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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.

         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
         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
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.