Not Just the Padres: Rockies Also a Legitimate Threat to Dodgers in NL West

Not Just the Padres: Rockies Also a Legitimate Threat to Dodgers in NL West
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The Dodgers have seen first-hand that the Padres are a serious threat in the National League West, but as the two teams look forward to the finale of their four-game series in Los Angeles Thursday night, they are both also looking up at a third team that continues to reside in first place in their division: the Colorado Rockies. With thirty percent of their season completed, the Rockies’ .667 winning percentage trails only the Cubs and A’s in all of baseball and their +22 run differential trails only those of the Dodgers (+42) and Twins (+33). This is largely the same Rockies team that lost 91 games last year, finishing in fourth place with a -123 differential. Is it possible that they are for real?

In terms of the roster, the largest single change between last year’s Rockies and this year’s is the absence of Ian Desmond, who started 106 games last year and came to the plate 482 times, but opted out of the abbreviated 2020 season due to concerns about COVID-19. Per Baseball-Reference, Desmond was nearly two wins below replacement level last year. This year, his playing time has largely gone to rookie Sam Hilliard, who has been roughly replacement level himself through a mere 35 plate appearances.

The Rockies have made more extensive, and intentional, changes on the bench, where designated hitter Matt Kemp, utilityman Chris Owings, and catcher Elias Díaz have replaced Mark Reynolds, Yonathan Daza (who is at the alternate training Site), and Chris Iannetta. Thus far those changes have been another instance of bringing the roster up to replacement level, as Reynolds, Daza, and Iannetta combined to be a run and a half below replacement last year (per bWAR), while Kemp, Owings, and Díaz have all been roughly replacement level thus far this year.

The top four men in the Colorado rotation—German Márquez, Jon Gray, Kyle Freeland, and Antonio Senzatela—remain the same from last year, but the bullpen has seen a bit of turnover with the addition of 35-year-old comeback kid Daniel Bard, former Marlins righty Tyler Kinley, and the increased importance of righties Jairo Díaz and Yency Almonte in the wake of injuries to incumbent closer Wade Davis (shoulder) and stalwart righty Scott Oberg (blood clots), and the departures of veterans Bryan Shaw, Jake McGee, and Chad Bettis.

Again, there is a bit of addition by subtraction going on here. Oberg, who is unlikely to pitch this year, was extremely valuable last year, but Shaw and McGee were pretty close to replacement level (per bWAR, McGee has been nearly as valuable in 6 1/3 innings for the Dodgers this year as he was in 41 1/3 for Colorado last year). Davis and Bettis, meanwhile, were both below replacement, with Davis, who posted an 8.65 ERA in 50 appearances last year, nearly a run and a half below.

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So, one could argue that the Rockies’ roster has improved around the margins. Still, there is nothing there that would explain going from a 91-loss season to their current 108-win pace. What many fans are missing, however, is the fact that Colorado’s current-season performance may not be the flukier of those two.

Remember, the Rockies were a wild-card team in each of the two seasons prior to 2019, posting an aggregate winning percentage of .550 with an average run differential of +51 over those two seasons and pushed the Dodgers to a Game 163 tiebreaker for the division title in 2018. Colorado got off to a comparable start in 2019. They stumbled a bit out of the gate, but from April 14 through June 2, a span of 43 games (more than 70 percent of total to be played this season), the Rockies went 28-15 with a +50 run differential. That’s a .651 winning percentage. They were a .500 team with a positive run differential over the remainder of June, finishing the month in second place in the NL West with a 44-40 record after splitting a four-game set with the Dodgers. Things fell apart from there, but that amounts to three bad months out of the last three years.

Collectively, we (writers, fans, analysts) put too much weight on those last three months coming into this season. The Rockies are a good team in 2020, just as they were in 2017, 2018, and the first half of 2019. The question is if they are good enough to continue to challenge the Dodgers and Padres atop the division.

