What does the Rockies starting rotation look like for 2016?

Chuck and Duck?
by Jim Silva

    The talk in Colorado every off-season is about whether or not the Rockies will have enough pitching to compete. Interestingly, baseball talk shows, like MLB radio, often mention that the Rockies can’t sign a free agent pitcher because pitchers universally see pitching in Coors Field as career death. It’s been a long time since the Rockies signed a top-notch free agent starting pitcher. If you have lived in the Rocky Mountain area long enough then you probably remember the signing of Mike Hampton and Denny Neagle in an attempt to buy a starting rotation. If you remember that, then you’re unlikely to have forgotten how horribly it turned out – but was it really that bad?        
    In 2001, Mike Hampton pitched a good half season, making the All Star team, but then he allowed a .953 OPS (on-base plus slugging) for the second half, basically turning everyone he faced into Willie Mays (Mays had a career .941 OPS). His second (and last) season in Colorado was even worse as his ERA jumped from 5.41 to 6.15. Ok, so Hampton didn’t work out. The undersized lefty (he is 5’10) walked a decent number of guys before he got to Coors field – 4.1 per nine innings for the Mets in 2000 – and that didn’t change in Colorado. He also wasn’t the kind of pitcher to limit the number of hits he gave up, although that number increased with the Rockies, especially during his second season. What changed the most was the number of home runs that he allowed. Since his rookie season, Hampton had kept his home runs allowed per nine innings under 1.0. In fact, in the two seasons before coming to Denver, he posted home run rates of 0.5 and 0.4. His two seasons pitching at altitude saw those numbers jump to 1.4 in 2001, and 1.2 in 2002. Combine that with the walks, and you have a pitching stew that tastes like the bottom of your shoe. It probably should not have been a surprise that Hampton wouldn’t work out based on what he brought to the table.
    Denny Neagle signed the same year as Hampton, making quite a splash for the young team. Neagle had pitched for five teams by the time he made his way to the Mile High City, making the All Star team twice and garnering votes for the Cy Young twice (finishing 8th and 3rd). Unlike Hampton, Neagle gave up home runs at his previous stops like a guy –  well – like a guy who gave up a lot of home runs. For his career he averaged 1.2 long balls per nine innings, allowing 1.9 per nine in 1999 and giving up 31 home runs in 2000.  His walk rates were better than Hampton’s over his career – 2.8 per nine innings for Neagle and 3.6 per nine for Hampton. Still, who thought it would work to bring a guy into Coors Field – a notorious launching pad – who gave up home runs at a rate of more than one a game? And yet it did, for the most part. Neagle’s FIP (his ERA if you remove events he can’t control, like fielding) was 5.63 and 4.90 in the two seasons before he arrived in Colorado, and in his first two seasons with the Rockies it was 4.81 and 5.00. He blew out his elbow and was done pitching the next season, but for two years Neagle gave the Rockies exactly what his most recent stats said he would.
    It’s one thing for pitchers to shun contract offers from the Rockies for fear that their ERA will balloon and they will be unable to find a job after a stint in Colorado. It is quite another for the Rockies to be gun shy about signing free agent pitchers because of the belief that it won’t work out. Rockies management would never say out loud that they are afraid to sign free agent pitchers, so this might just be one of those things that sports talk guys invent to have something to talk about to fill 24 hours of baseball talk. It just seems that a team that struggles so much with pitching would always be in the conversation for starting pitchers during free agent season, and you just don’t hear them being in the mix for the big guys. This off-season the Rockies signed two guys for their bullpen and traded for another, but were not prominently mentioned in the discussions for the high or even mid-profile starting pitchers who were on the market. At some point the Rockies will either need to develop quality starting pitchers, trade for them, or sign them as free agents.
    The Rockies have gone the way of development for a few seasons now, and have a few arms who have put in their time in the minors and are ready to try their hand at pitching at over 5000 feet. There are also a couple of kids in process who look like they could be really good eventually. In 2016 though, the rotation is likely to be anchored by a guy who moved around a lot before he succeeded, and came up in another system – Jorge De La Rosa. The last three seasons, De La Rosa has crafted ERA+s (park adjusted earned run average relative to the league) of 112, 139, and 134, where 100 is what you would expect from a league-average pitcher. He has now achieved that six times in Colorado, making him one of the few pitchers who can claim to have succeeded long-term pitching in the thin, mountain air. Since returning from Tommy John Surgery in 2012, the 6’1 lefty from Monterrey, Mexico has reduced his walk rate with three seasons of 3.3, 3.3, and 3.9 – all under his career rate of 4.1 free passes per game. He has notched at least 26 starts in each of the three seasons post-surgery, and should hit that mark again if he can remain healthy. 32 starts for De La Rosa doesn’t mean 200+ innings – it never has. In his two 32-start seasons he has hit right around 185 innings. You will see a trend here, as De La Rosa led the team in innings pitched in 2015 with 149. If he hits his projection next season, he will amass around 170 innings pitched. If De La Rosa throws 170 innings he will help out the bullpen, and hopefully not lead the team again as he is 34.
