The Colorado Rockies are 14–9 and a half-game out of first place in the NL West, which is surprising, but not that surprising. This team is headed in the right direction — last season they finished 75–87, their best record since 2010 — and with the Dodgers and Giants both under .500, someone has to lead the division. But the version of the Rockies you’d have expected to end up in first doesn’t look much like the one that sits there now.
The underlying trends behind the Rockies’ third-place finish last year were even more encouraging than their record — their Pythagorean record was 80–82, and they got there thanks to several important debutants. Six current or former top-100 prospects made their big league debuts with Colorado last season: outfielders David Dahl and Raimel Tapia, shortstop Trevor Story, catcher Tom Murphy, and pitchers Jeff Hoffman and Jon Gray. Tyler Anderson never made a top-100 list after an injury-plagued minor league career, but the left-hander finally reached the majors in 2016 and posted a 3.54 ERA , which in Coors Field is a 138 ERA+.
In the offseason, the Rockies hired a veteran manager, Bud Black, and splashed $70 million over five years on Ian Desmond — a puzzling move in some respects, because Desmond’s qualifying offer cost the Rockies the no. 11 overall draft pick and because the team announced its intention to play Desmond at first base, rather than center field, where he’d be more valuable. Even so, Desmond’s a good player, and signing quality players in free agency is usually a positive thing for a team on the rise. After a decade of bizarre front-office management and embarrassing ownership antics, it looks like third-year GM Jeff Bridich has the team back under control.
Those 2016 newcomers bolstered an existing core of Nolan Arenado, one of the best third basemen in the game; second baseman D.J. LeMahieu, the 2016 NL batting champion; right fielder Carlos González, who’s declining but still hit .298/.350/.505 last year and made the All-Star team; and center fielder Charlie Blackmon, whose hair and beard say, “I’ve never been indoors,” but whose 2016 batting line says, “.324/.381/.552.”
It also looks like Bridich is, if not solving the problem of how to pitch in Colorado, at least making the problem manageable by leaning on hard throwers. Gray, a former no. 3 overall pick whose fastball velocity popped up to triple digits his junior year at Oklahoma, is already in the big leagues. Bridich spent his first two picks last year on Riley Pint, who might be the hardest-throwing high school pitcher ever, and Georgia right-hander Robert Tyler, whose fastball sits in the mid-90s and can touch 100.
Bridich also went out and got a hard-throwing closer in each of the past two offseasons: On January 28, 2016, he swing a four-player deal that landed former Rays lefty Jake McGee, who throws his 95 mph fastball about 90 percent of the time. Exactly one year later, Bridich signed Greg Holland, who touched 100 during his time with the Royals and is at 97 mph after missing all of 2016 recovering from Tommy John surgery.
Put all that together and you’ve got a deep lineup backed up by a pitching staff that, behind Gray, Anderson, and a hard-throwing bullpen, keeps the game close enough for the offense to win in high-scoring fashion.
Some of those things have happened in 2017. Holland has a 1.80 ERA and is perfect in nine save chances. Arenado has a 151 OPS+, Blackmon 145, and the pipeline of young starting pitchers has coughed out another promising rookie: left-hander Kyle Freeland, the no. 8 overall pick in 2014 and a Denver native who has a 148 ERA+ through four starts.
After that, things get weird, because the Rockies waded through a swamp of slumps and injuries to get to 14–9. Dahl (rib), Murphy (forearm), and Desmond (hand) have all been out since spring training with broken bones. Story, who hit 27 home runs last year, is hitting .175 with 33 strikeouts in 90 PA. González’s OPS+ is down to 53. As a team, Colorado’s slugging .453, but park-adjusted stats tell a different story: The Rockies have a collective 87 wRC+, tied for 22nd in baseball. Gray’s thrown only 12.1 innings and is out until at least mid-May with a broken foot, and Anderson’s ERA is 7.11, which is bad even for Coors Field.