The Rockies lineup has thus far been roughly as productive as it was a year ago, with the big bats—Nolan Arenado, Trevor Story, Charlie Blackmon, and Daniel Murphy—doing most of the work. The big change has been on the other side of the ball. In 2019, only the Orioles allowed more runs than the Rockies, who were still eight percent worse than league average in park-adjusted ERA+. Thus far this year (and it’s important to note here that Colorado has played two more games at home than on the road thus far), the Rockies are better than average in unadjusted run prevention. They have allowed just 4.50 runs per game against the major-league average of 4.59 and have the third-best ERA+ in all of baseball, trailing only the Dodgers and Cleveland with a sparkling 134 mark, 42 points better than last year’s Rockies.

One can credit a small part of that improvement to David Dahl replacing Desmond in centerfield, but the pitchers themselves deserve the bulk of the credit. Indeed, while the Rockies’ pitching staff has had a 3.99 ERA through the team’s first 18 games, already a startling figure for a Colorado team, its fielding independent pitching mark has been 3.71. The biggest changes have been a drastic reduction in home runs and walks.

It true that home runs are down in general around the league, but only slightly. Last year, 3.6 percent of plate appearances ended in a home run. This year, that figure is 3.4 percent, which would still rate as the second-highest mark in major-league history. The Rockies, meanwhile, have gone from allowing a home run in 4.2 percent of their opponent’s plate appearances last year to just 2.4 percent thus far this year. That 2.4 percent (2.38 percent to be more exact) is the lowest mark in the majors this season.

As for walks, last year only the Marlins, Red Sox, and Blue Jays walked more batters than the Rockies, who threw ball four to 9.2 percent of the batters they faced. This year, only the Phillies (who have played five fewer games) and Cardinals (who have played barely more than a quarter as many games) have walked fewer men than the Rockies, who have walked just 6.4 percent of opposing batters. That change may not seem as impressive as the home run decrease, but consider that, while home runs have decreased league-wide, with the addition of the DH in the NL, walks have gone up, from a league average of 8.5 percent in 2019 to 9.2 percent this year.

Avoiding walks and homers and tightening up your centerfield defense is a pretty good formula for drastically improving your run prevention. The only question is if the Rockies can keep it up. My answer is: not at this level. The home runs, in particular, are likely to increase. On the season, just 6.8 percent of the fly balls the Rockies have allowed have left the park. That’s the lowest mark in the majors against a league-average of 10.4 percent. That can’t be explained by an excess of infield pop-ups (which count as fly balls), as the Rockies are near the bottom of the league in that category. More likely, they’ve been a bit lucky on fly balls, and that luck will suffer a correction sooner or later.

Walks are easier for pitchers to control, so that change may be more sustainable. The Rockies also have the benefit of a small-sample season, which will allow less time for correction and fatigue. Some amount of correction seems likely, but it also seems likely that the Rockies will remain in the mix atop the NL West. They now stand a better-than-even chance to be one of the eight National League teams that makes this year’s expanded playoffs, which, despite the many caveats that might apply, would be Colorado’s third playoff berth in the last four years.

The Rockies are the one NL West team the Dodgers have yet to face. Their first meeting won’t happen until a week from Friday, on August 21 in Denver. The two teams will then play roughly a third of their remaining schedules (10 of 34 games) against one another, the first six of those games in Coors Field, the last four in L.A. on the season’s penultimate weekend. Entering Thursday night’s series finale against the Padres, the Dodgers trail Colorado for the division lead by just a half game. However the Rockies’ and Dodgers’ seasons play out, each will have a great deal of impact on the other.

Cliff Corcoran covers baseball for The Athletic and is a former lead baseball writer for SI.com. The co-author or editor of 13 baseball books, including seven Baseball Prospectus annuals, he has also written for USA Today, SB Nation, Baseball Prospectus, Sports on Earth, The Hardball Times, and Boston.com, among others. He has been a semi-regular guest analyst on the MLB Network and can be heard more regularly on The Infinite Inning podcast with Steven Goldman. Follow Cliff on Twitter @CliffCorcoran.

Video courtesy of SportsNetLA/Los Angeles Dodgers.