In this young season, much has been made of all the high profile teams off to slow starts. Kicking the Jays, Rays and Angels while they are down has become something of a recreational sport at this point. However teams on the opposite side of the coin aren't receiving nearly the same level of attention. To see what I mean look no further than the NL West leading Colorado Rockies and their nifty yet underpublicized 10-4 record.
In a division that was supposed to be controlled by either the defending champion Giants or the Federal Reserve-backed Dodgers, the Rockies were supposed to be a mere afterthought. In fact, when it came to teams getting buzz as dark horse contenders in the division, most of the attention went to the scrappy, gritty, tough Diamondbacks with most of the rest settling on the hip, young Padres. The Rockies got nary a mention.
Was the baseball public right to slight Colorado or did we all overlook a team that is setting up to be this year's Orioles?
As of right now, the answer isn't exactly clear. On one hand, it is easy to write the Rockies off because six of their ten wins have come against the San Diego Padres. Even with their dark horse buzz, San Diego could very well turn out to be pretty horrible so don't expect the Rox to brag about those wins. Nor should we expect them to boast about the rest of their wins which come in the form of two apiece against the slow-starting Brewers and the just plain not good Mets. Factor in that three of Colorado's losses came when they got swept by the Giants in San Francisco and the Rox have all the makings of a paper tiger.
Writing them off because of their soft schedule might be a case of confirmation bias though. Really we shouldn't ever fault teams for beating up on bad teams. After all, that's what the good teams are supposed to do, right? The problem is we just don't have an example of the Rockies going out and beating a team we all agreed was supposed to be very good. But that doesn't mean they are bad because of it.
We've seen the Rockies do things we didn't expect them to do already. Being competitive on the road has long been a problem for Colorado, yet they've already won a series in Milwaukee and swept the Padres in Petco Park which is pretty much the anti-Coors Field. Getting swept in San Francisco is a black mark to be sure, but any season in which the Rockies can hover around .500 on the road is usually going to be a good season for them.
Perhaps more importantly than the breakdown of Colorado's schedule is how exactly they are going about winning. The Rockies being a strong offensive team is nothing new. As of today, Colorado leads the NL in runs, average, on-base percentage and slugging. Coors Field certainly has something to do with that, but they are also getting exceptional early production from Carlos Gonzalez (1.207 OPS), Dexter Fowler (1.090), Michael Cuddyer (1.079), Wilin Rosario (1.006) and Troy Tulowitzki (.926). Altitude effect or no, that is some pretty superhuman production and there is absolutely no way that they can all maintain those levels or even anything near them, especially Cuddyer and Fowler. In fact, it is over 70 points of OPS worth of increased production compared to the 2012 Rockies that had basically the same exact lineup, only now with a healthy (for now) Troy Tulowitzki. Tulo's presence and some good luck could certainly account for some of an increase, but not that much.
So this is a total fluke, right? Well, not quite. A big reason for Colorado's early surge is that their pitching has very quietly been pretty decent, or pretty excellent if you compare it to the level of work a Rockie pitching staff usually provides. With a 4.19 ERA, the Rockies are sitting pleasantly right in the middle of the pack in the National League. That is a far cry from their miserable 5.22 ERA of the year before. Unlike the strong offensive numbers, these pitching numbers don't have the obvious appearance of being a fluke given that their FIP is 3.83 and xFIP is 4.20. In fact, one could argue that the numbers should only get better, which feels weird to say because we are talking about the forever pitching-starved Rockies.
The big change from last season is that the Rockies have gotten Jorge de la Rosa back. Up until he was lost to Tommy John surgery, de la Rosa had been a stabilizing force in the Colorado rotation for two and a half seasons. He is back to doing that now and it has set the path for the rest of the pitching staff. Behind him, Jhoulys Chacin has gotten off to a blazing start with a 1.96 ERA. That certainly won't last, but it is a good sign that the young hurler could be in for a breakout campaign. The Rockies have also gotten strong early work from Jon Garland. Whether that can last is a much more dicey proposition. Offsetting that though is the wretched performance from Jeff Francis (8.25 ERA) and Juan Nicasio (5.63) thus far. Even by Rockies standards, those are terrible numbers that they should be able to improve upon either by those two just plain pitching better or Colorado replacing them in the rotation. Maybe they won't be much better, but they certainly can't be that terrible. So, yes, there is actual room for improvement in the Rockie rotation.
Whether or not the expected regression of the lineup and the possible improvement of the rotation evens out to allow the Rockies to keep playing at a high level remains to be seen. What can be seen is that there is a formula here that can work for them if they can just find a way to sustain it. A lot of that is going to rest on the offense not only being able to keep producing at a high level, but the key contributors in the lineup being able to stay healthy. After that it is on the Rockies front office to try and keep the rotation alive via their annual efforts to juggle the back of the pitching staff until they can find an arm or two that can survive in Coors.
Whatever the fate of the Rockies will be is something we should find out soon. Their upcoming schedule has them taking on Arizona, Atlanta, Los Angeles and Tampa Bay over the next three weeks, a stretch of the schedule that should expose them as contenders or pretenders pretty quickly.