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Homegrown arms spearheading pitching culture

MLB.com @DKramer_

DENVER -- Jeff Hoffman remembers the conversation vividly. During Spring Training in 2016, Rockies general manager Jeff Bridich told Hoffman and the other pitching prospects -- Kyle Freeland, German Marquez, Tyler Anderson, Jon Gray and Antonio Senzatela -- that the Rockies weren't seeking veteran starters.

"Bridich told us, 'We're doing this from within,' talking about the starting staff," Hoffman said. "He's really stayed true to his word on that side."

DENVER -- Jeff Hoffman remembers the conversation vividly. During Spring Training in 2016, Rockies general manager Jeff Bridich told Hoffman and the other pitching prospects -- Kyle Freeland, German Marquez, Tyler Anderson, Jon Gray and Antonio Senzatela -- that the Rockies weren't seeking veteran starters.

"Bridich told us, 'We're doing this from within,' talking about the starting staff," Hoffman said. "He's really stayed true to his word on that side."

Two years later, and following a postseason appearance that was driven heavily by its youthful rotation, Colorado's hope is that with a creative front office, objective-minded coaches and a hungry pitching staff, 2017 was merely the first step for a blossoming pitching culture with the potential for sustained success. For an organization that has long been revered for its offensive prowess, the Rockies want to balance the narrative.

"I think we're on our way to doing that, and I think being a part of this organization now for -- this will be my eighth year -- seeing that develop from within … it's been exhilarating," said Chad Bettis, who at 28 is the elder statesman of the group.

Video: Rockies' rotation has considerable future upside

Under Bridich and director of pitching operations Mark Wiley, who was hired in 2012, the Rockies have formed a blueprint for the type of pitcher they seek: a power arm supplemented with a mental confidence to pitch at Coors Field. This player makeup is how they tailored their scouting, Drafts and trades.

The foundation for this ethos was established after the Rockies promoted Bridich to GM following the 2014 season, when he oversaw a pitching summit at Coors Field with pitching coach Steve Foster, bullpen coach Darren Holmes, vice president of scouting Bill Schmidt, senior director of player development Zach Wilson and Darryl Scott and Doug Linton (now operating pitching coordinators). That pow wow, which has become an annual gathering, established a series of pitching objectives that would be implemented throughout the organization.

When the club interviewed Bud Black for its managerial vacancy last offseason, Black offered a familiar face and relatable mind. Wiley was Black's pitching coach when he played for the Indians from 1988-90 and '95, and Black was hired in large part for his pitching expertise and ability to communicate with young players.

"These guys, prior to my arrival, set a standard for what was to become about how we went about the pitching side of the game," Black said. "I think we saw last year some results of that, some results of those changes in mindset, in attitude, in fundamental pitching and mechanics, philosophy -- all of those things. … When I interviewed, it was a big part of the interview process."

INSTILLING PHILOSOPHIES EARLY

The Rockies' luxury is that so much of their pitching talent is homegrown, which helped them instill their philosophies and practices immediately. Bettis (2010), Anderson ('11), Gray ('13) and Freeland ('14) were Rockies Draft picks in the first two rounds. Colorado acquired Marquez and Hoffman via trade. The Rockies signed Senzatela in '11 as an international free agent. All seven made their MLB debuts with the Rockies.

Collectively, this unit (plus Tyler Chatwood, who signed with the Cubs as a free agent in December), went 63-56 for the 11th-best win percentage among starters (.529) while compiling a 4.59 ERA, the fifth-lowest mark in franchise history, in 2017.

"You can go out and buy experience. It's very expensive, but when you have young starters with the aptitude and the attitude that we have, and many of them come through our system, they've been taught our way," Foster said. "These are guys we're counting on."

Mental toughness is a vital part of the club's pitching makeup, and its prospects receive a healthy dose of groundwork. Many of the Rockies' Minor League affiliates play (or played) home games at hitter-friendly parks to prepare them for Coors Field, such as Class A Asheville (297 feet to right field), Double-A Hartford (308 feet) and Class A Advanced Modesto (319 feet), now a Mariners affiliate.

