Rox pitchers avoiding most dangerous contact

July (3.16 ERA) was best pitching month in franchise history

August 8th, 2018

You won't find the Rockies' pitching staff near the top of the traditional leaderboards in most metrics, thanks in large part to two important factors. The obvious one is that they play at Coors Field, which is coming up on nearly a quarter-century of being baseball's most difficult place to pitch. The second is that Colorado's pitchers were truly terrible in June, posting a 6.20 ERA that was the worst in baseball, ruining their season-long numbers and very nearly their postseason hopes.

But despite the poor performance of their bullpen imports last offseason, this has generally been a pitching success story for the 2018 Rockies. They bounced back from their rough June to post a 3.16 ERA in July, the second best in baseball and the best pitching month in team history, as measured by ERA. They've seen big steps forward from young starters and , and has been spectacular since returning from his brief demotion. There's a lot to like here, now and for the future.

The Rockies have even gotten back in the National League West race, emerging from a low point of eight games down in late June to just a half-game out at one point in late July, and it's not because of their generally ineffective offense. It's because of the pitching staff, particularly those starters, and the one area where they do sit atop baseball: Even with that rough June, no team has done a better job at preventing the most dangerous batted balls. Aside from piling up whiffs, it's about the best thing a pitching staff can do.

Now, how do we define "most dangerous batted balls?" Traditionally, you'd look at home runs (Colorado has allowed the 15th most) or slugging percentage (21st) or extra-base hits (16th), but that doesn't work here. This is where the ballpark factors in, because a batted ball that Anderson gives up that might be an out elsewhere could float over the fence in Coors or find some grass in the massive Colorado outfield. This is where Rockies pitchers get hurt in a way that other pitchers don't, at least not to the same extent.

Instead, let's look at the point of contact. Let's take out the effects of defense or park, though admittedly we're not accounting for what Coors Field might do to a pitch itself on the way to the plate. Since Statcast™ came online in 2015, you've surely heard about exit velocity and launch angle. They've permeated the vocabulary of the game, and they're each important: It's better to hit the ball hard than soft, and it's better to hit the ball in the air, obviously.

But if you really want to get to value, you need to combine them. It's fine to hit the ball hard, but if it's on the ground, it won't matter as much. It's great to hit the ball in the air, but if it's hit softly, it won't do much for you. What you need instead is to find the perfect combination of exit velocity and launch angle to find those most valuable batted balls. We call those Barrels. No pitching staff allows a lower barrel rate than the Rockies.

A barrel is defined as the type of ball that (based on exit velocity and launch angle) has an expected batting average of .500 and an expected slugging percentage of 1.500, but that's just to get in the door. The actual averages of barreled balls this year are .764 and 2.579, which is to say that they're incredibly valuable for hitters to accrue and important for pitchers to avoid. Only about seven percent of all batted balls are barrels. They're the cream of the crop.

Rockies pitchers have avoided them, both at home (sixth-lowest rate) and on the road (third lowest), and that's really the point: They've done a great job of avoiding these extremely dangerous batted balls, and they've done it both home and away. Other teams in the top five include the Phillies and Dodgers, and at the back end, you have the White Sox and Royals, so you can see why this matters. It's how a team with middling strikeout (15th best) and walk (22nd best) rates is finding success. When hitters make contact against Colorado pitchers, they aren't getting the most valuable contact. (They were second best last year, for what it's worth.)

That's a little about Rockies starters keeping the exit velocity down; their hard-hit rate of 35 percent is 13th best, a little better than the Major League average of 35.6 percent. It's a lot about keeping the ball on the ground, as Colorado pitchers have baseball's second-highest grounder rate, and a very good infield defense anchored by and to scoop them up. You can't slug homers on the ground.

Now, about those starters: They're the best in baseball at this, but the actual ordering of Colorado's arms might not be what you'd expect. You'd probably think Freeland is elite at this, given his sparkling 3.04 ERA. He's above average, but he's not the star here, at least among the six Rockies starters to receive multiple starts.

Percent of barrels allowed per batted ball by Rockies starters

3.4 percent --

4.5 percent -- Gray

4.9 percent -- Anderson

5.5 percent -- Freeland

5.9 percent --

MLB starting pitcher average: 7.2 percent

7.6 percent --

Other than Bettis, who has a 5.67 ERA this season (5.14 career), each Rockies starter is doing an above-average job of avoiding the most dangerous contact, with Senzatela, who just landed on the disabled list with a shoulder issue, atop the list.

While Gray is the biggest name and Freeland is the breakout star, it's really Anderson who deserves special notice as one of the game's most underrated contact managers. It's been just over two years since we profiled him here as one of baseball's most efficient pitchers at limiting exit velocity, and that hasn't really changed.

Dating back to 2016, there have been 173 starting pitchers to allow at least 500 batted balls. Anderson's ranking on the hard-hit list isn't just good; it's elite.

Lowest hard-hit rate by starters in 2016-18 (minimum 500 batted balls)

24.7 percent --

27.7 percent --

28.3 percent -- Anderson

28.4 percent --

28.8 percent --

28.8 percent -- Chase Anderson

28.9 percent --

29.0 percent --

29.2 percent --

29.4 percent --

That's a pretty stellar list of pitchers, and it makes Anderson the only Rockies pitcher in the top 30. (Freeland is 37th, Gray 71st, Bettis 88th, Marquez 118th.)

"You always want to keep them off balance, keep hitters off balance," Anderson said back in 2016, "so if you're forcing weak contact, that's a great thing to do."

He's not wrong. When you play in Coors Field, and when your pitching stuff isn't above average at collecting strikeouts or limiting walks, you have to be outstanding at something else to get by. For the Rockies, it's this. They're preventing the most dangerous contact like no one else. It's a pretty good thing to be pretty good at.