See? It’s an altitude joke! Because they play in Denver, see? Pretty genius, huh? I know, I’m great. Yes, it is a burden, but one I carry for you. Because you deserve it.
Anyway, it seems it’s the Rockies turn this season to mock the Padres’ ambitions about running with the big dogs of the NL West. Though the San Francisco Giants seem to be carrying on from where they left off as well. But now it’s a given that the Giants are just going to weave something out of the ether to be good. The Rockies just might be the ether though. They sit right with the Giants at one game behind the league-leading Dodgers.
So of course the question is how long can they stay there? Are they just a product of sample size, and riding a good wave of baseball weirdness? The answers are, “surprisingly a bit longer” and “yeah, pretty much,” as diametrically opposed as those two things are.
It’s always tricky with the Rockies, and that’s beyond their institutionalized organizational weirdness, cheapness, and idiocracy. The first thing you think about with the Rockies is offense and runs, given the environment they play in. But when they had their latest spasm of actual competence in 2017 and 2018, it was mostly built on a homegrown pitching staff. By the time they started eating worms again, most everyone thought they had a good pitching staff when they didn’t.
This version is certainly hitting the ball, 8th in MLB in runs scored. But the big story so far has been starting pitcher Chad Kuhl, who has a 1.10 ERA through three starts. Kuhl had been a candidate to be one of those scrapheap finds that gets harnessed by the right pitching coach or finds a new pitch and becomes a whole thing.
Kuhl is using a new pitch these days, a sinker that has become his most-used, 41 percent of the time up from 13 last season. The big effect it’s had is that it has caused hitters to chase it out of the zone far more than before, a 40 percent chase rate in 2022, up from 13 percent last year. Which explains how Kuhl has found success without striking out too many hitters. A 21 percent K-rate is hardly something to laugh at, but is pretty standard. What Kuhl has done is keep the ball off the barrel of the bat, as his 2.4 percent barrel rate against is one of the lowest in the league. Which has also seen his line-drive rate drop from in the 20s to a 14 percent mark so far in 2022.
But, it’s never that simple. Kuhl is running a .190 BABIP right now, and that will balloon and probably quickly. So will his ERA when it does. But as long as very few ever hit him hard, he’ll probably still be effective. Similarly, Austin Gomber has been able to dance around the meat of opponents’ bats this season, with a 6.7 percent barrel rate, which has also sunk the amount of line-drives against him. Gomber has actually been unlucky with balls in play against him and runners on base, so he’s a candidate to hold the line as well.
Out of the pen, Tyler Kinley and Daniel Bard have been highly oppressive, with the former getting nearly 60 percent whiffs on his slider. Justin Lawrence has gone about it another way, getting nearly 65 percent grounders when he’s been on the mound. The pen might actually be ok for the long-term.
Offensively… well, this is probably the whoopie cushion that’s going to get sat on at some point. C.J. Cron has six homers and is slugging .667, and Cron has had plus-offensive seasons before. But Cron’s success so far mostly hinges on nearly 40 percent of his fly-balls ending up as home runs, and that won’t continue, especially as the actual baseball has been so deflated this season. Connor Joe, in between his vain searches for a last name, has an OPS of 1.022. But he also has a BABIP of .366 with no speed and no eye-opening contact numbers. He does have plus bat-to-ball skills and makes a ton of contact, which should see him sink no further than a serviceable bat. Randall Grichuk will eventually suffer the fate of someone who has a terminal case of being Randall Grichuk. Charlie Blackmon (you can feel free to call him “Chuck Nasty”) seems to have gone to the late career ploy of “selling out for fastballs.” He’s pulling everything, making less contact but getting more balls into the air. He will hope to keep outrunning his increasing strikeouts with increased power.
So yes, there’s a lot of air in the Rockies’ start. And they haven’t really played anyone yet, as their schedule, after starting with the Dodgers, has been Rangers-Cubs-Phillies-Tigers. But their schedule doesn’t really tune up from here and the next month either. Their next two weeks are Phillies-Reds-Nationals-D-Backs. THey’ll see the Giants six times in May and the Mets three, but that month rounds out with a Pirates-Nats-Marlins course. Wins banked in April and May still count as much as the ones later in the year. One can assume the East will produce at least two playoff teams, but the Central is a joke and the more distance they can put in front of the Padres now…well, who knows?
Baseball can get weird, and it’ll have to get really weird to keep the Rockies around. But it’s not a level of weird that’s impossible for the weirdest game to reach.