series. If a few of these bounces or plate appearances had gone the Rockies’ way, however, they still probably wouldn’t have deserved to win. They might have won anyway, though, with a few bounces here and there. This post isn’t a defense of the Rockies. It is a reminder of how thin the margin can be in the playoffs and how much of an impact a few plays can make in a short series. The Brewers dominated the Rockies, and they still might have lost. Sometimes that’s the way the playoffs work.

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Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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