This spring, the Colorado Rockies made the unusual decision to break camp with six outfielders. If any roster had the right personnel to overload in the outfield, it was the Rockies. Infielders Josh Rutledge, DJ LeMahieu and Charlie Culberson have plenty of utility (Rutledge did not make the club out of spring training). Backup catcher Jordan Pacheco can also play the infield corners, as can Michael Cuddyer. With Justin Morneau an uncertainty entering the season, the club probably planned on using Cuddyer at first base with some regularity. Additionally, Cuddyer, Morneau and Carlos Gonzalez can be considered injury risks. IN FACT, Cuddyer is already on the disabled list.
So we’ve covered why the Rockies could carry six outfielders: utility. But why did they want to carry them?
In short, there are two reasons. One, the Rockies didn’t want to lose any of the four second-tier guys – namely Charlie Blackmon, Corey Dickerson, Brandon Barnes and Drew Stubbs. Two, in the event of one of those aforementioned injuries, this quartet lines up perfectly for a regular platoon. With Cuddyer out, the platoon has been in full force with plenty of early returns. Let’s take a look at their performances through Sunday
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Improbably, Blackmon is the best hitter in baseball to date. Oh sure, how easy is it to point to a .390 BABIP and 18.5% HR/FB and cry regression. Easy, I just did it. However, part of his success is built on plate discipline. He’s swinging at fewer pitches out of the strike zone and whiffing less frequently at all types of pitches. Even if Blackmon isn’t the best hitter in baseball (he’s not), it appears the Rockies have found themselves a breakout performer to bat against right-handed pitchers.
Dickerson is the other lefty in the outfield platoon crew. He’s received the least playing time, although people I’ve talked with see him as the best hitter of the quartet. We only have a 239 plate-appearance sample with Dickerson, but his game seems built around hitting line drives. Last season he hit 26% line drives, and this season he’s at 37% through his first 26 plate appearances. Mashing balls to the outfield is definitely a desirable skill set for Coors Field, although he does seem to hit a few too many ground balls.
Who’s been more surprising, Blackmon or Barnes? It’s clearly Blackmon because he’s shown new skills, but Barnes has done his best to keep pace as the small half of the platoon. The Rockies acquired Barnes primarily because he rates as an excellent defender in center field. Coors Field happens to have a large outfield. His ability to hit left-handed pitching reasonably well is what makes him more than a 26th man. It’s certainly not his career .095 ISO.
You probably noticed his sky-high .462 BABIP, which is partially supported by his 32% line-drive rate. For his career, he has a 107 wRC+ against left-handed pitching in 227 plate appearances. Part of his success is built upon a .400 BABIP against southpaws and 28% line-drive rate. Perhaps he’s very skilled against lefties — though more likely, he’s been fairly lucky. I hate looking at each player’s stats and saying, “He’s probably going to regress,” but, yeah, he’s probably going to regress. That’s how statistics work.
Stubbs has been the early disappointment, but there’s nothing in his profile that says he’s broken. Unlike his platoon-mates, Stubbs is probably in store for some positive regression. He’s put two-thirds of his balls in play on the ground. Hitting four ground balls for every fly ball isn’t going to work for many hitters not named Billy Hamilton. Thankfully for Stubbs, his career GB/FB ratio is 1.35. He has a career 115 wRC+ against left-handed pitchers. Assuming he’s healthy, there isn’t too much reason to expect much worse from him this season.
Since this is FanGraphs, we need not restrict ourselves only to what has already happened. We can also predict
with perfect accuracy what will happen in the future.
The Steamer projections are better insofar as plate appearances are concerned, but I included both systems in case anyone has a strong preference. The expectation is Blackmon has earned fairly regular playing time. His RoS projections would make him a mediocre leadoff man, which is a lot more than we thought he was four weeks ago. Dickerson also draws strong projections, with the highest wOBA of the group. He’s not a big on-base threat, but he usually bats down in the order, so he fits the role.
Barnes and Stubbs have decidedly weaker projections, but they’re also the weak-side of the platoons, and are only playing against left-handers. If the Rockies limit their exposure to northpaws, they should hit better than 10% below league average. Maybe not much better, but the Rockies can allocate more of their at-bats to situations where they are most likely to be successful, which could allow them to outperform their rate projections.
In a nutshell, the platoon outfielders in Colorado have been very good thus far. Our projections suggest the left-handed pair can continue to be above average going forward. The righty duo might be below average at the plate. The outfield depth is one of several reasons why the Rockies are contenders in the National League West. For what it’s worth, we currently give them a 27.9% chance to reach the postseason, and given the mild expectations for this team heading into the season, I’d have to think they’ll take that.