After splitting a four-game series with the Dodgers over the weekend, the Colorado Rockies are 24-15 and in first place in the NL West. At this point in 1997 and 2014, the Rockies were 23-16. They finished 83-79 (not bad) and 66-96 (bad), respectively, and missed the playoffs both times. A few other Rockies teams held their heads above the .500 watermark into May, but were also shut out of the postseason. In fact, if there’s any historical harbinger of playoff-bound Rockies, it’s awful starts (16-23 in ‘07 and 15-24 in ‘09) or, well, a shortened MLB season (the Blake Street Bombers, with the new addition of Larry Walker, got out of the gate to a 22-17 record in 1995 and held strong for 144 games). At a glance, it seems like there’s little reason to get too worked up about this particular hot beginning.
But, this year, there’s a whole lot of talk in Colorado about “something” being “different” this time around. And there are many reasons to believe that such a sentiment is morphing into more of a cogent argument than, say, the ramblings of this guy after 11 heady brews on the stadium’s rooftop deck. The Rockies are, in fact, off to their best start ever. In their last match ups, they took a series from the resurgent D-Backs, won a series versus the reigning champion Cubs, and split with the Dodgers, who floated into Denver on a five-game winning streak.
So what might make this year different than the others? It’s fairly straightforward: The work on the mound has the potential to be the best in team history. That’s not saying a lot, right? Right. But it might just propel the fellas in purple into the playoffs.
The story on Blake Street is that the bullpen went from the league’s doghouse last year to the master bedroom this one. The Rockies’ bullpen recorded just 73 holds last season and allowed 36 percent of inherited runners to score (only the Diamondbacks were worse in that category). So far this season, the pen already has 33 holds, and is allowing just 27 percent of inherited runners to cross the plate, good enough for a top-10 mark in the league.
New closer Greg Holland is a ridiculous 16 for 16 on save opportunities, and Mike Dunn has proven to be an intimidating, competent set-up man. Ditto for Jake McGee. Adam Ottavino has an absurd slider that, when harnessed, is almost unhittable. Chris Rusin has proven to be the go-to long inning reliever. The Rockies are 20-0 when taking a lead into the seventh inning, and that’s how they’ve managed to stay in first place despite having just a +7 run differential. That small number will certainly set off some alarm bells for people who are waiting for the inevitable regression, but it doesn’t necessarily spell doom. Sometimes a team can simply be built to dominate close games; the 2016 Rangers, who went 36-11 in one-run contests last season and were similarly constructed, offer a ray of hope.
Could things get worse in the pen? Definitely! They were pretty shaky against the Dodgers this past weekend. Holland is inevitably going to blow a save or half dozen, Ottavino has struggled mightily with control of late, and Mike Dunn is probably playing a bit over his head. But, it could get better, too. Jordan Lyles has been awful and needs to be rolled up into a tarp by the grounds crew and loaded onto the back of a truck bound for Cape Horn. Same goes for Scott Oberg if he doesn’t improve. The Rockies could fill those holes with a prospect—Yency Almonte, sporting a mid-90s fastball and hard slider comes to mind—or even someone from the starting rotation once ace Jon Gray returns.
The starting group is trickier to nail down, and is emerging as the squad’s big question mark. Absent of Gray, the rotation is nearly all rookies, and so there’s a whole lot of guesswork involved in figuring out what may or may not stay true about these guys. So far the Rockies have been paced by rookies Antonio Senzatela (3.31 ERA) and Kyle Freeland (2.93 ERA), who are probably in for a backslide. The problem is that both guys are striking out less than six batters per nine innings, and they aren’t missing very many bats with any of their pitches. That will need to change if they expect to continue surviving at the major-league level.
The good news is that if Senzatela and Freeland flame out, the Rockies can turn to two more rookies in German Marquez and Jeff Hoffman, a more highly-rated pair of prospects. Marquez shut out the Cubs over eight innings in his last start, and Hoffman showed how dominant he’s capable of being in his only start of the season against the Dodgers, striking out eight in 5.1 innings. If Jon Gray can come back and be the same anchor he was last year, and if Tyler Chatwood and Tyler Anderson can work out their early season kinks, then it’s not hard to imagine the Rockies keeping up this pace by filling the last two rotation spots with some combination of Marquez, Hoffman, Freeland, and Senzatela in a way that allows them to ride out their inevitable rookie struggles. And yet another reason for optimism is that the Rockies hired a former pitcher, Bud Black, to sort it all out. So far he’s shown tremendous willingness to allow his young hurlers chances to work themselves out of jams, and it’s paid off.
Last year’s Rockies ranked 27th in the league with a .982 fielding percentage. They’ve flipped the script this year, where a .988 mark ranks them fourth. The starting rotation isn’t getting many strikeouts, which translates to the Rockies fielders having the most total chances at 1,521. The good news is that most of those chances are coming on the ground, and the infield defense has been gobbling those balls up to make outs.