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"You have a lot of really hitter-friendly leagues, and that's kind of our thing," Anderson said. "At the end of the day, your numbers don't really matter. Don't be selfish about that. It's all about mental toughness."

Even Marquez, who spent time in the Rays' organization, acknowledged the Rockies' ambition with his mental development before making his MLB debut in 2016.

"Colorado was much faster-moving," Marquez said. "It was more old school. They really tried to advance everything. I can't speak for them, but from my perspective, they wanted me to get ready as soon as possible."

ATTACKING HITTERS

Tailoring personnel to have predominantly high-velocity arms -- last year's starters averaged 94.2 mph on their four-seam fastballs, second-highest in MLB -- the Rockies are building on swing-and-miss stuff, primarily via a four-seam-first approach that differs from successful clubs like the Astros and Indians, who have put a premium on offspeed pitches. However, the Rockies believe they can fit arms lacking high-end velocity, a la Anderson and Freeland, who each induced among the lowest average exit velocities the last two years, per Statcast™.

"It kind of goes hand in hand with playing here at Coors," Freeland said. "[Coaches] preach, 'Keep the ball on the ground.' Doing that, you want to pitch to contact and pitch in the bottom of the zone, where it's going to be very hard for a hitter to elevate that ball."

Added Gray: "I think everyone's offspeed can work. You've just got to find a way to make it look just like your fastball and make it look just like a strike as long as you can. If you can do that, you're going to get swings and misses. It doesn't have to be nasty. It just has to look like a strike."

Video: Harding discusses Gray's performance in 2017

The curveball is an essential part of Gray's repertoire, but he had never thrown one before Holmes taught him how to after the 2015 season. Such instruction was steered from the bulk of the club's original history due to the unpredictability of curveballs at altitude. Hoffman and Marquez each throw one, and Anderson throws a plus changeup. Senzatela offers a slider to go with his four-seamer, which he threw at a higher rate than any MLB starter (72.5 percent).

For years, the Rockies had an army of sinkerball starters that relied on high ground-ball rates, but they could be susceptible when those pitches didn't land, due to velocity (more home runs) or balls (more walks). From 2012-14, under former director of Major League pitching operations Bill Geivett, the Rockies posted the fourth-highest ground-ball rate (48.4 percent), but they also recorded the second-worst strikeout rate (15.7 percent) and the highest walk rate (8.6 percent).

Video: Kyle Freeland talks about developing his sinker

Last year, Rockies starters posted an 18.9 percent strikeout rate and an 8.4 percent walk rate, both among the worst among postseason clubs. An admitted area of focus will be on command.

"I think it's our pitching staff -- with the exception of a couple guys -- historically and statistically, have a walk habit," Black said. "We have to do a better job of both coaching them and them making some adjustments in their game to be better strike throwers, especially in certain counts, to their hitters. All these things that we have to really clean that up."

ACCOUNTABILITY

Despite their youth -- their seven potential starters have an aggregate service time of just over 12 years -- the Rockies pride themselves on accountability. Bettis recounts a point system that was in place rewarding aspects of good pitching, from mechanics to defense to mental strength. Last year, the pitchers steered away from the scale. Advancing to the postseason, they figured, was its own reward.

"We've done that, and now it's time to expand and take it a step further in the sense of it doesn't need to necessarily be on paper anymore," Bettis said. "Because we're holding each other accountable on a more personable level -- not just something that you get a piece of paper that says, 'Oh, I wasn't very good today.' You know that after a game or you know if you did your job and the team got the win."

Added Wiley: "I would say there'll be more expectation as they move up. There's things they have to learn and have to adjust to. The Major Leagues is the best baseball in the world, and if [hitters] find a shortcoming with you, they will exploit it, so you've got to constantly make adjustments, learn new things. And that's what's happening, especially in our case, where we have a lot of young guys."

Daniel Kramer is a reporter for MLB.com based in Denver. Follow him on Twitter at @DKramer_.

Colorado Rockies