Looking at that list of either injured or ineffective players and then looking at the standings is enough to conjure up images of a 100-win team once Story, González, and Anderson return to form and the legion of injured players get healthy en masse in a few weeks. But as unsustainably unlucky as Colorado’s been in some areas, it’s been unsustainably lucky in others.
Really, all you need to know is that Mark Reynolds, the patron saint of “grip it and rip it,” is hitting .317/.374/.634 while deputizing for the injured Desmond at first base. Reynolds played 118 games for Colorado last year, and was worth a win and a half; his low contact rate and bad defense in years prior means he hasn’t even put up a two-win season since his 44-homer campaign with the Diamondbacks in 2009.
With Gray on the shelf and Anderson’s ERA hawking Big Gulps and all-hours taquitos, the Rockies’ best starting pitcher has probably been 22-year-old rookie Antonio Senzatela. Senzatela entered Thursday’s start against Washington with an ERA of 2.08. The Nationals tagged Senzatela for four earned runs in six innings in that start, but when you take into account that all other Rockies pitchers combined to allow 38 runs in 21 innings in the last three games of that series, he’s basically Greg Maddux by comparison.
Senzatela isn’t a hotshot prospect like Freeland or Gray — he signed for $250,000 out of Venezuela in 2011; never made a top-100 list; and even the most optimistic offseason rankings, at Baseball Prospectus and MLB.com, projected Senzatela to be a back-end starter at best. And while his mid-90s fastball and low walk rate look good, his strikeout rate (5.1 K/9 in the majors, 6.6 K/9 in the minors) just isn’t good enough to sustain a sub-3 ERA, particularly in an environment that punishes pitchers for allowing contact the way Coors Field does.
In addition to these fluky individual performances, the other obvious factor to look at is whether the Rockies are outplaying their run differential, and they are, by three games. Colorado is 7–0 in one-run games and 3–5 in games decided by five runs or more, which on its face cries out for regression.
Except, there are two reasons to believe the Rockies can keep outperforming their run differential. Well, not that they’ll literally go undefeated in one-run games all year, but that they’ll win more than what looks like their share.
Colorado has the kind of bullpen that lends itself to a funky Pythagorean record. Every other year under Buck Showalter, the Orioles sneak into the playoffs with a bad run differential because they have good bullpens, with either Jim Johnson or Zach Britton as the closer, and some combination of Andrew Miller, Darren O’Day, Mychal Givens, and Brad Brach sucking up the other high-leverage innings. Teams that can send elite relievers to protect one-run leads, or to keep games tied or hold opponents’ leads to one run, are going to win a lot of those games. Holland has pitched and earned the save in six of those seven one-run games. Outside of save situations, McGee, Adam Ottavino, and Mike Dunn have been good, but after that it gets bleak, and when the mop-up guys enter a game played at an altitude that would inspire Jon Krakauer to break out a pen and paper, losses can get out of hand in a hurry.
Right after Senzatela left the game Thursday, Jordan Lyles and Carlos Estévez combined to allow 11 runs in the seventh inning alone, and instead of losing 4–2, the Rockies lost 16–5. Black, a longtime pitching coach who oversaw good bullpens during his time managing the Padres, can keep the Rockies ahead of their run differential if he identifies his best relievers and keeps using them in the highest-leverage situations.
When most of the roster is healthy and all the small-sample anomalies iron themselves out, the Rockies will probably find themselves playing like a .500 team, maybe a little better if Black and Holland can help them steal a few close games. Colorado always needed some help from Los Angeles and San Francisco to make the playoffs this year — which they’re getting courtesy of Rich Hill’s blisters and Madison Bumgarner’s dirt bike — and thanks to this hot start, the Rockies are in a position to capitalize. And even if that doesn’t happen, and the Rockies end up around .500 and slide out of a playoff position, it’ll still be a step forward for an organization that has spent most of this decade going nowhere in particular.