Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports
If you have followed the Rockies on a consistent basis, and I know most of you have, you probably have realized that their offense has been good this year. Scratch that; the offense is always good, given that they play in Coors Field, but this year it has been insanely good.
The Rockies, whose run differential says they should have the third best record in the Major Leagues, lead baseball in runs this year. That’s impressive, but not necessarily shocking; even in a down year, last place Colorado scored the second most runs in the National League last season. But compare last year’s results to the first 21 games of 2014, and you’ll notice that the Rockies’ have scored 5.42 runs per game this year, after putting across 4.36 runs per game last year. That’s a big difference. Big enough, in fact, that, had the Rockies scored as much per game last year as they are this season, they would have scored 878 runs and had a pythagorean record of 92-70, which would have put them in the playoffs. I know I’m being unfair; it’s a small sample size, and the Rockies’ offense will regress. I understand that, but there have been some improvements to the offense, and I think it’ll be better in general this season. Let’s take a look at why the offense has been so good this year, and whether they can sustain it.
First and foremost, stars Carlos Gonzalez and Troy Tulowitzki have stayed relatively healthy, at least through the first eighth of the season. Last season, Gonzalez missed 52 games and Tulowitzki sat out 36. In the games that CarGo missed, the Rockies scored just 4.17 runs per game, a fifth of a run fewer than in games he played. That’s a lot. These are two of the best hitters in baseball, so it definitely helps to have them in the lineup. Both have been plugged into spots in the middle of the order for most of the season. They haven’t done it before, but if both can stay healthy this year I would expect to see an overall uptick in offense as compared to last season’s.
The Rockies have also played some of the worst pitching teams in baseball to this point. In fact, they’ve already played both teams who have allowed more than 100 runs (the Diamondbacks and White Sox), and have also played the third worst pitching team in baseball, the Phillies. So scheduling has a lot to do with it, and I expect to see the offensive production falter at least slightly as they start to face the Giants, Dodgers, and Padres more often as they start playing teams in the NL West more often. However, while scheduling explains some of the offense, it’s obviously a flawed explanation. Because each team has played so few games, each game they have played has a fairly large impact on season stats. So part of the reason that the Rockies have played the three worst pitching teams in baseball is because their offense has been prolific enough to score a bunch of runs against them. It’s part of the increased offense, but I don’t think it or the better health luck tells the full story.
Another reason that the Rockies, and many other teams for that matter, have been good offensively is because, well, it’s a small sample size, and anything can happen in a small sample size. For example, I think Charlie Blackmon is a fine baseball player, and he’s a great guy to root for, but he isn’t Mike Trout. He also isn’t the best hitter on the team, but has been just that this year, with his .411 average, 1.121 OPS, 1.1 OWAR, and 10 extra base hits. Blackmon has been hitting leadoff, so his hot bat is all the more important. When it cools down, as it inevitably will, the Rockies will take a sizable hit offensively. Tulowitzki and Justin Morneau are also smoking the ball right now. Both are good hitters, but neither can keep up this rate of offense. So is the reason the offense is doing so well because each starter has been hitting at an unsustainable pace? I suspect that this is another small piece of the puzzle, but again, the theory has a hole.
It can be argued that half of the Rockies’ everyday lineup is hitting at an average, if not below average, rate. D.J. LeMahieu is right in line with his career stats, and Gonzalez and Wilin Rosario are hitting below their career OPS, although the latter took a step in the right direction with a home run Monday night against the rival Giants. The fourth guy, Nolan Arenado, is fittingly one I’ve called the X-factor in the offense, partially because he’s the only guy who I feel confident can reach a level or two offensively we haven’t seen (at least until Charlie “Mike Trout” Blackmon showed up). Fittingly, Arenado has taken the next step offensively this year, but still leaves something to be desired. He’s hitting .301 with power, but has just one walk all season. There’s very limited upside for a player with that little plate discipline. As you’ll see later, Arenado is also the only starter who is striking out more this year than he did last year. So some of the starters are hitting above their heads, but some also have room for improvement. This offensive success isn’t all a small sample size fluke.
At last, I arrive to the article that led me to write this post. Today, Fangraph’s Jeff Sullivan wrote an article that was inspired by Blackmon. But this article wasn’t just about Blackmon; it was about the whole offense, and one aspect in particular: the lack of strikeouts. Last season, the Rockies struck out 1204 times (about 7.5 times per game), which was middle of the pack. They walked 35% as much as they struck out. This year, they are walking 43% as much as they are striking out, and are in the top 10 in fewest strike outs. That, of course, is mostly thanks to the starters, and it could also be a fluke or a small sample size thing. But the Rockies do have a new hitting instructor in Blake Doyle, and it might just be that Doyle has helped a lot, because Sullivan dug up each starter’s K rate, and seven of the eight are striking out less this year, with the exception being Arenado. It’s not only small amounts, though; six of the eight hitters are striking out a lot less.
Blackmon leads the way. He struck out 19% of the time last year, a below average rate, and has this year K’d just a third as much, a huge, and even historic if it holds up, improvement. Blackmon didn’t strike out a huge amount in the minor leagues, so this might be closer to the true Blackmon. Rosario is also striking out a lot less, which makes sense, as he’s a young player who still probably has some improvement coming. Gonzalez, after striking out way more than his career average last season (27%), is back around his normal 20-22%. More puzzling, though, are the improvements made by Morneau, Tulowitzki, and Cuddyer. All are veterans who have been pretty consistent in terms of their strikeout rates throughout their careers, and all three have seen huge decreases in strikeouts this season. That’s what leads to me to believe that some, but not all, of the improvements in K rate are legitimate. Some of it is the small sample size, and some of it has to do with the teams they have played, but I also think that the more inexperienced players (Blackmon and Rosario) have made legitimate improvements, and I also think that Doyle has helped.
In the end, the biggest question is: is the offensive improvement sustainable or is it a fluke? I think the answer is, as it often is, somewhere in between. The Rockies’ more inexperienced hitters, from Blackmon to Arenado, have made legitimate improvements, and it doesn’t look like the older players on the team have lost a step. The team also has better plate discipline, and have plenty of depth. On the other hand, the fact that much of their success has come against poor pitching teams is worrying, and it’s always good to remember the small sample size we are talking about. To sum it all up, I think 800 runs, which is slightly less than five per game and a number that just one team, the Red Sox, reached last year, is a optimistic yet fair prediction. I hope the Rockies can top that, because they are going to need to score a lot of runs if they plan on making the playoffs.