Monday, April 18, 2011

Pluses and Minuses of the Rockies Hot Start

The Colorado Rockies are off to the best start in the majors. With twelve wins against only three losses, they certainly look great in the first two weeks of the 2011 season. And since this particular writer picked them to win the National League West, that pick is looking pretty smart. But it's certainly early. The Giants aren't going away and the Dodgers are playing with more animation than last year and have good rotation pitching too. And since this writer is always looking for the sky to fall (it's been a tough three years, man), it felt like a good idea to check in with the team and to look a bit more closely. What do the early statistics say about this team. What are the pluses and minuses to the team's early start. Let's take a look.

The Pluses:

The Rockies currently have almost a completely neutral home/road split. That's nearly unheard of in their recent history and maybe their entire history. The team has a .789 OPS at home and a .794 OPS on the road. Compare that to last year when the splits were an .866 OPS at home and .654 on the road. If the Rockies can maintain that kind of road success, they will stay in good shape.

Troy Tulowitzki is healthy and is on pace for an MVP-type season. Tulowitzki has shown what he can do in the past when he is healthy but he hasn't been able to stay in the line up all season. If he can stay healthy this season, he will show that he is the best player in the National League (with all due apologies to Albert Pujols).

The Rockies are currently second in the National League in on base percentage. Three of their regulars (Chris Iannetta, Tulowitzki and Jonathan Herrera) are among the top eight in the majors in walk percentage. Of course, they are balanced out a bit by guys like Jose Lopez (no walks in 46 plate appearances). But overall, they are a patient team that drives the pitch count up on opposing teams.

The Rockies have built this success without their best pitcher. Ubaldo Jiminez has only made one early start and has been out with a finger problem. He is due back soon. Despite his absence, they are getting great work in the rotation by guys like Jhoulys Chacin, Jorge De La Rosa and Emil Rogers. The Fan said in the pre-season that the Rockies success would depend on their rotation. So far, so good.

The bullpen is humming along nicely. Street, Belisle, Betancourt, Lindstrom and Reynolds are the core five guys and they are pitching really well. Paulino has been hit around, but he has nine strikeouts per nine innings and should be fine going forward.

That's a lot of good news as you would expect for a team that is 12-3. What are the minuses and do they throw any warning flags into this optimistic overview?

The Minuses:

It might be a stretch to call Jason Hammel a minus at this point. He needs to do better at keeping the ball in the yard and he has a 99 ERA+. But is that bad for a fifth starter in this day and age? Hardly. If he can give the Rockies that kind of performance all year, the Rockies might take it happily.

There is no way that Jonathan Herrera won't regress as the season goes along. He was a solid .731 OPS guy in the minors and to expect him to stay over 1.000 in that category is silly. He's had a nice start and has helped the team immensely to get to this point. He could be a solid second baseman all season long, but he's bound to get back to normal as the season goes along. And his early fielding numbers haven't been great either.

Carlos Gonzalez has been pretty quiet. The Fan couldn't quite buy his season last year and the feeling here is that he will play better than he is right now, but he won't likely reach the kind of production we saw last year.

Third base has been a huge problem thus far. Jose Lopez, Ty Wigginton and Ian Stewart aren't getting the job done. Currently, the Rockies have a slash line of .155/.222/.241 from their third basemen. Ian Stewart has gotten off to an abysmal start. With consistent playing time, he should bounce back, but he's never been a great hitter to begin with. Ty Wigginton is a solid back up, but not a full time option and Felipe Lopez simply does not have any patience at the plate to be a factor despite his occasional pop. This position could be a drag to the Rockies all season.

The Rockies have gotten good early production from Todd Helton with his .828 OPS. But his back is acting up again and all of his power is gone. Jason Giambi is nothing but a pinch hitter at this point. So first base remains a position to watch.

Early Conclusions:

It's pretty darn obvious that the Rockies' season will go as far as their starting pitchers can take them. The Giants have a decided edge in their experienced and deep rotation. If Chad Billingsley can pitch like he did the other day, the Dodgers have a solid rotation as well. Tulowitzki's play can elevate this team and he can carry them a long way. He MUST stay healthy though. They have serious concerns at first base and third and some reservations here about second base. Seth Smith is having a solid season at the plate but isn't a great right fielder.

The team currently rates third in the National League in fielding efficiency, so that part of their game is solid. The bullpen has been very good. Huston Street has already appeared in ten of the Rockies' fifteen games so his health will have to be watched.

The final thought here is that the Rockies should be among the candidates for leading the NL West all season long. But it certainly won't be as easy as it has been thus far. They will continue to do well if their rotation holds up and they keep their road splits up all season long. There's no reason they can't win 92 games. But the thought here is that they've outplayed their ability thus far.

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