Led by Denver native and breakout star Kyle Freeland, the Colorado Rockies’ starting rotation made a statement in 2018: They’re for real and they’re a force to be reckoned with. The starters picked up the slack left by a sputtering offense to bring the Rockies to the postseason in consecutive seasons for the first time in franchise history.
It will take a little bit longer before they’re household names, though.
MLB.com published this article Wednesday morning, highlighting the 10 strongest and most intimidating starting rotations in the game today. They named Cleveland, the Los Angeles Dodgers, Washington, Houston, Boston, the New York Mets, Atlanta, St. Louis, the Chicago Cubs and Pittsburgh.
They also added honorable mentions to wrap up the piece: Philadelphia, the New York Yankees and Tampa Bay.
Colorado was nowhere to be found.
This is not to discount any of the teams listed. Most of those teams above deserve to be there ahead of the Colorado Rockies. But all of them? I’m not so sure.
By fWAR, the Rockies had the eighth-most valuable rotation in baseball in 2018, finishing with a 15.0-win mark. That ranks higher than the Cardinals (14.3), Nationals (14.3), Braves (12.0), Rays (10.8), Pirates (10.1) and Cubs (8.9). Colorado’s starters also struck out 884 hitters, good for ninth-most in baseball. The Yankees (883), Braves (867), Cardinals (815), Cubs (769) and Pirates (752) all struck out fewer batters.
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Fangraphs reports an advanced stat called ERA-, which is just an easier way to see park- and league-adjusted ERA. League average is 100, and the closer a team gets to zero, the better they are. Colorado starters collectively posted an ERA- of 90, also the eighth-best in baseball. That bested the Yankees (94), Mets (94), Cubs (96), Nationals (98), Pirates (101) and Phillies (103).
Another useful, park-adjusted stat that can be found on Fangraphs is xFIP-. It uses the same scale as ERA-, where 100 is league average and anything below that is good. Essentially, xFIP- is an indicator of what should have happened based on how a pitcher performed. Not all parks and playing conditions are the same, and sometimes balls drop in for lucky hits or sail out of the park even when a pitcher made a good pitch and induced weak contact. xFIP- tries to paint the whole picture by giving pitchers the credit they deserve.
Colorado had an xFIP- of 96, good for 11th-best in baseball. The mark ranked higher than the Nationals’ 98, the Cardinals’ 100, the Braves’ 102, the Pirates’ 103 and the Cubs’ 105.
The Rockies also had the 12th-best K-BB%, at 14.6 percent. That mark was better than the Braves (13.5), Cardinals (13.2), Pirates (13.1) and Cubs (11.1).
In all five categories, the Rockies rank better than Pittsburgh and Chicago. The real issue with these rankings is the fact that Tampa Bay earned an honorable mention. This season, the Rays dove headfirst into the “opener” strategy, famously supported MLB Network analyst Brian Kenny.
The purpose of the “opener” is to start a reliever in the first inning to get the top of the order hitters out, and then replace him in the second or third inning and patch your way through the rest of the game with the bullpen. This strategy prevents a starting pitcher from having to face the lineup for a third time, which is when most of the problems start for the pitcher because the hitters have seen him a couple of times.
For the most part, it worked. The Rays won 90 games in arguably the toughest division in the American League, and got really close to making the playoffs. But the purpose of this list was to highlight baseball’s best starting rotations, and because of the heavy use of the “opener,” Tampa Bay had just one pitcher on their staff qualify for the ERA title: Blake Snell. Snell pitched 180.2 innings, and won the AL Cy Young award with a shiny 1.89 ERA and 221 strikeouts.
No other Rays pitcher threw more than Ryan Yarbrough‘s 147.1 innings, so that’s where the issue lies for me in recognizing them for starting rotation excellence.
The Rockies belong in the top 10. They rank among the best in baseball in these meaningful categories, and they’re winning on the strength of their pitching staff, led by the young, homegrown starters.