Jun 6, 2014; Denver, CO, USA; Colorado Rockies managerWalt Weiss
(22) pulls starting pitcherEddie Butler
(31) in the sixth inning against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Coors Field. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports
It’s been another disastrous season for the Rockies. With last night’s 6-5 loss to San Diego, Colorado fell to 66-95 and now own the second worst record in baseball. Since May 21st, they are 35 games under .500 and have a winning percentage of .347. Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez, franchise cornerstones since the 2007 playoff run, have both been out for months with season-ending surgeries. Not that they’ve been healthy of late anyway. Since 2010, Tulo has missed 236 games (172 through 2013, 94 this season) while on the disabled list, CarGo dozens more. Over that span, the Rockies are 360-519 for a winning percentage of .410.. 2014 will be their fourth straight season finishing more than 10 games under .500.
But hey, at least they can look forward to some young pitching. The Rockies farm system is legitimate, led by of hard throwing right handers Jon Gray and Eddie Butler and bolstered this summer by the addition of left-hander Kyle Freeland. Gray has arguably the best fastball and best slider in the minor leagues. Butler made his major league debut in June after shutting Double-A through April and May. Freeland posted a 1.15 ERA after being taken with the eighth overall pick in June.
It is ostensibly one of the best collections of young pitching in the game. It doesn’t take a Pulitzer, though, to proclaim the obvious: Coors Field is a guillotine to pitchers. We know this. We’ve known this since the day the park opened in 1995 and the Rockies and Mets combined to score 20 runs on 13 extra base hits. But just how bad is it? How difficult is it to develop young pitching on Blake Street?
Consider this. Since 2003, the first full year in which the humidor was in use six Rockies starting pitchers have appeared on Baseball America’s top 100 prospect list. Here are their names accompanied by their ERA+ while with the Rockies: (ERA+ adjusts ERA to league and park factors. 100 is average and the higher the better.) Chad Bettis (65), Tyler Matzek (106), Christian Friedrich (74), Drew Pomeranz (89), Jhoulys Chacin (120), Franklin Morales (90), Greg Reynolds (63), Jason Hirsh (74), Ubaldo Jimenez (126), Jeff Francis (96), and Chin Hui-Tsao (86), and Aaron Cook (106).
So yes, as Chacin and Jimenez can attest, it is possible to develop a frontline starter in Coors. Fans may not associate the name “Chacin” with the word “ace” but a 120 ERA+ is comparable to the marks legitimate number two starters Mark Buehrle, Phil Hughes, and Madison Bumgarner have posted this season. And it was just four years ago that Ubaldo Jimenez, not Clayton Kershaw, spent much of the season chasing Bob Gibson‘s 1968 ERA mark. Tyler Matzek has shown promise in his rookie season, though it’s difficult to reach a verdict on a pitcher after just 19 career starts. Cook was actually a bona-fide No. 3 starter for a while, though he was never consistently dominant
Two outright successes, a rookie, and a now-retired up-and-down veteran, however, do not dismiss a history of repeated failures. Especially when those successes are a middle-of-the-rotation starter with a 5.05 ERA in 2014 and the other is a sometimes-ace, sometimes-scrub with a performance history more volatile than an R.A. Dickey knuckleball. In fact, the last consistent frontline starter developed by the Rockies organization was…….. Nobody. It hasn’t been done. In 21 years of existence, the closest the Rockies have come is Aaron Cook. Cook, with his 72-68 record and 4.53 ERA in ten years with the club.
Of course, the Rocky front office is well aware of these issues. They even devised a radical and controversial four man rotation in July of 2012 in which each starter threw only 75 pitches per game. Two months later, they scrapped it. Once again, Colorado finished with the worst ERA in the National League.
What chance do Gray, Butler and Freeland have of bucking the trend? It’s important to note that Gray is already something of an outlier. Since their inception, the Rockies have only drafted a pitcher as high as third overall once, when they took Greg Reynolds with the second overall pick in 2006, and never have they had a pitcher draw as many accolades from scouts. Reynolds peaked at #76 on Baseball America’s prospect rankings. This past july, Gray slotted in at #8, higher than any other Rockies prospect in history.
It is also worth noting that Butler, who has struggled in his brief major league time this season (6.54 ERA), bears many of the characteristics that defined previously successful Rocky starters. Namely a propensity to induce ground balls. It should come as little surprise that in the game’s marquee launching pad, pitchers who keep the ball out of the air have a greater chance to succeed. And indeed, Jimenez, Chacin, Matzek and Cook all consistently posted ground ball rates above the Major League average of 44%. Butler has a 51.6% mark in 16 big league innings. According to Minorleaguecentral.com, Butler posted a rate of 50% in the minors this year.
This logic bodes well for Freeland as well. The 21 year old got opposing batters to put the ball on the ground 54.6% of the time last season. That was over a terribly small sample size, though, and against inexperienced hitters in rookie ball and low-A. He still has at least a year and a half before he will be major league ready, and plenty to prove over that time.
And where does that leave Gray, who posted a 36.9% ground ball rate in 2014? Well that rate is concerning, as even routine fly balls can sail out of the park or fall in for triples in Coors’ mile high elevation and near mile-wild outfield dimensions. At the same time, it is hardly a death sentence. Ground ball rates do correlate with success in Denver, but the relationship is not overwhelming. Chacin and Jimenez have both had success when their rates were at or near the major league average, and the same holds true for Jorge De La Rosa, the the Rockies’ most tenured starting pitcher.
It does, however, mean that for Gray to thrive, he will have to start striking guys out. Armed with a grade 80 fastball and a grade 70 slider (per MLB.com), Gray was expected to consistently throw ball by hitters in the minors this season. He did end up punching out 8.2 batters per nine innings for Double-A Tulsa – respectable numbers, but not necessarily ones be-fitting a former second overall pick. The result was an unspectacular 3.91 ERA for the season. Before he can bring stability to the Rockies beleaguered rotation, the self-proclaimed wolf will either have to learn t keep his pitches in the lower half of the zone or start missing a lot more bats.
Then again, maybe the Rockies shouldn’t wait around to find out if this crop of pitchers will be different than the last locust-ridden one. Maybe, as some have suggested, the Rockies should scrap the Sisyphean goal of building a pitching staff in Denver and resurrect the Blake street bombers, i.e. form a fearsome lineup that can blow any visiting team out of the water. Following that philosophy, Colorado could flip Butler and Freeland, even Gray, for middle of the order bats to support Tulowitzki and Gonzalez.
The Rockies have taken many strange and controversial routes over the year. That, though, is not a path they appear willing to go down. They are grooming Butler to be in the 2015 staff. They know that to build a contender, they need to develop pitching. It’s just not clear, even with all these young hurlers, that they can.