The Rockies’ Lack of Depth Is Costing Them Wins

Currently in possession of a 68-56 record and standing just a half-game out of first place in the NL West, the Colorado Rockies are in the midst of an objectively good season. Actually, the 2017 and -18 versions of the club have the best combined two-year winning percentage for any pair of Rockies teams in history, so one could make the argument that this is Colorado’s finest run ever. They’ve had two MVP candidates in the starting lineup both seasons and the starting pitching, long a team bugaboo, ranks ninth in the majors by WAR over that time period. Things in Colorado aren’t bad, per se.

But they could be better, it seems, without much effort. One real problem for the Rockies has been the team’s lack of offensive depth. It’s an issue they’ve shown little interest in addressing. And it’s costing them real wins.

With Nolan Arenado and Charlie Blackmon in 2017 and Arenado and Trevor Story in 2018, Colorado’s top-end offensive talent has been as dangerous as that of any team in baseball. Once you look past the top of the roster, though, things become a bit more frightening. Despite the team’s respectable raw numbers, the club’s offensive line reads like a gothic horror story after you factor in our old friend, Coors Field.

Team wRC+, 2017-2018
Team wRC+
Astros 116
Yankees 110
Indians 107
Dodgers 105
Athletics 104
Mariners 102
Cubs 101
Red Sox 101
Cardinals 99
Nationals 99
Angels 98
Rays 98
Twins 98
Reds 97
Mets 97
Rangers 96
Braves 95
Blue Jays 95
Diamondbacks 94
Brewers 93
White Sox 93
Orioles 93
Marlins 92
Pirates 90
Tigers 90
Phillies 89
Royals 88
Rockies 86
Giants 86
Padres 84

Even with the impressive performances by the brand names — most notably Nolan Arenado, who has been a legitimate MVP contender both seasons — the Rockies rank near the bottom of baseball in offense. At five of the eight main offensive positions — I’m not considering pitcher hitting or the DH for interleague road games — the Rockies have ranked 25th or worse in baseball by wRC+.

Rockies wRC+ by Position, 2017-2018
Position wRC+ MLB Rank
C 58 29th
1B 94 26th
2B 82 25th
3B 129 4th
SS 101 11th
LF 76 29th
CF 120 2nd
RF 90 29th

Now, DJ LeMahieu is a very ordinary offensive second baseman, outside of his .348/.416/.495 campaign in 2016, but he more than makes up for any bat-related shortfall with his defense. You can’t say that for the other positions ranking near the bottom of baseball.

The larger question is how many wins has this cost the Rockies? Quite a few, actually. If you separate the WAR contributions from the top three players on each team from the rest of the offense, Colorado’s inability to consistently find secondary offensive talent is laid bare.

Top Three vs. Non-Top Three, Positional WAR
Season Team Top 3 WAR Non-Top 3 WAR Season Team Top 3 WAR Non-Top 3 WAR
2018 Orioles 5.4 -2.3 2017 Blue Jays 10.5 -0.8
2018 Rockies 10.6 -2.1 2017 Rockies 14.0 0.6
2018 Tigers 7.1 -0.9 2017 Giants 8.7 1.1
2018 Marlins 7.3 -0.8 2017 Padres 5.3 1.4
2018 Royals 6.9 -0.7 2017 Royals 11.3 1.8
2018 Padres 3.9 2.0 2017 Angels 14.2 3.0
2018 Twins 8.0 2.2 2017 White Sox 10.6 3.0
2018 White Sox 4.4 2.7 2017 Orioles 9.0 3.2
2018 Mets 7.3 3.3 2017 Pirates 8.0 3.9
2018 Giants 7.1 3.6 2017 Phillies 8.4 4.4
2018 Phillies 6.6 4.2 2017 Rangers 10.4 4.5
2018 Mariners 8.4 4.8 2017 Tigers 8.5 6.7
2018 D-backs 10.7 5.3 2017 Braves 10.2 6.9
2018 Blue Jays 4.1 5.3 2017 Red Sox 10.9 7.1
2018 Indians 16.6 5.5 2017 Reds 15.6 7.2
2018 Brewers 11.2 5.6 2017 Athletics 8.8 7.6
2018 Nationals 10.3 6.2 2017 D-backs 9.9 8.3
2018 Angels 15.1 6.3 2017 Brewers 8.7 8.5
2018 Reds 10.1 6.8 2017 Nationals 16.2 9.9
2018 Rays 7.2 6.9 2017 Mariners 11.0 10.2
2018 Red Sox 17.5 7.4 2017 Marlins 16.4 10.8
2018 Pirates 8.1 7.7 2017 Rays 10.1 10.9
2018 Astros 11.3 7.9 2017 Indians 15.6 11.5
2018 Athletics 12.0 8.2 2017 Yankees 16.7 11.8
2018 Rangers 8.4 8.2 2017 Mets 8.5 12.3
2018 Cardinals 9.9 8.5 2017 Cardinals 12.2 12.3
2018 Braves 11.6 9.9 2017 Cubs 13.8 12.9
2018 Yankees 13.2 11.4 2017 Twins 11.0 13.6
2018 Dodgers 9.1 11.5 2017 Dodgers 16.1 14.3
2018 Cubs 10.0 13.4 2017 Astros 17.3 15.6

