It’s Time for the Rockies to Change Their Pitching Strategy

Since 2002 (the batted ball era), the Colorado Rockies pitchers have the 4th highest groundball percentage in the MLB. On its face, this seems like a good strategy, as Coors Field has an effect on batted and thrown baseballs that is not pitcher-friendly. Rockies’ pitching coach Jim Wright emphasizes pitching down as key to the success of the staff. However, the emphasis on groundballs has caused the Rockies to get into relationships with pitchers such as Shawn EstesAaron Cook and Jeff Francis, hurlers that lack strikeout stuff. And lest we forget, this same club famously gave Mike Hampton, a groundball pitcher who never averaged more than 6.9 K/9, what was then the richest contract in sports history. As a consequence, Rockies pitchers have the 5th lowest strikeout rate in the MLB since 2002. Compounding this problem is the fact that the Rockies have the 6th highest walk rate. Of course, there is the counter-argument that it is harder for pitchers to get strikeouts at Coors Field due to the effect that the altitude has on offspeed pitches. Additionally, it would seem that a pitcher could be forgiven for nibbling a little at the high altitude. I did a little research to determine how much of the poor strikeout and walk rates are due to Coors Field and how much could be attributed to the pitching style the Rockies advocate. I found that only three teams have higher walk rates in road games, and only four teams have lower strikeout rates. So Coors Field is not entirely at fault for the lack of strikeouts and proliferation of walks.

Since 2002,  Coors Field has the second-highest HR/FB ratio behind only the Reds’ Great American Ballpark. I took a look at the Home/Away splits of the five parks with the highest HR/FB ratios since 2002 to see if they tried to combat the longball in a style similar to the Rockies.

HOME
         Team              HR%          HR Per         Contact         HR/FB            GB%         BABIP            K/9          BB/9           xFIP            ERA
       League 2.6 3.6 10.2 44.3 0.291 7.0 3.1 4.14 4.06
          Reds 3.4 4.6 12.8 42.5 0.291 7.0 3.0 4.21 4.42
      Rockies 3.0 4.0 12.5 46.3 0.311 6.4 3.3 4.27 4.96
    Blue Jays 2.9 4.0 12.1 46.2 0.292 7.1 3.1 3.93 4.27
       Phillies 2.9 4.1 12.1 44.8 0.288 7.4 2.9 4.08 3.99
       Orioles 3.1 4.2 12.1 44.0 0.294 6.4 3.5 4.51 4.61
AWAY
         Team             HR%           HR Per         Contact         HR/FB            GB%         BABIP            K/9           BB/9           xFIP            ERA
       League 2.7 3.0 10.7 43.8 0.296 6.7 3.4 4.36 4.45
          Reds 2.7 3.7 10.5 43.4 0.299 6.5 3.4 4.41 4.43
       Rockies 2.5 3.4 10.0 44.9 0.297 6.5 3.7 4.48 4.56
    Blue Jays 2.7 3.7 10.8 43.4 0.300 6.5 3.7 4.56 4.48
        Phillies 2.6 3.6 10.3 43.9 0.295 6.8 3.2 4.24 4.21
        Orioles 2.9 4.0 11.2 45.1 0.294 6.5 3.5 4.39 4.91
OVERALL
Team HR% HR Per Contact HR/FB GB% BABIP K/9 BB/9 xFIP ERA
League 2.7 3.7 10.4 44.0 0.294 6.9 3.3 4.24 4.24
Reds 3.0 4.1 11.6 42.9 0.295 6.8 3.2 4.31 4.42
Rockies 2.7 3.7 11.2 45.6 0.305 6.5 3.5 4.38 4.76
Blue Jays 2.8 3.9 11.4 45.6 0.293 6.8 3.3 4.08 4.26
Phillies 2.8 3.8 11.2 44.3 0.292 7.1 3.0 4.09 4.09
Orioles 3.0 4.1 11.5 43.7 0.297 6.4 3.6 4.54 4.76

