Written by Jonathan Leshanski
Published: 03 April 2013
The Rockies have had a number of successful seasons. They’ve largely done it with pitching. That’s something that has largely deserted them since they traded away Ubaldo Jimenez. They’ve tried all sorts of things to bring the rarified air of Colorado under control and bring the game back to the even playing field that all other teams seem to have.
And while Colorado’s hitters have prospered under these conditions the pitchers largely have suffered. Pretty much every pitch other than the fastball and change up, requires practice -- lots of practice -- if it's going to work well. That’s something Colorado’s hurlers don’t get enough of. After all how to you judge how your slider is going to break in San Diego if you can’t see it happen in your bullpen sessions at home?
If you don’t think that matters, take a look at the splits for Colorado’s own hitters. They are vastly better at home. And they should be. In Colorado the pitches are straighter. The thin air takes away break from a breaking ball, takes away curve from a curve ball, takes the slide out of the slider even the knuckle out of the knuckleball. That leaves pitchers with less in their arsenal. Changes of speed, lesser breaks, curves and other tricks.
Because of that, many of Colorado’s hurlers have struggled even more on the road, where they yield plenty of runs and have far less offensive support.
Rockies management has tried a number of things to minimize the trauma of pitching in Colorado. The humidor was the first of those steps. Last year's Plan 5280 (the 75 pitch count for starters, followed by a bridge reliever, etc.) was the most recent notable attempt.
Maybe those were overall failures, maybe they weren’t. There were hints of success in many of their ideas, and even Plan 5183 might have succeeded if the Rockies had the right hurlers.
Rockies Pitcher Jeff Francis
But the one thing you’ll notice about the pitchers who’ve succeeded the best, and in the seasons the Rockies have fared the best, the staff was lead by high quality extreme ground ball pitchers, and the team had the defense to back it up.
And while the 2013 Rockies are being written off as punching bags, maybe they shouldn’t be. Plan 5280 is apparently dead, as evidenced by Jhoulys Chacin’s 94 pitches in the first game of the season, but the ground ball pitchers are back. Every single one of the Rockies starters, including Jorge De La Rosa, Jeff Francis, Jon Garland, Juan Nicasio and Chacin, all sport groundball rates that have ranged in healthy years from 43% to 55% and for the most part they’ve shown percentages greater than 45%.
Admittedly this staff isn’t exactly a who’s who of great or healthy pitchers. Chacin and De La Rosa are coming off injury, Garland and Francis are retreads, and Nicasio is young and inexperienced. All of them, save Nicasio have significant injury histories, perhaps lending a bit of anecdotal credence to Bill Jame’s recent assertions that extreme ground ball pitchers are more likely run into severe injuries after a short span of success.
Still if this staff can stay healthy and keep the ball on the ground as planned by the Rox front office staff, the Rockies will have a key ingredient for playing more competitive baseball.
If they pitch well, it will place the burden on the defense. How good this defense is going to be is very much up in the air.
Todd Helton is old and has lost range. Second baseman Josh Rutledge isn’t a natural at his position but is learning on the job. And the oft injured Tulowitzki probably isn’t as nimble as he used to be (and at this point, do the Rockies really want him diving for balls in high risk situations?). The worst of the fielders, however, is probably the guy behind the plate Wilin Rosaro, who can mash the ball but committed 15 errors in just over 100 games last season.
Only Chris Nelson, the primary third baseman, is really a top athletic infielder at the right position, but even he is prone to mental missteps.
Maybe that’s adequate, maybe it’s not. Only time will tell. Chacin certainly looked like a good pitcher on opening day, yielding just a single run on 6 2/3 innings. Maybe it's a harbinger that the Rockies' pitching is back.
Still even if it is, the Rox aren’t going to compete with the Giants and Dodgers this year. But it may offer some hope going forward.