In 2017, the average team received 7.5 WAR of performance from hitters outside of the top three. The Rockies were second-worst in baseball, at 0.6. Seven wins is nothing to sneeze at — even half of that number can be crucial in a pennant race — and the fact that seven extra wins would have only gotten the Rockies a home Wild Card game instead of a road one in this particular season doesn’t excuse the team’s roster construction. Nor was it just a temporary issue: the seven-plus wins missing so far this year represent the difference between a spot in a three-way NL West race and a seven-game lead in the division and the best record in the National League.

The thing about this weakness is that it’s not one that can be waved away with simple excuses. The Rockies haven’t been unusually injury-prone and while David Dahl’s absence hurt the team — even assuming a healthy version would be given the job on a silver platter — but the team has been aware of this for years and has done very little to improve the team’s outfield depth. Dahl’s also not playing left field, right field, and first base simultaneously — unless I’ve seriously misunderstood how physics works.

Moves like the Gerardo Parra and Ian Desmond signings, as mind-boggling as they were at the time, have been made worse by the team’s complete inability to acknowledge that neither player has any business starting in the majors in 2018. Because of his other deficiencies, Parra literally has to post a .350 batting average to be a league-average offensive player in left field, while Desmond, after a good stretch, has hit .233/.287/.360, 58 wRC+ over the last month. (Once again, the Last Six Weeks Projection System turns out once again to not be very good.) Even Carlos Gonzalez’s 2018, hailed as a huge comeback in some circles, only amounts to a 105 wRC+, below average for a starting corner outfielder.

No, Colorado isn’t going to spend $200 million like some teams, but other contenders at least seem interested in finding secondary talent based on merits beyond simple major-league experience. When Jose Bautista didn’t work out for Atlanta, they didn’t refuse to promote Johan Camargo because he wasn’t “proven.” The Cubs don’t treat David Bote as an annoyance, depriving a veteran of his rightful playing time. Does anyone really believe that Max Muncy or Tony Kemp or Max Stassi would have received the same opportunity in Colorado as they have on their current teams?

Ryan McMahon was never given a fair shot to unseat one of the worst first baseman in baseball. Dahl, when healthy, has frequently had to fight for plate appearances with Parra. Might Tom Murphy’s .919 OPS in Albuquerque or Mike Tauchman’s 1.006 translate into some kind of contribution in the majors? Colorado doesn’t seem particularly ready to find out. Raimel Tapia has started one game in the majors in 2018.

Trouble’s already on the horizon, with Nolan Arenado inching closer to free agency, a market he’ll hit after the 2019 season. The ZiPS projections for Arenado already project him to make over $250 million, so it’s no guarantee that Colorado will retain one of the few players giving them a semblance of a major-league lineup.

Colorado’s rebuild was geared towards these years, and while the team has had some successes, they’ve also missed as many opportunities. One of the things that separates the good teams from the great teams is that the great teams never sit still, never content to accept a weakness. If the Rockies peter out over the next couple of seasons, it won’t be so much a failure of the players as the failure of a front office that never had the imagination to push the team anywhere past good.

We hoped you liked reading The Rockies’ Lack of Depth Is Costing Them Wins by Dan Szymborski!

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Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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rmillet3
Member
rmillet3

This is the trade-off the Rockies have made with Bud Black as manager. He has done wonders for their starting rotation, something the Rockies have never done well, but he is stubborn when it comes to sitting veterans.

ThomServo
Member
ThomServo

The whimsical idea that Bud Black has done a single articulable thing to help the Rockies SPs is nonsense.

What do you think Black has done? Why does his help only help the SPs and not the bullpen or the starting position players? This line or reasoning is straight out of the 1950s.

Further, no front office allows it’s managers to pick who plays. Black, like all managers, is likely to be regressive, and likely wants to play veterans, but it the front office’s decision to make.

bombguy85
Member
bombguy85

“The whimsical idea that Bud Black has done a single articulable thing to help the Rockies SPs is nonsense.”

Right, except for this string of really good starting pitching since early July just happened to coincide with the pitching summit Black called between his pitchers and all the organizations primary pitching coaches. But yea that’s totally just coincidence and is completely whimsical.

Lanidrac
Member
Lanidrac

We have no knowledge either way as to how the various teams pick their lineups and distribute playing time. I’m willing to bet though that many teams still leave the lineup decisions up to their managers.