Trying To Optimize The Rockies Rotation For Coors Field

A few weeks back, I wrote about Jorge de la Rosa’s remarkable mastery of Coors Field, a fact made all the more interesting by the reality that he’s struggled badly pretty much everywhere else. One of the comments on that piece put forth a pretty fascinating idea:

The Rockies need to break the straitjacket of the five-man rotation on a fixed schedule. Rather, they need to platoon their starters to some degree. Split them into ‘pitch mainly at Coors’ and ‘pitch mainly on the road’.

Could that possibly work? Should it? I’ve been thinking about it ever since then, during which time two things have happened. First, Jeff Sullivan wrote a very similar piece about Jered Weaver and the Angels, causing me to mostly table this. But then second, the Rockies announced that the vastly inferior Kyle Kendrick would start on Opening Day, opening the door to “worst Opening Day starter ever” articles, and that they’d push de la Rosa all the way to the fourth game of the season… which just so happens to be the home opener.

Are they actually trying to put this into motion? It’s true that de la Rosa is battling a groin injury this spring and probably could use as many extra days as the team can give him, but it’s also clear that they want him on the mound at home whenever possible. It might be just as clear that Kendrick, who always seemed an odd fit for the Rockies, would be best served setting foot in the state of Colorado as few times as possible. Maybe this isn’t just about de la Rosa’s odd skill; maybe he’s just the starting point. Let’s put forward a plan to optimize the Rockies’ rotation.

If this sounds like going to extremes, to potentially put in place a plan that a traditional, set-in-his-ways major league starting pitcher wouldn’t get on board with, you’re absolutely right. It is. But then, nothing about the Colorado experience has been traditional. Entering their 23rd season, the Rockies have won more than 83 games just twice, routinely struggling to find a pitching solution that works. If the normal methods aren’t effective, then it’s necessary to try something else. Three years ago, they put into place a widely-ridiculed out-of-the-box four-man rotation plan, a plan they scuttled after three months after finding limited success.

Though we all laughed at the Rockies at the time, the flaw was much more in the execution than in the idea. It’s crazy to fundamentally change the way a rotation works in June, without the benefit of an offseason or spring training to adjust. It was foolish to try to do it with half of the rotation being rookies Drew Pomeranz and Christian Friedrich and the other half being the mediocre Jeff Francis and Alex White. There wasn’t enough depth in the bullpen, or talent overall. It was an idea worth trying, just put into place in a way that wasn’t conducive to success.

But this, this would be different. That plan required three days rest, limits of 75 pitches, and relievers who could handle unprecedented patterns. This would still be normal pitchers making normal starts, and it wouldn’t impact the bullpen at all. It would just require an extra day or two between starts, occasionally requiring a sixth starter, and perhaps some creative usage of options. Would extra time be so bad, anyway? None of these guys are so good that you’re being foolish if you don’t squeeze every last inning out of them. We know with a high degree of certainty that playing at high altitude has an effect on the body. Last year, due to a combination of injuries, ineffectiveness, and relying on Brett Anderson, the Rockies used 15 different starters. Maybe this all helps.

So here’s how we’re going to do this, and for the sake of this hypothetical, we’ll give de la Rosa the benefit of the doubt on that groin and figure he’ll be healthy. (After I wrote this, it came out that he’s likely to start the season on the disabled list, which, lovely, but this is all an experiment anyway, so let’s go with it.) Here’s how I put this together:

Optimize the starters at either extreme. That starts with de la Rosa, obviously, who has performed like no one else in Coors Field. This has two benefits, because it’s not just about giving more Denver innings to de la Rosa; it’s about taking road innings, where he’s been mediocre, away. Over the last two years, de la Rosa has thrown 172.1 innings at home, and 179.2 on the road. That’s what you’d expect on a “regular” rotation; it’s also not an efficient use of his time, at least if you believe in his “skill.”

The second pitcher? Well, it’s going to be Kendrick, obviously, as the Rockies themselves have all but acknowledged, mostly because he’s got a long history of mediocrity (and home runs) behind him without even having been in Coors Field that often, and there’s little reason to expect that will change this year. Kendrick at the other 29 parks isn’t that great; Kendrick in Coors could be a disaster. This works around the tentpole theories that having both go as 50/50 pitchers is silly, and instead pushing Kendrick away from home and de la Rosa towards it makes more sense.

Decide between the next two pitchers. The two other Rockies starters likely to get the most innings are Tyler Matzek and Jordan Lyles. They’re both groundballers, but Lyles has shown a consistent home run problem, and Matzek, for what it’s worth, had a de la Rosa-like home/road split last year. Not that Matzek’s 117.2 innings are anywhere near enough of a sample to put faith into, but hey, we’re experimenting here, and his .301 wOBA against at home against his .355 on the road is enough for us to start with. They won’t be slotted as stringently, but whenever possible, we’ll have Matzek at home and Lyles on the road.

