Taking aim at their first NL West title, Rockies will go as pitching goes

Sep 22, 2017; San Diego, CA, USA; Colorado Rockies starting pitcher Jon Gray (55) pitches against the San Diego Padres during the first inning at Petco Park. Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Four of the last five seasons in the National League West, the team with the best starting pitchers’ ERA has won the division. The Colorado Rockies have finished outside of the top three — aside from the 2009 season — in that same statistic every single year since 2000.

If Colorado is to contend for their franchise’s first division title, they must pitch their way to it and enter an echelon of quality they’ve never seen before from their arms. The Rockies will go as their pitching goes, regardless of what happens with the offense.

Colorado’s lineup scores runs in bunches, led by Silver Sluggers Charlie Blackmon and Nolan Arenado. There’s no shortage of offense from the big bats in Colorado, but overall team success doesn’t exactly follow offensive success, as history points out.

Colorado in 2014 was a high-powered offensive team, finishing third in the major leagues in runs scored, yet the team lost 96 games. The following year the Rockies once again destroyed baseballs left and right, finishing fifth in runs scored. The Rockies lost 94 games that year. History has shown the Rockies can launch baseball after baseball over the Coors Field walls year after year, but Colorado’s most successful seasons generally have been when pitching ranks near the top.

Colorado in 2014 and 2015 ranked second-to-last and dead-last, respectively, in starting pitcher ERA in the majors.

With so much in 2018 relying on young pitchers like Jon Gray, Kyle Freeland, German Marquez, Antonio Senzatela and Jeff Hoffman — all under the age of 27 — the Rockies will be asking a lot. They need this group to not only grow naturally through experience, but for one to emerge as the team’s “ace” as well.

Enter Gray, who had his 2017 season cut nearly in half due to an early season stress fracture in his foot. Gray bounced back to finish 10-4 on the year with an ERA almost a full run improved from 2016. Gray is the leading candidate in the Rockies rotation to emerge as the ace because of his consistent improvement and “stuff” that most resembles ace-type quality.

Gray is the furthest along in a bevy of young, talented arms on the rise in Colorado, including Denver-native Freeland, who nearly pitched the first Rockies no-hitter at Coors Field last year. Colorado has strength building in the rotation with Senzatela and Hoffman and an electric arm in Marquez to go along with their veterans, Tyler Anderson and the man who struck out cancer last year, Chad Bettis.

A promising young staff paired with a “mega-bullpen” to lock down tight leads could be the strategy that finally puts a consistent winner on the field at 20th and Blake. Back-to-back playoff appearances would be a good start, seeming as the Rockies have never done it in their 25-year history.

But Colorado wants more than just back-to-back playoff appearances. Players and front-office members went on the record this offseason, stating that a championship is the goal.

That statement doesn’t seem to far-fetched anymore. For the first time in Rockies history, serious contention doesn’t sound like just biased fanfare. The growth of the starters and a lights-out bullpen certainly solidifies that belief.

The Rockies went all-out this offseason, spending more money than any team ever has to build a “super bullpen,” landing arguably the crown jewel in this year’s relief pitcher free agency, Wade Davis. But before fans at Coors Field get a look at Davis, eyes will be on newly acquired right-handed setup man Bryan Shaw — the expected eighth-inning arm — and newly re-signed Jake McGee. Both men will have the responsibility of holding the lead, only to pass the ball to Davis to close the door in the ninth.

The Rockies are looking to follow the path paved by the Kansas City Royals in 2015, by shutting down batters with electric arms out of the ‘pen and never demanding a starter carry the load game-in and game-out. This strategy was proven successful when the Royals owned baseball’s second-best ERA for a relief staff at 2.72, while the starting staff ERA ranked 22nd that same year.

Since 2000, Rockies relief pitchers have never had an ERA better than the major league average, outside of one year.

That year was the 2007 season. And we all know how that season played out.

It was arguably the greatest season in franchise history because of how far the team went in the postseason, winning the National League pennant and reaching the World Series for the first and only time in franchise history. They did so with a bullpen ERA of 3.85, 10th in the majors. To match the original “Rocktober” team the 2018 Rockies must have better pitching than they got that year from the bullpen. And they must be better than they were last year. Despite strong seasons from McGee, Chris Rusin and Greg Holland, Colorado’s bullpen ERA last year was 4.40, 20th in the majors.

If the bullpen can be better than last year, paired alongside starting pitching that will see natural growth and added experience to nearly all five spots and a potential ace emerging, the Rockies should have every reason to believe they can deliver the franchise’s first division title.

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