The Colorado Rockies are coming off a dismal 91-loss season in 2019, and little was expected of them in 2020. More than a quarter of the way through the (abbreviated) season, however, the Rockies are in first place in the NL West and have one of the best records in all of baseball. While fending off the mighty Dodgers in the division seems unlikely, the Rockies have indeed positioned themselves as contenders, and there are reasons to think they might be able to notch their third postseason in appearance in the last four years. Let’s take a closer look at why that’s the case. 

1. Their record is backed up by underlying indicators

At this writing, the Rockies are 11-5, which scaled to the usual 162 games would come to a 111-win pace. The Rockies right now have a run differential of plus-27, which is second only to that of the Dodgers in all of MLB. Using runs scored and runs allowed, you can determine what a team’s record should be, and in the Rockies’ case they should indeed be 11-5. 

As well, we can look at the BaseRuns standings available at FanGraphs, which correct for some of the sequencing and clustering effects inherent in run differential. Basically, it’s a measure of how good a team is at controlling the fundamental outcomes of the batter-pitcher encounter. It yields what a team’s record should be based on core skills. Per BaseRuns, Colorado has, yes, played just like an 11-5 team. 

None of this guarantees that the Rockies will continue to win at such a clip — they probably won’t continue running a .688 win percentage — but it does mean that their success to date isn’t luck-driven. 

2. A start like this matters a great deal in a shortened season

As you’re painfully aware, the 2020 season has been shortened to just 60 games because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. That means each game is much more important than it would be in normal times, and by extension a hot start like the one the Rockies have enjoyed moves the needle much more than it would in a 162-game season. That 11-5 start takes up more than a quarter of the regular season, as noted. In matters related, coming into this season the SportsLine Projection Model (@SportsLine on Twitter) gave the Rockies a 17.5 percent chance of being one of the 16 playoff teams. Now, however, SportsLine gives the Rockies roughly a two in three chance of making the postseason. That, suffice it say, is a huge increase after 16 games. That’s what happens when hot start meets shortened schedule.

3. Their success is rotation-driven, and that could be sustainable

Right now, the Rockies rank sixth in all of MLB with a rotation ERA of 3.36, and that’s despite the fact that they’ve played half of their 16 games to date at a mile above sea level. Obviously, Colorado starters probably won’t run an ERA that low for the balance of the season, but there is cause to believe that the rotation could remain one of baseball’s for the balance of 2020. 

First, take their success at the FIP level. In case you’re not familiar, FIP stands for fielding independent pitching, and it’s scaled to look like ERA but reflects just those outcomes that have nothing to do with fielding — i.e., strikeouts, walks, and home runs allowed. Basically, it’s what a pitcher’s ERA might look like if you gave him average defensive support and average luck. In the Rockies’ case, their rotation FIP this season is 3.91. Yes, that suggests they’ve been a bit lucky to have that 3.36 ERA but not inordinately so. As well, that 3.91 mark would be the second-best rotation FIP in Rockies franchise history. The thing about FIP is that it often predicts future ERA better than ERA itself does. Sample size caveats apply in this case, but thus far the Rockies’ rotation has pitched like a true sub-4.00 ERA unit, which is impressive in light of the Coors Field effect. 

As well — this is the most important consideration — their rotation has the talent to keep this up. At the front end, German Marquez has outstanding stuff. He throws five pitches for strikes, has excellent fastball velocity, and boasts the secondary pitches to attack batters of either hand. At age 25 and in his fifth MLB season, he could be primed to take the next step. Jon Gray — Monday’s disaster start against the D-Backs notwithstanding — is also a promising presence. He’s a former No. 3 overall pick and highly regarded prospect who owns a career ERA+ of 111 and a career FIP of 3.76. His career K/BB ratio 3.15 is an impressive mark, especially for a pitcher who calls Coors home. Gray’s fastball-slider approach has served him well more often than not.

As for Denver native Kyle Freeland, in 2018 he finished fourth in the NL Cy Young balloting before struggling badly last season. Freeland in response to those grim numbers from a season ago rebuilt his delivery and, as Michael Baumann of The Ringer recently observed, significantly reduced his fastball usage. Thus far the results have been highly promising in terms of run prevention and limiting hard contact. Behind him, Antonio Senzatela has on balance been an average starting pitcher over the balance of his career, with slightly stronger peripherals than that. That’s more than adequate for a fourth starter, and especially so if the command-and-control strides he’s made early in 2020 wind up sticking. 

4. This roster mix has had success before

The Rockies under manager Bud Black made the playoffs in 2017 and 2018 before slipped back to fourth place in the NL West last season. The Rox, however, haven’t endured much roster churn over that span. For instance, still on the roster from 2017 are the top four performers in terms of WAR — Nolan Arenado, Charlie Blackmon, Marquez and Freeland. Overall, seven of the top nine WARs from that year are still playing for Colorado. From 2018, the top four WARs also return — Freeland, Arenado, Trevor Story and Marquez — and six of the top 10 are still around. 

In addition to that stalwart core, the Rockies have some young to young-ish players — all highly regarded to varying degrees — who may wind up being core contributors. That subset includes names like David Dahl, Ryan McMahon, Garrett Hamson, Sam Hilliard, Raimel Tapia and current fifth starter Ryan Castellani. Lofty ceilings aren’t necessarily to be found in that group, but the potential for solidity around that core of Arenado, Story, Blackmon and the front four of the rotation certainly is. 


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