Of the top 10 pitchers for groundball outs, three are Rockies—Freeland, Chatwood and Senzetela—and the team currently has the highest groundball rate in the game. That means a lot of opportunities for Nolan Arenado (well on his way to his fifth-straight Gold Glove), Trevor Story, Pat Valaika, and DJ LeMahieu (who has the most assists in the league). As Jeff Sullivan at Fangraphs recently pointed out, they are converting those opportunities into outs at a tremendous rate:
An sOPS+ of 100 is league average. Last year, when the Rockies got grounders, they allowed an sOPS+ of 107. That means they were something like 7% worse than average. This year, so far, that number has dropped to 71, meaning they’ve been something like 29% better than average. To put this much more simply: The Rockies have generated more grounders, and they’ve been much better at turning those grounders into outs.
If the Rockies pitching numbers stay about the same or even decline slightly, they will make the playoffs. Why? Because this lineup is stacked, even by Rockies standards, and they aren’t even mashing all that well right now. They’ve only put up double-digit runs five times this year, but if the recent output is any indication, they’re ready to start doing it more often.
Carlos Gonzalez is coming back to life: He was absolutely dreadful to begin the season, but had two two-hit games against the Dodgers, and finished the series with two doubles, four RBIs and six total hits. Pat Valaika—who sent two into the seats on Sunday—is making Trevor Story’s rough start less of an issue. DJ LeMahieu—who was last year’s batting champ, but you probably didn’t realize that unless you live in the Mountain Time Zone—is starting to swat. He began May hitting .255, but is now sitting pretty at .295. Against the Dodgers, he had a two-hit game and two three-hit games. Ian Desmond just showed up on April 30 and is already hitting .304 with a couple of homers. Charlie Blackmon is starting to crank harder with an overall .310 average and eye-popping .354 so far in May. David Dahl hasn’t come off the DL, and the supporting cast— Gerardo Parra, Tony Wolters, Alexi Amarista and Ryan Fucking Hanigan—have far exceeded expectations.
And then there is Mark Reynolds, perhaps the wildest story of the year so far. He’s not even supposed to be out there, and many didn’t think he’d do much when given the opportunity. His slash line is .326/.399/.630, and it comes with 12 home runs and 33 RBIs. What’s truly crazy is that this doesn’t look like Mark Reynolds on a hot streak, it looks like Mark Reynolds with a new brain.
If you were asked to close your eyes and picture a typical Mark Reynolds at-bat, you’d probably see him swinging as hard as he can at three pitches and striking out on a slider two feet away from the plate. This is Reynolds’ 11th season in the league, and he carries a career strikeout rate of 30.8 percent. This season, however, his strikeout rate is down to 21.6 percent, a career low. A strikeout rate like that doesn’t make him vintage Albert Pujols by any means, but it’s still a pretty remarkable drop for a guy who has posted a 200-strikeout season three times in his career. It’s possible that Reynolds, after all those years of swinging and missing, is finally starting to rethink his approach and is becoming a more refined hitter.
Oh, right, Nolan Arenado is still doing his thing, too: batting .299 with 27 RBIs and nine homers. One of those jacks happened on Sunday, when he absolutely crushed a Julio Urias offering 451 feet, demonstrating how scary his power can be when he’s hot. On the field, he’s human highlight reel—his diving stabs, running throws, and giant leaps are almost taken for granted in Denver and shouldn’t be. He is undoubtedly one of the best players in the league, and just might win an MVP award some day. Any lineup that is anchored by a player like him is going to be dangerous on a daily basis. Nolan Arenado should be a household name. Nolan Arenado is the truth.
Look, we’ve been here before, but we also kind of haven’t. Yes, this hot start is precarious, and everything could crumble like granola bar that’s been left out in the sun for too long. The difference this year is that with so many variables in play, it’s tougher than usual to see everything crapping out at the same time. That run differential is scary, but then you remember that Jon Gray is coming back soon. Yes, the starting pitching could certainly start to suffer, but the lineup has yet to hit its stride and is more than capable of picking up the slack. If the bullpen starts to blow it, there are young reinforcements available. It’s not a perfect formula, but it’s a formula that many winning clubs have used before: There’s enough talent, top to bottom, to keep the Rockies competitive on a daily basis.
The team sets out on the road this week for a 10-game stretch. They’ll first battle a lively Minnesota Twins crew featuring a 4-1 Phil Hughes (say what?) before having to deal with Ervin Santana (yikes) and then Jose Berrios—who threw a two-hitter against Cleveland in his 2017 debut. The Rockies finished 33-48 on the road last year. They’re 11-5 so far this season. If they can keep up that pace over the next couple of weeks, it’ll say a lot about what this team might be capable of on the other side of the All-Star break.