Rockies’ starting pitching re-emerged as a real strength in 2020

Jul 24, 2019; Washington, DC, USA; Colorado Rockies starting pitcher Kyle Freeland (21) pitches against the Washington Nationals in the first inning in game two of a doubleheader at Nationals Park. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Here’s perhaps a bold take: the Colorado Rockies made back-to-back postseason appearances in 2017 and 2018 because of their starting pitching.

In both seasons, the Rockies’ rotation finished in the top five in all of baseball in rWAR. Some combination of Germán Márquez, Jon Gray, and Kyle Freeland were good—if not great—during that time. It’s no coincidence that in 2019, when the rotation’s collective rWAR dropped below replacement level, the team failed to reach the postseason for the third consecutive year.

Fortunately in 2020, the Rockies’ rotation regained their form, finishing with the third-highest rWAR in baseball. Unfortunately, the offense and bullpen were so bad that it didn’t matter.

This time, it was Márquez, Freeland, and Antonio Senzatela who carried the load. Gray wasn’t good before his season ended with an injury, and the fifth spot was occupied by one pitcher who struggled to throw strikes and another who isn’t really capable of more than he’s shown. The top three pitchers in the Rockies’ rotation combined for 6.7 rWAR, putting the trio at the top of baseball with the likes of the Cleveland Indians and Philadelphia Phillies, who finished first and second in terms of starting pitching value.

Fangraphs’ version of WAR didn’t like the Rockies’ starters quite as much because their formula more heavily incorporates strikeout, walk, and home run rates. Colorado ranked 14th out of 30 teams in starting pitching fWAR. The Rockies’ excellent defense, which ranked in the top three in the NL, was a huge boon to a rotation that thrived on a pitch-to-contact approach. And, sure, it’s always better to have pitchers who can take care of their own business regardless of the defense behind them. But, when you have the likes of Nolan Arenado, Trevor Story, and Josh Fuentes in the infield, it would be silly not to rely on them a little bit.

Still, Colorado’s rotation had by far the lowest strikeout rate in baseball, posting 6.07 K/9 and a 15.6 K%, which was about half of the percentage of strikeouts generated by the Cincinnati Reds’ league-leading group. That kind of approach makes pitchers prone to dips in results like what the Rockies’ rotation experienced in 2019, and it certainly doesn’t bode well if Arenado and Story—the best defensive left side in all of baseball—wind up elsewhere after next season.

Here’s more analysis of the Rockies’ solid 2020 starting rotation…

Most Valuable: Germán Márquez (1.7 rWAR, 2.3 fWAR)

Márquez entered the season as the unquestioned ace of the Rockies’ staff, and he certainly didn’t do anything in 2020 to jeopardize that status. He began the season on a tear, posting a 2.25 ERA with 30 strikeouts in 8 walks in 32 innings spanning his first four starts. But things briefly unraveled after that for the 25-year-old right-hander; Márquez allowed 18 earned runs in 16 innings over three starts from Aug. 20 through Aug. 31. Fortunately, he rebounded in September with five consecutive quality starts to finish the season.

When it was all said and done, Márquez was the proud owner of a career-best 3.75 ERA, but he also finished the season with his lowest strikeout rate and highest walk rate of his major league tenure. It’s a stretch to say that the Rockies have actively coached him to use more of a pitch-to-contact approach, but would that really surprise anyone? Regardless, Márquez’s best asset is his ability to miss bats, and Colorado would be wise to figure out how to accentuate that rather than suppress it.

Least Valuable: Ryan Castellani (0.1 rWAR, -0.7 fWAR)

Castellani’s major league debut was memorable. The promising 24-year-old right-hander didn’t allow a hit in a shortened start, and proceeded to strikeout 10 batters, walk only three, and give up just two hits in his first 8 2/3 innings as a big leaguer. Sadly, things largely went south from there. Castellani finished the season with more walks (26) than strikeouts (25), and his 5.82 ERA doesn’t inspire much confidence on the surface. However, there’s some talent in that right arm. If the Rockies can harness it, he can contribute at the big league level in some way going forward.

Most Surprising: Antonio Senzatela (2.8 rWAR, 1.1 fWAR)

The large disparity in WAR has to do with Senzatela’s actual results versus what should be realistically expected from a pitcher with the lowest strikeout rate (13.5 percent) of any qualified pitcher in baseball. But pounding the zone and allowing hitters to put the ball in play worked wonders for Senzatela, who added an improved curveball to his repertoire to keep hitters off balance. The result was a sterling 3.44 ERA and six quality starts.

Who knows if Senzatela’s solid 2020 will be repeatable with his lack of ability to miss bats. However, he walked just seven batters in 48 2/3 innings to start the season, so that kind of aversion to free passes will help make up for low strikeout totals if he can continue to produce quality pitches in the zone.

Kyle Freeland deserves a nod here, too. He went from Cy Young candidate in 2018 to completely lost just a year later. However, the homegrown southpaw rediscovered some success in 2020 thanks to a much less exaggerated pause in his delivery and the improvement in peripherals that followed. Freeland ended the season with a poor start that shot his ERA to 4.33, but he posted a career-low walk rate and was a top 10 starter in the NL in terms of inducing soft contact. Much like Senzatela, Freeland had trouble missing bats altogether, posting the second-lowest strikeout rate among all MLB starters. But after a season in which he was lit up to the tune of a 6.73 ERA, any improvement was welcome. And Freeland, despite the low K numbers, looks to be back on track and ready to contribute in a positive way going forward.

Most Disappointing: Jon Gray (-0.2 rWAR, 0.5 fWAR)

Gray had a worse strikeout rate (12.6 percent) than Senzatela. When considering Gray’s success in generating whiffs to this point in his career, that statement comes as a shock to the system. But the 28-year-old right-hander, who entered the season with more than a strikeout per inning since debuting in 2015, lost a couple of ticks off of his fastball velocity and suddenly stopped missing bats altogether. Gray did a good job limiting walks but yielded more hard contact than in any previous season.

He was shelved in early September with shoulder inflammation and didn’t appear in a game for the remainder of the season. Perhaps the strange build to 2020 combined with his shoulder issue contributed to Gray’s huge drop off in peripherals. The Rockies better hope that’s the case, anyway, or their rotation suddenly becomes a lot less decent.

What Happens Next?

Márquez is a rock solid No. 1, and he would occupy that same spot for many other teams in baseball when looking at his overall productivity and weighing it against where he’s forced to make half of his starts. Freeland, Senzatela, and a healthy Gray are perfectly fine mid-rotation options. But the Rockies will need to upgrade at the back of the rotation in order to keep the stress off of their bullpen, which was less taxed than usual in 2020 yet still completely imploded. Chi Chi Gonzalez isn’t the answer, and Castellani needs to work on limiting walks. There isn’t anyone in the system who is ready to step in (Ryan Rolison, whom the Rockies toyed with debuting late in the season, is the team’s top pitching prospect but has precisely zero innings above A-ball under his belt).

There are plenty of free-agent pitchers who could wind up on Jeff Bridich’s radar should the Rockies decide to give contention a go in 2021. Trevor Bauer is the best of the bunch, but there’s no way the Rockies would be in play to sign him. More realistic options for a mid-rotation type include Marcus Stroman, Taijuan Walker, Kevin Gausman, James Paxton, and Jake Odorizzi. Old friend Tyler Chatwood, Mike Leake, Rick Porcello, and Jose Quintana represent examples of potential back-end starters who will be available on the market.