Rox may have formula to defy projections

Pitching carried club to recent postseasons and could be strength again

February 25th, 2021

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Projections for the Rockies are historically foreboding -- 60 (60!) wins in 2021, according to Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA system -- and there are legitimate reasons behind the math. But math does not equal gospel, and Rockies manager Bud Black is under no obligation to worship.

Of course, it’s Spring Training, and even in a pandemic it's an optimistic time. But Black has more than dreams. Twice in his four years in Colorado, Black’s club hit upon a pitching-based formula for making the postseason -- proving that math is not gospel, and often, it doesn’t equal science.

In 2017, PECOTA said 76 wins. The Rockies won 87 for a National League Wild Card berth. In 2018, PECOTA called for 78. The Rockies won 91 before losing to the Dodgers in a 163rd game for the NL West title. None of this is to pick on PECOTA, by the way; with an inadequately accounted-for Coors Field factor, the math rarely breaks the Rockies’ way.

Both years, the postseason path was the same. And though it may be dusty from fourth-place division finishes the past two years, it’s still there for the 2021 Rockies.

This paragraph is coming way too late for folks who read the headline and reflexively snarked, but there is a caveat: Those two teams had DJ LeMahieu and Nolan Arenado. Still …

Forty-six teams have qualified for the postseason the past four years. Excluding the 16 that made the expanded 2020 tournament after a shortened season, the two playoff teams with the lowest OPS+ -- with 100 being the MLB average -- were the ’17 and ’18 Rockies, at 90.

Granted, the ’21 Rockies need multiple position players to turn potential into production to even reach the 90s in team OPS+. But it doesn’t change the fact that the Rockies didn’t bludgeon opposing pitching in ’17 and ’18. How did they win?

• Starting pitching: Starters were durable. In average innings pitched per game started, the Rockies finished ninth (5.7) in ’18 and tied for 14th (5.5) in ’17 among the aforementioned 46 postseason qualifiers. Germán Márquez, Kyle Freeland, Antonio Senzatela and Jon Gray pitched then and are still with the Rockies.

• Finishing pitching: Greg Holland in ’17 and Wade Davis in ’18 led the National League in saves.

• Pitching in between: Deadline trades that brought Pat Neshek in ’17 and Seunghwan Oh in ’18 added to the number of quality lead-protecting relievers.

This was especially true in ’18. Beginning with Oh’s July 28 Rockies debut, Oh, Adam Ottavino, Mike Dunn and Scott Oberg (who is still around) held opposing hitters below a .200 batting average.

Black has proven that if he has enough relievers who pitch well for the majority of their 55-70 appearances, he can juggle them.

“I would like to think that if you have confidence on a given night with five or six guys who have been throwing the ball well, that’s a pretty good number,” he said.

Dig into today’s bullpen. With 100 being MLB average in ERA+, Oberg, Daniel Bard, Mychal Givens, Carlos Estévez, Jairo Díaz and Yency Almonte have had above-average seasons. But with Oberg coming off injury, and Estévez, Díaz and Almonte not having had their big years with the team in contention, it’s fair to question the bullpen.

“It may be cherry-picking to say, ‘Wow, this guy was really good at one point in his career,’” right fielder Charlie Blackmon said. “But a lot of guys have the ability to do that consistently that haven’t done it yet.”

Among current starters, Márquez, Freeland, Gray and Senzatela have all had above-average ERA+ seasons, with bests ranging from 138 to 166.

“We're at a point now with this group of starting pitchers where they're in their mid 20s, they've been through big-league seasons, they've been near or around or above 200 innings before,” Black said.

Lefty Austin Gomber, acquired in the Arenado trade with the Cardinals, had a 234 ERA+ last season on a playoff team, granted mostly out of the bullpen.

Can healthy starters -- even with the proven crew, depth is a question -- and dependable relievers who pitch well for most of their appearances be the difference for a team with many unproven offensive performers?

“It can be,” Black said. “And that’s based on what I’ve seen in the past, from the track record of guys in that clubhouse.”

Black is putting those guys, and his ability to manage them, up against the lowly projections.

It’s not the first time.