Don’t look now, but every single division in baseball is being lead by a team who nobody expected to be there. Boston, KC, Texas, Atlanta, Pittsburgh, Arizona and Colorado (tied) are all sitting atop their divisions and looking down on the favorites. Certainly some of us looked at Kansas City and thought they could be a contender - and we knew Atlanta would find themselves in the mix - but who thought that Colorado, Arizona or Pittsburgh would be just about tied for the best record in the NL?
Pretty much none of the pundits did. Most of us figured that the Rockies and Pirates would be thrilled to be making a run at .500. Not because the teams are bad, but because teams in their divisions, the Reds and Cardinals in the Central, and the Giants and Dodgers, appeared to be so much better.
That hasn’t been bourn out in the first month of the season, though the Giants, Reds, and Cardinals are certainly not far off the pace.
In looking at these two clubs, the Pirates and Rockies, it’s hard to figure out how the Pirates’ success can continue. The offense is anemic, having scored just 89 runs over 24 games (3.7 runs per game), ranking just above the offensively-challenged bottom dwelling Padres, Dodgers, Cubs, and Marlins.
However, the pitching has been good, not exceptional but good, and the Pirates rank in the top third of NL pitching teams. It’s the only thing which has kept them atop the division so far. Is it enough? Probably not. It’s unlikely, really unlikely, they can keep it up, and as the Brewers, Cardinals, and Reds heat up the reality is likely to catch up with Pittsburgh.
But the Rockies, the Rockies are a different story. They may actually have a chance to keep it going. Yes, this is somewhat unlikely too, but the Rockies have always had one recipe for success, and this team so far has followed it to the letter. The 2007 team which made it to the World Series and the 2009 team which made the Division series used the same recipe.
These were teams that thrived offensively, ranking among the NL leaders in terms of runs scored (ranking second both of those years) and having a pitching staff which, at least, semi-tamed the rarified air of Colorado. Those pitching staffs didn’t exactly impress, both were middling - literally, as the pitching staffs ranked 8th and 9th of the 16 teams in the NL in those years.
Yet when your team has scored the most runs in the league, or the second most runs, that’s a recipe for success. And the current Rockies team fits that mold exactly. They are first in runs and 9th in ERA.
And they are doing it the Rockies’ way. Scoring runs has never been the Rockies’ issue, they are great at that. It’s the pitching that has always proven to be elusive, except in just a handful of years, when the pitching managed to do the one thing that often gets either overrated or totally discounted: generate ground balls, lots and lots of ground balls.
Balanced pitchers and pitchers with great stuff rarely thrive in Colorado long term, but extreme groundball pitchers tend to fare much better and the Rockies have loaded their staff for 2013.
Still it’s improbable, but as the Rockies have shown us before, it’s capable of working. If Jhoulys Chacin, Jorge De La Rosa, Jon Garland, Juan Nicastro and Jeff Francis can keep the ball on the ground, and if the defense doesn’t crumble like it did when the Rockies lost in Milwaukee Saturday night, then the Rockies have a chance - a slim chance - to be the surprise team of 2013.