Colorado Rockies: What are the keys to winning at altitude?

DENVER, CO - MAY 05: Sunset falls over the stadium as the Atlanta Braves face the Colorado Rockies at Coors Field on May 5, 2012 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
DENVER, CO - MAY 05: Sunset falls over the stadium as the Atlanta Braves face the Colorado Rockies at Coors Field on May 5, 2012 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images) /
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Jon Gray of the Colorado Rockies
SAN DIEGO, CA – SEPTEMBER 22: Jon Gray #55 of the Colorado Rockies pitches during the first inning of a baseball game against the San Diego Padres at PETCO Park on September 22, 2017 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Denis Poroy/Getty Images) /

The third element to any great Colorado Rockies baseball team has began with a strong mix of homegrown starters and reliable veterans. In truth, the Colorado Rockies postseason appearances have been produced with the same model in every winning season.

In 1995, the organization signed San Francisco Giants All-Star Bill Swift (9-3-4.94 ERA, 109 ERA+), to join a rotation with Kevin Ritz (11-11-4.20 ERA,128 ERA+, acquired in the 1992 expansion draft), Armando Reynoso (7-7-5.32 ERA, 101 ERA+, acquired in the 1992 Expansion Draft) and Marvin Freeman (3-7-5.89 ERA, 91 ERA+, FA signing following the 1993 season). When you add in the contributions from homegrown rookies Bryan Rekar (4-6-4.98 ERA, 108 ERA+), Roger Bailey 97-6-4.98 ERA, 108 ERA+), and the trade deadline acquisition of Cy Young winner Bret Saberhagen (2-1-6.28 ERA, 84 ERA+), you see the Colorado Rockies used a combined total of 11 starters to compete in 144 games as the season progressed.

In total, the 1995 starting rotation combined to produce 47 of the team’s 77 wins, the same team tossed a combined 518 innings, the lowest for any Colorado Rockies rotation in the franchise’s history. Despite, the lower numbers of innings, the group combined for a 103 ERA+, making the first unit to tackle Coors Field slightly better than average.

As the years of Coors Field grew, and the organization began to avoid the failed experiments of former general manager Dan O’Dowd’s signings of dominant aces (Darryl Kile, Mike Hampton, Denny Neagle) to exuberant contracts, the organization began to see a new trend occur.

Since 2001, the organization has began to focus on building its starting rotations through a draft and development model. The first wave of talented arms arrived in 2001, when Colorado promoted top pitching prospect Jason Jennings to the major league roster. In 2002, he would join another great farm developed arm (albeit, he was acquired by trade, and promoted after starting at Triple-A) Denny Stark to produce a talented 1-2 punch in the top of the rotation.

Jennings established himself as a reliable starter in 2002 (currently, the Rockies only Rookie of the Year award winner), while Stark struggled in 2003 to regain the dominance he had the year before. When Jennings declined a 24.5 million contract extension in 2006, the Rockies dealt him away to the Houston Astros. At the time, he wasn’t sure if Rockies ownership would make the moves needed to ensure the organization would be competitive and strong enough to make the postseason.

Little did he know, his trade, would give the organization the final pieces (CF Willy Taveras, RHP prospect Jason Hirsh, and RHP long reliever Taylor Buchholz) to spring the organization into the World Series the following year. In 2007, he would be injury-prone for the Houston Astros, and by 2009, out of the game for good, following two years in relief.

In addition to the acquisition of Hirsh (5-7, 4.81 ERA, 100 ERA+), and his contributions to the 2007 rotation, homegrown starters Jeff Francis (17-11, 4.22 ERA,114 ERA+) , Aaron Cook (8-7, 4.12 ERA, 117 ERA+), Ubaldo Jimenez (4-4, 4.28 ERA, 112 ERA+), and Franklin Morales (3-2, 3.43 ERA, 141 ERA+) would be the catalysts who carried the organization down the stretch. When added to the mix of veteran savvy provided by the “Dragon Slayer” Josh Fogg (10-9, 4.94 ERA, 97 ERA+) and FA acquisition Rodrigo Lopez (5-4, 4.42 ERA, 109 ERA+).

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In 2017, just like the 2007 team, the Colorado Rockies started the season off with a solid mix of veterans and youth. Beginning with Jon Gray, and veteran leaders Tyler Anderson, Chad Bettis and Tyler Chatwood, the Rockies were only expected to have one spot in their rotation for a young rookie to compete for. The rookie competition was originally set between German Marquez, Antonio Senzatela, Kyle Freeland, Jeff Hoffman, and Harrison Musgrave.

Instead, the Rockies were given some bad mojo in spring training when Bettis (2-4, 5.05 ERA, 99 ERA+) was diagnosed with testicular cancer. By early May, Gray (10-4, 3.67 ERA-136 ERA+) was sidelined with a foot injury, Anderson (6-6, 4.81ERA, 104 ERA+) was sidelined in June with a knee injury, and staff road warrior Chatwood (8-12, 4.69 ERA, 107 ERA+) struggled with command issues, and eventually found himself in the Rockies bullpen.

Under the tutelage of Mark Wiley, the Rockies Director of Pitching Operations, however, the organization found itself in a very interesting position.

As injuries began to mount, the Rockies would bring up the organizations prized arms in Freeland (11-11, 4.10 ERA, 122 ERA+), Marquez (11-7, 4.39 ERA, 114 ERA+), Senzatela (10-5, 4.68 ERA, 107 ERA+), and Hoffman (6-5, 5.89 ERA, 85 ERA+) to fill the holes. What the organization did not expect, was the combined efforts these four young arms delivered, until the veterans would regain their strength in August.

Overall, the quartet of rookies, would combine to produce 38 of the organization’s 87 wins, with the bullpen contributing 23, and the veterans, led by Gray’s 10, combined to produce the other 26. In all, this was a year of the starting rotation, unlike in years past as the starters combined to produce 64 of the team’s 87 wins.

In conclusion, the three critical ingredients to any Colorado Rockies formula for success starts with:

  • Great team speed
  • A dominant bullpen
  • A league average starting rotation

While the Colorado Rockies may never produce a Cy Young Award Winner, they can be the best team in baseball from start to finish. All they have to do is prevent runs defensively (team speed), make opposing pitchers sweat by stealing more (team speed), they can close teams out after their starters leave (bullpen), and they can pass the baton to the bullpen ahead on the scoreboard (starting rotation).

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If the Rockies follow this formula, they will win more than they will lease, creating a more dynamic culture at 20th & Blake for years to come.