The Rockies’ result was unusual on Monday: They lost off a rough performance from their starter.
Jon Gray was pulled in the fourth inning after giving up eight runs on 11 hits. (Colorado ultimately lost 12–8 to Arizona, its first loss by more than one run this season.) It was the sort of pitching that the team hadn’t yet had to endure this year: Gray’s night ended a streak of 21 straight Rockies games in which the starter had allowed three or fewer earned runs. And while Colorado’s first-place run so far has drawn on several factors—a slow start for the Dodgers, an incredibly hot one for Charlie Blackmon, the inherent weirdness of corona-ball—the main one, by far, has been its pitching.
Ahead of Monday’s games, Colorado’s 180 team ERA+ was the best in the National League and second in baseball only to Cleveland’s 213. The staff was averaging fewer than one home run allowed per game—0.8 HR/9—which would be commendable for any club but is especially so for one based in Coors Field. This success has featured generally solid work from the bullpen (a surprising note for anyone who watched this team last year) but the bulk of it has come from the rotation. And that, depending on your perspective, is either a monster shock or something that feels like it might have been a long time coming.
The 2020 Rockies’ rotation is almost identical to the 2019 Rockies’ and largely similar to the 2018 Rockies’. (All three have revolved around Gray, German Márquez, Kyle Freeland and Antonio Senzatela.) But their results have shown extreme variation from year to year. If the 2018 edition of Colorado’s rotation was generally solid, 2019’s was a nightmare: The group ended with the worst starters’ ERA in MLB (5.87), and the lowest strikeout rate, the worst strikeout-to-walk ratio, and the highest WHIP in the NL. And now, in 2020—in an admittedly small sample size that requires all sorts of caveats for the context—they’ve come out as one of the best in baseball. So: How?
The success has been pretty evenly distributed: Before Gray’s difficult night on Monday, all four of the previously mentioned starters had an ERA under 3.40. (The rotation’s fifth spot was originally held by Chi-Chi Gonzalez, who made one start before he was placed on the 10-day IL, and has since been taken by rookie Ryan Castellani.) They haven’t been overpowering—this group actually has notably few strikeouts—but they’ve been effective. While these sample sizes are still small, and there’s plenty that will likely adjust itself as the season wears on, there aren’t any wacky peripheral stats here that suggest anything glaringly unsustainable. In other words, their incredible rebound from last season doesn’t look like an obvious fluke. Instead, Colorado’s rotation just looks… good.
Which shouldn’t necessarily be surprising! Despite their collectively disastrous output from 2019, each of these players has a demonstrated record of success. (Gray, Márquez, and Freeland each received votes for Rookie of the Year in their respective freshman seasons; Senzatela, while less buzzy, was still capably above average in each of his first two years in the majors.) There’s just been little consistency, either at the individual level or across the group, with wild swings between low and high. Gray’s standout 2017 was followed by a demotion to the minors in a generally frustrating 2018. Freeland’s serious run at the Cy Young in 2018 was followed by a total collapse in 2019. But 2020, so far, has offered a different situation: The whole rotation is on a run at once.
It’s true that each starter has made a handful of specific improvements so far this year: Márquez has increased his swinging strike rate, Freeland is generating more groundballs, Senzatela is posting career bests in both strikeouts and walks, and Gray has limited home runs. But the big change isn’t so much a transformative breakout by any one pitcher so much as it is simply that all of them are clicking into place at the same time. And as long as they can keep that up, or something like it, Colorado should be looking good.
• Aaron Nola pitched eight beautiful innings of one-run ball with 10 Ks against the Braves and was pulled before the ninth with what should have been a comfortable 13-1 lead for the Phillies. Operative word there? Should. Philly’s bullpen turned the ninth into a wild ride, giving up seven runs before finally walking away with the 13-8 win.
• A Mets rotation update: Marcus Stroman has opted out of the season. Michael Wacha is injured. Rick Porcello has struggled. And Steven Matz had a disastrous night on Monday, giving up eight runs in a 16-4 loss to the Nationals. Yikes.
• Lance McCullers Jr. carried a no-hitter into the seventh against the Giants, a pleasant reprieve from an otherwise rough start to the season for him.
• This Dustin May kid? Pretty good, as it turns out!