So the Rockies strategy of pitching to groundballs has led to some success in limiting longballs. Among these teams, only the Blue Jays can match the Rockies HR Per Contact rate for home games. The Rockies overall HR rate and HR Per Contact rate is league average, thanks to a road HR rate that only two teams can best. Unfortunately for the Rockies, home runs are not the whole story, and their team xFIP and ERA are 7th and 11th worst on the road. Overall, their team xFIP and ERA are 8th and 2nd worst. The Phillies, Blue Jays, and Reds all have strikeout rates at or above league average. Since 2008, the Blue Jays and Reds have stepped up their strikeout efforts. Meanwhile, the Rockies are 29th in strikeout rate in 2013.

Don’t be fooled by the recent success of Jhoulys Chacin and his HR/FB ratio of 4.9%, the Rockies need to focus more on strikeouts than groundballs. While groundballs have helped limit home runs, the Rockies are still giving up plenty of hits, walks, and runs. Strikeouts need to enter the equation for the Rockies staff to be successful. For a couple of years they had the perfect marriage of both with Ubaldo Jimenez, but none of the three pitchers obtained in the trade with the Indians (a well-timed one) has panned out. Perhaps if the Rockies acquired strikeout pitchers, they could configure their rotation so that those pitchers threw more innings on the road. It’s not as if they haven’t utilized a non-traditional approach with their pitching staff before. The Rockies probably shouldn’t spend 250 million to acquire strikeout pitchers like the Yankees did with C.C. Sabathia and A.J. Burnett when they moved into the cozy confines of the new Yankee Stadium. More than twelve years later, the Mike Hampton signing still has a bad taste in their mouth.  However, there is precedent for developing and acquiring strikeout arms at an affordable cost.

Look at the Reds. Since Walt Jocketty took over as GM in 2008, the Reds have managed to develop and acquire strikeout arms as a means to limit runs in homer-happy Great American Ballpark. The 2013 Reds are 4th in K/9 and 4th in xFIP and ERA. Aaron Harang’s contract was bought out once his strikeout stuff diminished. Homegrown product Tony Cingrani has been striking out hitters at an incredible rate in his first 100 innings with the big league club. The organization’s patience with Homer Bailey has been rewarded. Edinson Volquez posted excellent strikeout rates before being used to acquire Mat Latos and his devastating slider. And of course, they signed the flamethrowing international free agent Aroldis Chapman. While rotation mainstays Mike Leake and Bronson Arroyo are never going to blow anybody away with their stuff their ability to limit walks has allowed the Reds to rely on them as back-end innings eaters. Chapman’s 6 years/30 million is the biggest commitment to any of the above pitchers.

Currently, the Rockies farm system is not loaded with strikeout pitchers. Tyler Matzek is intriguing, but his strikeouts are way down this year as he has moved up a level and attempted to improve his control, and he is far from a sure thing. Tyler Chatwood has shown some promise at the big-league level, but his secondary pitches will have to be refined for him to have long-term success. Chad Bettis was blowing away Double-A hitters before a recent callup, but his innings against MLB competition have been predictably average. Most likely, this is not a quick fix, but more of a long-term strategy which will have to be implemented across several drafts.




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Chris Moran is a second-year law student, former college baseball player and assistant baseball coach at Washington University in St. Louis. He writes for Beyond the Box Score, Prospect Insider, DRaysBay, and sometimes other sites as well. Follow him on Twitter @hangingslurves

11 Responses to “It’s Time for the Rockies to Change Their Pitching Strategy”

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  1. Andrew K says:

    Great article. Unfortunately the Rockies ownership doesn’t seem to operate on logic.

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    • Chris moran says:

      Thanks. I thought the Rockies made something of a bold move with the ‘piggyback’ strategy last year but that doesn’t fix the issue of them not having the right type of pitchers.