    Behind the consistent De La Rosa, there are a lot of questions. Chad Bettis is likely to make 30 starts for the Rockies and if he manages even a little growth, it will give the Coloradans one of the better 1-2 punches at the top of the rotation that they’ve had in a few years. Bettis made eight starts in the minors before coming up to stay. He made 20 more starts for the Rockies from that point on. Bettis stayed healthy last season, and finally showed success in the majors posting an ERA+ of 110. Like De La Rosa, Chad walks about three per nine, and allows about a home run a game. The two hurlers also have similar strikeout per nine innings numbers with both men sitting in the seven to eight range. What Bettis doesn’t have is history, as 2015 was his first major league season with positive value. His splits – first half of the season versus second half – look like he was getting better as the season wore on (his ERA actually was better in the second half – 4.91 in the first half versus 3.18 in the second half), implying that his 2015 numbers weren’t a fluke, but a display of actual growth. Bettis is 26 so he could be just what the Rockies need – a young, controllable starting pitcher.
    Jonathan Gray is a 6’4 righty, who throws hard – his peak fastball comes in around 97.4 MPH according to Baseball Prospectus – surfaced late last season and put up decent peripheral stats, like his 8.9 strikeouts per nine innings and 3.1 walks per nine innings. He also kept his home runs per nine a tick under 1.0 (.9), and his peripherals for the big club were in line with what he did in AAA. Not everything came up roses for Gray as he gave up five and a half runs per game for an ERA+ of 85, but learning to pitch in the majors at Coors Field is as hard as it gets. The Rockies should be happy with his first effort for the parent club, and be patient with the results. This season the Rockies will look for him to improve upon his debut, and hope he works 170-plus innings to help them stabilize their rotation.
    After those three, it gets pretty dicey. If Eddie Butler grabs the 4th spot and hangs onto it, that will be a good sign for the Rockies, because Butler was on track to be a rotation stalwart before shoulder injuries ruined his 2014 season. Last year, his numbers looked more like 2014 than his stellar climb to AA in 2013. Butler posted strikeouts per nine innings above 8.0 at each stop in 2013 while cranking out mid-90’s fastballs. 2014 and 2015 saw that strikeout number fall to just above 5.0 in the minors, and a sickly 1.7 with the parent club. Butler’s walk rates were solid in 2013, including walks per nine innings of 2.8 at the high A level, and 2.0 in AA. Last season that number bumped up to 3.6 in AAA and 3.9 in the majors. Butler seemed lost all season, but at 24 the Rockies hope he can come all the way back from injury and find his command. Nobody can succeed in the big leagues when they only strike out two more men than they walk (44 strikeouts to 42 walks in 2015). He is only 25 so there is some time, but he needs to come at least part of the way back this season to remain in the Rockies’ plans.
    Tyler Chatwood is now 26, and the last time he threw a baseball in anger in a major league park he was 24 and trying to build on a previous solid campaign in the majors. Ulnar collateral ligaments are bastards, and few people know that like Chatwood, who has had his replaced twice. The procedure known as Tommy John surgery has become commonplace for pitchers, and is almost a developmental milestone these days. There are now many pitchers in the majors who have had the procedure and have experienced success post-surgery. What teams are starting to see now are pitchers who have had the surgery twice. This is relatively new territory, and it is unknown how much mileage pitchers can get from round two of elbow reconstruction. Chatwood came over from the Angels in 2011 for catcher, Chris Iannetta, and at 22 started 12 games for the Rockies. The following season, Chatwood proved himself up to the challenge of pitching at altitude, posting an ERA+ of 142 in 20 starts. In 2014 Tyler only managed four starts before returning to the surgeon. It was a devastating blow for the Rockies, who it seemed had found a solid, mid-rotation youngster whom they could control for years to come. Chatwood had shown good growth each year.
Season
WHIP (hits + walks/innings
Strikeout to walk ratio
Strikeouts per 9 innings
2011
1.669
1.04
4.7
2012
1.655
1.24
5.7
2013
1.428
1.61
5.3
2014
1.208
2.50
7.5

