Senzatela, Rockies reach deal for '21

January 15th, 2021

DENVER -- As Rockies right-hander increases his bank account -- having reached a one-year, $3 million agreement Tuesday to avoid arbitration -- the club's rotation is banking on him continuing to progress after his forward leap in 2020.

Strong as a rookie in 2017 and mercurial the next two years, Senzatela put together an argument that his ’20 performance was better than that of the more heralded pitchers in the rotation -- righty Germán Márquez and lefty Kyle Freeland.

In 12 starts, Senzatela outperformed them in ERA+ -- 153 or 53 points better than MLB average, compared to Márquez’s 140 and Freeland’s 122. Senzatela also had a 3.44 ERA, compared to Márquez’s 3.77 and Freeland’s 4.33.

“Senza’s next step is to continue doing what he did in ’20, the COVID year,” pitching coach Steve Foster said Tuesday night. “That is disciplined attention to his delivery, using his mix of pitches and being unpredictable, getting ahead of hitters, trusting his preparation and making in-game adjustments.

“He can be one of the best in the game. I call him ‘El Tigre.’ Tigers never quit until the job is done.”

None of this is to say that Márquez and Freeland were slouches. But the performance of the trio, and the team’s hopes that righty Jon Gray will return healthy after right shoulder inflammation led to a 6.69 ERA in eight starts, leave the Rockies feeling good about their starting pitching. Of course, holes in the roster are aplenty after the team finished the 60-game 2020 season at 26-34, and depth beyond the top 3-4 is a question. But Senzatela performing like a front-liner is one of the reasons the Rockies believe the starters can lead a turnaround.

The cost of the Rockies' mostly homegrown rotation is rising. Freeland and Gray are also eligible for arbitration, and Márquez is set to make $7.8 million in the third year of a five-year, $43 million deal. The payroll-conscious Rockies non-tendered outfielder David Dahl (who joined the Rangers for one year at $2.7 million) and catcher Tony Wolters, but they declined to disturb the pitching staff.

Senzatela went 5-3 with a 3.44 ERA and turned in the Rockies’ only complete game (a six-hit, 3-1 home victory over the Athletics at Coors Field on Sept. 15) last season, thanks in large part to the new approach to his pitch mix.

After going 10-6 with a 5.68 ERA as a rookie in 2017, Senzatela went 17-17 with a 5.73 ERA in 48 games (38 starts) over the next two years. According to Statcast, Senzatela threw his four-seam fastball 72.3 percent of the time in '17. Those figures dropped, but usage rates of 64.1 percent in '18 and 61.9 percent in '19 were not enough to keep hitters from sitting on his main pitch.

Márquez advised Senzatela toward the end of ’19 to commit to using his curveball, and meetings with the coaching staff (Foster and then-bullpen coach Darren Holmes, now with the Orioles) and data-based work during the winter led "El Tigre" to change his stripes.

“Some of what makes Antonio Senzatela so incredibly tough on the mound is he is a stubborn guy,” Foster said in August. “He’ll be the first to tell you. And it’s taken a while to convince him, but the timing had to be right.

“Some of it was convincing him that, ‘Your numbers since you’ve been in the Major Leagues have been good, but they can be great, and if you’re willing to try some things that we’ve been trying to get you to do …’ As a coach, we don’t force change. Change comes at the right time.”

In 2020, Senzatela used his curve more strategically and reached career highs in usage of his slider (24.6 percent) and changeup (9.2 percent). According to MLB Quality of Pitch, the better pitch sequencing and deception, plus the quality of his changeup helped Senzatela succeed even though his other pitches saw reduced vertical break.

His strikeout rate remains among the lowest in the sport -- 13.1 percent in ’19, 13.5 percent in ’20. But Senzatela lowered barrel rate and hard-hit rate in ’20, and became more effective.