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  2. rockeymountainhigh says:

    Strikeouts sound good, but I think pitching at altitude takes some of the bite out of breaking balls. That may explain the lack of Rockies strikeouts (along with the fact that they have 4 and 5 starters that should be in AAA rotations). It would be interesting to see visiting pitchers’ strikeout rates compared to their rates at Coors. I like the focus on throwing strikes, changing speeds and keeping the ball down. Their bullpen has been competitive. What they really need is two more major league caliber starters. Chacin and DLR are solid. They need two good starters out of Bettis, Chatwood and Nicasio and one more guy.

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    • Chris Moran says:

      Thanks for the comment. Pitching at altitude does take some of the bite out of breaking balls. Since 2002, only 9 teams have lower home strikeout rates than the Rockies hitters. So Coors Field limits strikeouts, but that isn’t the whole explanation since their pitchers are 2nd last in strikeout rate overall. And if their has been a focus on throwing strikes, it hasn’t worked all that well since their walk rate is 4th highest since 2002 (still 4th using road only stats). Even in 2013, their road walk rate is 8th highest. Maybe a 6 K/9 groundball guy would work if he was <2 walks but too often those low K high groundball guys the Rockies have sought out walk too many.

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      • rockeymountainhigh says:

        Walks have always been their problem. Walks turn a cheap home run into a cheap three-run home run. Guys have always nibbled too much, because they’re afraid of a cheapie. Definitely a tough place to pitch. I hope they figure it out one of these days. Interesting analysis. Keep up the good work.

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  3. jim says:

    There are some interesting FA’s with good strikeout stuff for next yr, who could be had fairly cheap:

    AJ burnett, scott bake, josh johnson, kazmir, kuroda, volquez, ervin

    Rotation next yr
    Jhoulis, JLD, Nicasio, Chatwood, 1-2 of the above.

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    • chris moran says:

      It will be an interesting market for those pitchers, and I would like to see the Rockies test the waters if any of those guys can be bought for a reasonable price. All of those pitchers have pretty significant question marks (injuries, age, results). I think Johnson is the most interesting. He’s always had injury issues, but before this season he’s had very good numbers when healthy. His peripherals are in-line with his career numbers, but his results in 80 innings were horrendous. I think he’ll go for something like 1yr 10-12 mil.

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  4. murphym45 says:

    Seems like the focus then should be on guys who can get strikeouts and throw a lot of fastballs and changeups.

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  5. razor says:

    Rockies runs scored on road compared to N.L. average since 2002, including this year thru Aug 28th:

    Col NL Avg

    2002 = 280 (353)
    2003 = 336 (365)
    2004 = 337 (376)
    2005 = 289 (353)
    2006 = 357 (378)
    2007 = 382 (377)
    2008 = 336 (363)
    2009 = 340 (354)
    2010 = 291 (337)
    2011 = 296 (336)
    2012 = 272 (335)
    2013 = 238 (266)

    Avg = 313 (349)

    Rockies runs given up on road compared to N.L. average since 2002:

    Col NL Avg

    2002 = 407 (373)
    2003 = 442 (379)
    2004 = 391 (379)
    2005 = 415 (370)
    2006 = 399 (397)
    2007 = 362 (395)
    2008 = 402 (381)
    2009 = 336 (371)
    2010 = 338 (363)
    2011 = 347 (342)
    2012 = 367 (352)
    2013 = 313 (277)

    Avg = 377 (365)

    The Rockies are down an average of 36 runs/year since 2002 in runs scored on the road. They are down an average of 12 runs/year since 2002 in runs given up.

    The pitching may not have been great but the offense has been a far bigger problem away from Coors Field.

    It’s called on base percentage.

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    • chris moran says:

      You’re right. I realized when I was running some of the stats for this article that I could just as easily have written about the futility of the Rockies hitting. Since 2002 they are last in road OBP and wOBA. But their pitching has also been terrible other than the 2007-10 years when Ubaldo Jimenez was very good.

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