The table shows that Chatwood was striking out more batters, showing better control, and allowing fewer base-runners every season. If he can pick up where he left off – and again there is evidence that many pitchers have come all the way back from Tommy John surgery – then he could be a mainstay in the Rockies’ rotation, holding down the 2nd or 3rd spot. He will likely need some time to build his innings up, but counting on him for 160 innings this season is not a crazy dream.
    Several humans made starts for the Rockies last season, some of whom will be looking to do so again this season. David Hale, Jordan Lyles, Chris Rusin, and Tyler Matzek are the most likely candidates to garner starts in 2016, with Tyler Andersen representing the dark horse candidate. Hale is 28 and has posted decent peripherals – 7.0 k’s and 2.3 walks per nine innings last year in Colorado – but hung a 6.09 ERA on his stat sheet too, probably because of his WHIP of 1.468, and his home runs per nine innings of 1.6. Looking at his minor league numbers, it is hard to get a grip on what to expect. There are years with too many walks, other years giving up too many hits, and he got torched last season in Albuquerque. If the reduction in walks is real, and he can figure out how to hold onto the good peripherals while getting his home run rate closer to 1.0, then the Rockies might have something, although that is a lot of ifs.
    Matzek has some serious control problems, to the point where he can’t pitch effectively in any role at this point. That is a huge disappointment for the Rockies who got a solid 2014 in the rotation from the 24 year old. In 2014 Matzek, a 2009 first round pick, posted a 4.05 ERA for the Rockies, while reducing his walks per nine innings to 3.4 in 19 starts. Matzek is a big guy at 6’3, 230 who should be able to handle a substantial workload, so when he completely unravelled last season, the Rockies must have wrung their hands. Matzek has battled control issues for his entire career, but had made progress until the 2015 collapse. If the now-25 year old can get on top of his mechanics or whatever it is that caused him to lose the plate last year, then the Rockies have another solid, and possibly spectacular, starting pitcher. When he is on, Matzek strikes out batters by the truck-load, pumping mid 90’s fastballs with ease.
    Chris Rusin was a waiver wire pick up from the Cubs in 2014. Chicago was right about waiving him as he is eminently hittable. What he does, that the Rockies desperately needed last year, is eat innings, making 22 starts and notching 131.67 innings. He also kept his walk numbers down under 3.0 per nine innings. His ERA+ was 88 – not bad considering he gave up 11.6 hits and 1.3 long balls per nine innings. He is a good guy to have at AAA, because he can keep you from burning through the bullpen if other, more talented pitchers get hurt.
    Colorado was counting on Jordan Lyles to contribute innings last season, but the 24 year old only made 10 starts before emigrating to the disabled list with a season-ending toe injury. Lyles had made at least 22 starts each of the previous seasons – something the Rockies could have used desperately last year. He has yet to have a park adjusted ERA above 100 and some of his peripherals are moving in the wrong direction, so even though he is only 24 you have to wonder if he is ever going to become effective at anything other than eating innings. His walk rate has increased every season in the majors while his strikeout rate has trended downward at the same time. One positive note has been his home run rate per nine innings, which has dropped every season from 1.3 in 2011 to 0.4 in his 10 starts last year. If he can return to the form he showed in 2014 and maybe improve a tick, he could become a usable starter (damning with faint praise!). The injury was to his toe, not his arm, so as long as the toe healed there is no reason to expect that he won’t get back to where he left off – except for maybe some of those ominous peripherals! He is one guy on the Rockies who will be pulling for anyone other than Jose Reyes to play shortstop, because Lyles gives up a lot of ground balls.
    Spring training and the health of many Rockies pitchers, including his own, will decide whether Tyler Andersen will make the jump from AA to the majors in 2016. Andersen was a first round pick in 2011, and at 26 has performed well at every stop in the minors. The issue with Mr. Andersen has been health. The 6’4 lefty has made 20 starts in a season only twice and missed all of 2015, but also has never had a WHIP over 1.15, nor an ERA above 3.25. When he can pitch he does it quite well. All of his peripherals are excellent from his career strikeout-to-walk ratio of 2.5 to 1, to his home run rate – 18 in 328 innings. What Andersen hasn’t done is pitch at altitude. The Rockies AAA club is in Albuquerque at an elevation comparable to Denver’s. It is likely that Andersen would have pitched there at some point last season had he not suffered an elbow injury, so the true test will come next season. If he can maintain his excellent numbers – park translated of course – as he moves closer to heaven (and the International Space Station), then the Rockies could very well have a new top of the rotation pitcher on their club.
    It isn’t as bleak as it seems for the Rockies starting pitching, although the health dice have to come up in their favor a lot for them to have a decent rotation. It is always a gamble to predict good times for anyone pitching in Colorado, but the Rockies starting pitching will almost definitely be better than it was last season and could become a strength if the young first round picks can grab jobs and stay healthy. Look for a rotation of De La Rosa, Bettis, Chatwood, Lyles, and Andersen or possibly Butler, to be the best group top to bottom that the Rockies have run out there in several years. If, on the other hand, Hale and Rusin steal 20 to 30 of those starts, then the Rockies are in serious trouble.

Author: elfuego25

When I'm not writing about baseball (or shoving kettle corn into my mouth at the ballpark), I am probably walking Daisy, who is a very good dog, researching my Portuguese-Irish roots, or wondering when my lovely wife will return from her latest fabulous trip. Yes, life is good!

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