[The Colorado Rockies arrive to GABP this weekend with a 22-15 record. They lead the major leagues in runs scored by a wide margin which, like their win-loss record, is based entirely on their success at home (wRC+ at home is 147, on the road 100). Their third baseman, Nolan Arenado has a 28-game hitting streak. I exchanged questions and answers about the series with Zach Marburger who is an online staff writer for Mile High Sports. Also, my answers to his questions]
Steve: Should local public health officials really have let the Rockies’ jet land at the Cincinnati airport last night? Will the Rockies understand if the Reds decline to fist bump with them this weekend? Should I wear a hospital mask when I attend the game Saturday? Seriously, what’s up with the virus?
Zach: It’s strange, but it just looks like one of those weird things that happens when you get a lot of guys together in a confined space for extended periods of time. It’s knocked Wilin Rosario out of the lineup and according to manager Walt Weiss a few other players are feeling the effects as well. He told the media they’re using a revolutionary training measure called “washing your hands a lot”. If Reds fans hop on that bandwagon, they should be fine.
Steve: The Rockies are 22-15 to start 2014. How much of their fans’ euphoria is due to the team’s fast start and how much is attributable to recent changes in the legal status of certain products in the state of Colorado? Tell the truth.
Zach: It’s not so much euphoria and more of a mellow, chill, buzz. Although the Seahawks and Broncos did play in the Super Bowl, so maybe there is some kind of weird karma thing going on.
Steve: Is marijuana sold legally at Coors Field? If not, have the Rockies considered the positive effect that would have on the sale of other concessions? Or on t-shirt sales, like:The real Mile High stadium! orBe a Rockies designated hitter! etc.?
Zach: Definitely not. Maybe if the organization debuts more vegan dining options on the new “party-deck” fans would start a push to…*coughs*…wait, what was the question again?
Steve: With Clayton Kershaw back and considering all their big stacks of money offensive firepower, the Dodgers still seem to be the team to beat in the NL West. And the Giants appear to be revived, with a recent track record of winning World Series. Do you think the Rockies can win the division?
Zach: Before the season started, I had them pegged for a .500 record and a third place finish in the West. Now, I’m not so sure. There’s a sense of optimism around the club that there hasn’t been for quite some time.
Nobody, and I mean nobody, expected this kind of performance out of Charlie Blackmon. Elsewhere on the roster, Justin Morneau, Jordan Lyles, Nolan Arenado, and role players like Brandon Barnes are all blowing away preseason forecasts. It’s early, and you never know with this Rockies team and injuries. But if they can get some consistent starting pitching from anyone other than Lyles, I can see them hanging in there.
The one thing the Rockies have going for them this year is depth. In the past, when Tulowitzki or Carlos Gonzalez missed time, the team was running out Triple-A types. This year they have enough insurance to stop the bleeding if someone misses time. Just look at how much production the team has gotten out of Drew Stubbs, Corey Dickerson, and Barnes since Cuddyer’s been out.
I still think the Dodgers ultimately take the division, but Arizona has been atrocious, and San Diego doesn’t look as strong as people expected. If they can stay reasonably healthy (a big “if” I know) the Rockies can stay with San Francisco and battle for a wild-card spot.
Steve: The Rockies home (.355/.401/.600) and away (.254/.302/.403) hitting splits are, um, different. Any basis for believing they’re an above-average hitting team outside of high altitudes?
Zach: It’s been a problem since the Rockies were born, and I’m not sure there’s much the team can do to fix it. Even guys like Tulowitzki and Gonzalez show significant splits, though they can still hit. I’m more concerned about the players, like Blackmon and Morneau, who have exceeded expectations to an insane degree this year.
The Rockies are scoring an insane 7.6 runs at home, and just 4.3 on the road. As you put it (and very kindly I might add) that’s different. Outside of Colorado and Arizona, the NL West is a tough place to hit. I wonder if moving from Coors to the pitchers parks in California exacerbates the problem.
One thing to take solace in is the fact that the Rockies don’t have to be great on the road, only average. Given their historical success at Coors, a .500 record, or something close to it, should keep this team in contention. That’s something Rockies fans can hope for, because I don’t think the team is any closer to solving the problem than they were 20 years ago.
Steve: It must be thrilling to watch Troy Tulowitzki play when he’s healthy. Does his injury history dampen your enthusiasm about his contending for the NL MVP? (Reds fans can empathize)
Zach: His start has been a joy to watch, but yeah, it takes away from the excitement a little when you’re wincing every time he has to leg out a single. He’s already missed some time this season with a quad issue, but it certainly hasn’t slowed him down.
The thing about Tulowitzki injury history is that a lot of them have been of the freak variety. Last season it was diving for a ground ball and cracking a rib. Obviously you worry when stuff happens over and over again, but I don’t think he has a single injury that you’d call chronic, like Todd Helton’s back issues. One big positive I’ve seen is his range on defense. His issues tend occur on his lower body, but his range hasn’t been compromised at all. That’s a sign his legs are feeling good, and his past problems haven’t lingered on.
Weiss is pretty aggressive about getting him rest – he’s been pulled during blow-outs, and he’ll get plenty of days off. Everyone in Denver is holding their breath and just trying to enjoy the ride.
Steve: Even though Charlie Blackmon is 27 years old and played against the Reds a little bit last season, this will be his first time in Cincinnati and he’ll be a new name for most Reds fans. He’s leading off for Colorado and hitting .358/.396/.610. Tell us what we need to know about him.
Zach: Besides his luxurious and impressive beard in which the spirit of Joe DiMaggio apparently resides?
