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The Rockies and the best record in baseball

The Rockies are doing much better than expected. Fluke or something we're missing?

Doug Pensinger

It's the time of year for "Is (Team) for Real?" articles. As much as I want to fight it, this is an "Are the Rockies for Real?" article. The subject can be gussied up however you want, but that's still the thesis of any article involving the Rockies right now. They were supposed to be bad, and over 18 games they've been good. It's probably time to investigate.

There will be plenty of investigations: Paul Swydan takes a look for ESPN (sub. required) and Jonathan Bernhardt compares and contrasts the Rockies and Red Sox for Sports on Earth. It's not like this is the first time this has happened with the Rockies in April, either:

Not only have the Rockies survived despite tremendous struggles from key players, but they actually own baseball's best record, having won 16 of their first 23 contests. In fact, their early season success has given them a 4½-game lead over both the San Francisco Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers. It's not even May, but the National League West race is shaping up to be fairly boring.

That was from 2011, but here's the big difference with that one: The Rockies were kind of a sweetheart pick before the 2011 season. Lots of smart people were predicting good things for them, and when they started hot, it was only confirming what we already knew.

Since that hot April, though, the Rockies had a .401 winning percentage through 2012. They went from sweetheart pick to divisional afterthoughts in a couple of months, and they became a rebuilding team that wasn't really rebuilding. They were messing around with older guys like Michael Cuddyer, and the names they were linked to in the offseason were completely depressing. Add in 98 losses last season, and you can see why they weren't a sexy pick this year.

They're tied for the best record in baseball, now. Through the magic of sabermetrics, I've think I've figured out why:

  • The Rockies have scored a lot of runs
  • The Rockies have not allowed a lot of runs

I ran the numbers four times. They add up. And that brings us to the "Well, of course" theory of early-season evaluation. The Red Sox are actually a great example, seeing as they're also a surprise team of the early season. They're a Well, Of Course team:

Writer: I'm just not sure about the starting pitching, and the lineup doesn't seem like it can make up the difference. Red Sox in fourth place.

Red Sox fan: Okay, okay. But I'm from the future, and I know for a fact that Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz are both back. They're aces again. Both of them.

Writer: Both of them?

Red Sox fan: Do you give the Red Sox a better chance to win the division now?

Writer: Well ... of course.

When the question marks become positive answers, well, of course things will change. Now that we have some strong evidence that Lester and Buchholz are the pitchers the Red Sox have been looking for since the last month of 2011, of course they're a more interesting team. That goes a long way.

Doing a similar analysis for the Rockies, though, doesn't work quite as neatly. You have to split up the lineup and the pitching.

More on the Rockies: Purple Row

The Rockies are scoring a lot, looking to be the first Colorado team since 2001 to lead the league in scoring. And if you were skeptical about the Rockies ability to score, your Well, Of Course players are pretty easy to find. Troy Tulowitzki is healthy and mashing, as is Dexter Fowler. Wilin Rosario is a hacking mass of pure power and loud contact. Carlos Gonzalez is hitting on the road. Of the players doing well, only Cuddyer is especially suspicious, and it's not like he's hit like Rey Ordonez in his career. He's had his moments, and maybe this is one of them. If you spot the Rockies a healthy Tulo, Cargo, WilRo, and Dexfo, well, of course they'll score a lot of runs.

Then you get to the pitching, which has also been outstanding. They have the second-best adjusted ERA in the NL, just behind the Braves. But here's where the Well, Of Course players are in short supply. Jhoulys Chacin has been impossible to hit early on, as has Jorge De La Rosa. And Jon Garland is a) still active, and b) pitching as well as he has in years. Yet none of those players give you that Well, Of Course feeling that Tulowitzki, Lester, or Buchholz do. Three weeks of success isn't enough to convince you of anything when it comes to the pitching.

Some stats to back that point up:

Team rank in NL
ERA+: 2 of 15
Strikeouts: 15 of 15

That's ... incongruous, at best. The Rockies are the Twins' fever dream right now, allowing balls in play and preventing runs in spite of it. Or maybe because of it. Mile-high baseball isn't the same as anything else, so it's probably not smart to slap the same quick-and-dirty evaluations on the Rockies. Dan O'Dowd and company have been tinkering in the underground bunker for years, trying to figure something out that works in Coors Field.

And here's the small-sample piece of information that fascinates me in the early part of the season, from Baseball Reference:

Park Factors Over 100 favors batters, under 100 favors pitchers.

multi-year: Batting - 119, Pitching - 120 · one-year: Batting - 102, Pitching - 99

Emphasis mine. For the first three weeks of the season, Coors Field has been an average hitter's park. The Rockies allowed eight runs against the Mets on April 16. That was the only time they've allowed more than five runs at Coors this year in nine games, and they've allowed five runs just once.

Small samples? Small samples. Small samples. Small samples.

But if you're looking for the Well, Of Course theory of how the Rockies can be successful, it has to do with managing Coors Field. Have the Rockies figured out some sort of secret sauce when it comes to hitting on the road? Have they figured out a way to mix balls in play and the big Coors outfield into some weird, successful cocktail?

Well, of course that would be a big deal. And there's no real evidence that's happening -- I'm just spitballing here. But that's what you do when something comes up in the baseball season that you don't expect. And the Rockies just might be the most unexpected story of the early season. Maybe there's a reason it's not that unexpected.

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