Have enough optionable depth to both fill the No. 5 spot and be available when this experiment requires a sixth starter. Even with the recent departure of Jhoulys Chacin, the Rockies actually do. They may not want to mess with Eddie Butler and Jon Gray, but they’re both talented and both have options. David Hale is basically a swingman, but he’s extremely likely to make starts in 2015. Christian Bergman showed an elite ability to limit walks in 2014. Friedman is still kicking around. Chris Rusin is in camp, and on the 40-man. So is Chad Bettis. These aren’t all great choices, but they’re certainly pitchers who exist (though not all have options.) You don’t worry too much about where this group pitch; there’s only so much you can do here.

So: Let’s build a schedule. Can we do this where the regular starters never have to start on fewer than four days or more than six? Not always. But mostly.

Below, what I pray remains a scrollable embedded Google map, showing you how this might work, should you want to sort through:

Which comes out, per pitcher, to this:

Pitcher GS H A
De La Rosa 34 20 14
Kendrick 32 13 19
Matzek 31 17 14
Lyles 33 16 17
Gray 18 10 8
Hale 12 5 7
Bergman 1 0 1
Butler 0 0 0

Some obvious notes, here. This has Hale starting the year in the rotation before giving way to Gray in June, mainly because Hale is what he is and Gray is a highly-touted prospect who is nearly ready. Bergman gets a spot start during a long stretch of May games so that de la Rosa can get one extra day and start a homestand, though that could easily be Bettis or John Lannan or anyone. That Butler is listed for zero starts isn’t really an indicator of anything other than that I’ve presumed perfect health for the first four starters, which we know with almost the utmost of certainty isn’t going to happen. If you want to mentally adjust the last few guys here, go right ahead. For now, they aren’t the point.

What this does do, with 99% of starts coming on four or five days rest, is tilt de la Rosa and Kendrick in the ways we want them. (De la Rosa has to make one start on three days rest in this scenario, but it’s the final day of the first half, giving him more than a week’s worth of time to recover.) There’s not a single homestand that de la Rosa wouldn’t get a start in, and in eight of the 10 such stretches that last at least six games, he’d get two. If you really wanted to push it, you could give him a second three-days-rest start and have him go three times in the final home stand, by pushing up his Sept. 19 start (when he’ll be on five days rest) a day.

So would this matter? Over the last two seasons, de la Rosa has averaged just about six innings a start at home with a 2.93 ERA, and just over 5.1 innings (in that .1 is one out, not one-tenth) and a 4.67 ERA on the road. We can’t necessarily assume identical continued performance, but the projections for 2015 are almost identical to what he did in 2014 and they don’t really do home/road splits, so we’ll go with what we’ve got. If we apply those numbers to what we see above — so, 20 starts times six innings at a 2.93 clip, and 14 starts at 5.1 innings at a 4.67 performance, what do we get?

We’d see de la Rosa pitch 120 innings at home and 74.2 on the road, a big improvement over his 90.2 (home)/93.2 (road) split last year. Given the added weight to his “good” side, that ERA would come out to 3.61. Steamer and ZiPS, currently, project him for a 4.45. Last year, it was 4.10. The difference is approximately 12 runs. That’s a win.

A win doesn’t sound like much, and it’s not much, because it’s only the ineptitude of the Diamondbacks that’s going to keep Colorado out of last place. But that’s also a relatively free win, which the Rockies are in no position to be turning down (again, assuming that de la Rosa can be healthy), and so far we haven’t even incorporated what keeping Kendrick away from Denver accounts for. It’s a little more — a lot more –difficult to do that, because we don’t have any data on what he’ll do as a regular rotation member, and the younger pitchers have shorter track records. Maybe that bumps it up a little more.

But as I considered how to dig into Kendrick’s numbers, I paused. Maybe, really, that’s the biggest problem here. Ever since the Mike Hampton and Denny Neagle debacles, the Rockies have long had terrible difficulty in enticing quality starters to come to Denver. Their most successful starters since — Ubaldo Jimenez, Chacin, Aaron Cook, Francis, Jason Jennings — have all been homegrown, or rescued off the scrap heap, in de la Rosa’s case. That’s why this plan — though worth exploring, because you can’t just keep on doing the same thing again and again — might not be worth the effort. After all, when one of the major dependencies is that you hope Kyle Kendrick can be just a little less mediocre, then maybe you’re in trouble no matter what. Maybe you never find another pitcher again like de la Rosa, who can even be worth pitching more often in Coors Field.

No matter how much you try to optimize things, the answer is always going to be get better pitching. It’s why guys like Gray, Butler, Matzek, Kyle Freeland, Tyler Anderson, Tyler Chatwood, and Antonio Senzatela are so important. Thinking outside the box is great, but talent trumps all.





Mike Petriello used to write here, and now he does not. Find him at @mike_petriello or MLB.com.

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Phillies113
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“It might be just as clear that Kendrick […] would be best served setting foot in the state of Colorado as few times as possible.”

Jeez, the way you put it, it makes it sound a lot like the Rockies signing Kyle Kendrick was a mistake.