Blackmon’s had one of the best starts in baseball – in addition to his slash line, he’s also stolen eight bases and played very good defense in both center and right field. The biggest difference between this season and last, when he was a marginal everyday player, has been his ability to cut down on the strikeouts. His K% has fallen to just 7.1 percent this season, compared to 19 percent last year. He’s also walking more, which is probably a combination of being more patient and the new respect pitchers are showing him.
Blackmon’s making more contact, but his line-drive percentage is actually down pretty significantly from last season. Those line drives have turned into fly-balls, which have been leaving the park at a pretty high rate. For that reason, I expect to see him to come back to earth as the season progresses. If he can continue to resist chasing off-speed stuff down and out of the zone, he should walk-rate and strikeout-rates should remain steady, Blackmon will settle in as an above-average regular, which is still a huge coup for the Rockies.
Steve: The player I’m most interested in watching this weekend is Nolan Arenado. He flashed his defensive skills last year, running away with the Gold Glove at third base. This year, his offense appears to be catching up. Is he a duel-threat superstar in the making? Will the Rockies be at home or on the road when he breaks Joe DiMaggio’s hit streak record?
Zach: Didn’t we just talk about Coors Field? Of course he’ll break the record at home!
I’m seriously stunned by Arenado’s progress at the plate this year. I thought it would take at least a few more seasons for his bat to mature, but with a .324 batting average so far this year, it looks like he’s leaping past the learning curve.
Arenado swings at like everything, but he has good contact skills, and his power has shown up more this year, which is surprising given that power is usually the last thing to develop. He doesn’t walk much, and that means when the hits aren’t falling, he struggles at the plate. I still see him finishing the season more in the .280-range.
But this guy was a three-win player last year, and all his value came from his glove. If he can keep his average respectable and toss in 15-20 bombs, he’ll be a star. He was actually thought of as a bat-first prospect coming up through the minor leagues, and he’s only 23-years-old, so he’s still got plenty of time to grow. There should be big things ahead for him.
Steve: Drew Stubbs plays for the Rockies. While many Reds fans remember Stubbs as a strikeout machine, I loved watching him play and sure wish he were wearing a Reds uniform this season. What is his role for the Rockies and what is your impression of how he’s done so far?
Zach: Coming into the season, I thought Stubbs was going to get the majority of the starts in center, which scared the hell out of me given his struggles against right-handers. Of course, Blackmon has locked up the job moving forward, but with Cuddyer out, Stubbs has still seen his fair share of playing time.
Once the outfield is healthy, he’ll likely go back to being a spot-starter against left-handers, a role he should excel at. I seriously doubt he finishes the season with an average over .300 and an on-base percentage in the high-.300 range, especially given how often he strikes outs, but he’ll be a solid contributor as long as he keeps mashing lefties and playing good defense.
My only concern is that Weiss mistakes his hot start against same-side pitching as a sign that it’s ok to run him out there time-after-time. I’d much rather see Corey Dickerson getting those at-bats.
Steve: Matt Belisle is another former Reds player on the Colorado roster. Now in his sixth season there, Belisle has had a solid career for the Rockies as a reliever. How is he used in the Rockies bullpen and with his numbers over sixteen appearances this year being a bit elevated, is his effectiveness in decline or is he just off to a bad start?
Zach: Belisle spent about three seasons as one of the most under-appreciated relievers in the game. Admittedly, middle-relievers who toil in Coors don’t get a lot of publicity, but the guy was an absolute workhorse from 2010-2013, with 70-plus appearances each year, at a time when the Rockies rotation was in shambles and the bullpen has to pick up a ton of the slack.
Now, unfortunately, it seems his time as the Rockies go-to reliever is at an end. His velocity has been inconsistent, and his K/9 has fallen from the mid-sevens down to just five strikeouts per-nine this season. Consistent contact in Coors is not a recipe for success, and he’s just not missing enough bats this year. He doesn’t seem to have the confidence of manager Walt Weiss, who took over last season and missed Belisle’s best years. I still expect Belisle to be a decent option in the pen, but he’s been passed over by Adam Ottavino as the best option in the set-up role.
Steve: Jhoulys Chacin, who was the Rockies best starter last year, makes just his second appearance of the season on Friday night. He went five innings against the Mets in his first game on Sunday. How concerned are you about the shoulder strain that put him on the DL to start the season?
Zach: Not as worried as I was because Chacin has reported no problems with the shoulder during his rehab. Still, outside of Tulowitzki and Gonzalez, he’s probably the Rockies most important piece if they’re going to contend. I don’t expect players like Juan Nicasio, Franklin Morales, and Lyles to be able to hold down the fort all season long.
Chacin is the closest thing the Rockies have to a workhorse, and they need someone out there to soak up innings. He’s also their best pitcher – Coors Field inflates his statistics, but Chacin was extremely good last season.
The team does have some intriguing prospects down on the farm. Johnathan Gray and Eddie Butler are both highly thought-of starting pitching prospects that could force their way onto the roster at some point if the rotation falters. Butler is the more polished product, but the team wants to let them get some more seasoning in the minors. If Butler does get the call, I’d much rather have him replacing Morales than the Rockies nominal ace in Chacin.
Steve: You guys do know that your closer has been pitching in the major leagues since the first Clinton Administration?
Zach: We um “forget”, because see question 3.
In all seriousness, I don’t mind having LaTroy Hawkins back there. He still throws hard, and that’s all he’s ever really done. The Rockies still don’t let their starters go very deep in games, and his presence in the closer role frees up Weiss to use the team’s two best relievers, Rex Brothers and Ottavino in more crucial situations.
He has just five strikeouts in 12 innings this year, so that bears keeping an eye on. If that trend continues, the Rockies are going to get burned eventually, but they have other candidates ready to step into the role if Hawkins struggles.