Rockies Changing The “Expectations” Game

 

WHAT TO EXPECT WHEN THE ROCKIES TAKE TO THE ROAD

 

If you looked at the ten game road trip the Rox just were on back in March, the default, “best case,” was a 6-4 record. You would have been ecstatic for a 5-5 trip. Yes, the Reds, Twins, and Phils are all picking in the first hour of the MLB draft this year but, regardless of the quality of the opponents, long road-trips back East have historically been disasters. So a 5-5 road trip…solid. Would keep them in the Wild Card discussion going forward.

 

If you looked at that same trip at the end of April, with the Reds and Twins leading their division and the Phils playing good ball behind a solid rotation, the idea of a 5-5 road trip, even as solid as the Rox were playing…that was a stretch. Of course by the time the road trip came along the Twins were still a 1st place team – with Ervin Santana doing his best Cy Young impression – but the Red were beginning a long losing streak and the Phils had the bottom fall out of them. And so as the trip progressed the Rox handled the Twins – beating Santana but being shut-down by an excellent Barrios. Then they should have swept the Reds but Scott Oberg and Mike Dunn ruined that option. Dunn, like Miguel Castro last year, has come back from his brief DL stint a totally different pitcher, falling behind batters consistently. But they pulled out the Sunday finale to win yet another series. And then they took the first three games of the Phils series, including three straight “Taco Games,” they went into the finale with the chance for the best 10-game road trip in team history. Sadly a last inning of work homer off Tyler Anderson and a bad inning from the aforementioned Scott Oberg meant that 7-3 was the best they could do.

 

And that shows the nature of changing expectations. A 7-3 road trip…felt like a disappointment. In past years a 7-3 trip that included blowing a 4-run lead they held going into the 6th would feel like a small price to pay for a 7-3 trip. But somehow, losing a 2-0 and 2-1 game and an blown 4-run lead suddenly felt like a…disappointing road trip. They easily could have had a 9-1 road trip…or maybe better. Such is the nature of the expectations this team has created. And when you are the only team in baseball yet to lose or split a road series of 3 or more games…expectations might need to be re-evaluated.

 

EXPECTATIONS OF A LEAD-OFF HITTER

 

Charlie Blackmon is The Doctor. Clearly he is a Time Lord, and not this man named “Charlie Blackmon” that has appeared on the team’s roster since he was drafted in the  2nd round in 2008 (72nd overall…a reminder of the World Series team of 2007…had they not of gone to the World Series in 2007, would they have picked Blackmon if they had a higher pick?). No, that Charlie Blackmon has been replaced by a Time Lord name Hack Wilson, traveling forward to the year 2017 from 1930. How else can you explain a centerfielder who has 44 RBI in just 48 games.

 

Of course, the expectation of a lead-off man is that he scores runs, not drives them in. The fact that he has so many RBI is a sign that the team is missing it, that he should be hitting in the third or fourth hole. That way he could get more RBI, right? More than what? The league-leading total? You want your best hitter to hit as often as he can, and right now, the best hitter on the Rox isn’t Nolan Arenado, Carlo Gonzalez, or even Mark Reynolds. Its Blackmon, and he has been arguably the best hitter in the National League the last year. Yes, he has benefited from good performance by the #8 hole hitter, good sac bunts and no double-plays from the pitcher. But complaining he should be hitting down in the line-up, when he is already leading the league in driving in runs…seems bizarre. Finding solid leadoff men is one of the hardest things in baseball. Right now, the team has one of them. Charlie is blowing away all expectations of leadoff men in Rox history. Just celebrate that and hope that it isn’t a blip, but a small chunk of an MVP season.

 

EXPECTATIONS OF BEATING ACES

 

The Rox have beaten guys this year with names like Cueto, Kershaw, Arrieta, Martinez, and Santana. In past years the expectation is that if the Rox beat teams’ number one or two pitchers, they must have had an off-day. But in point of fact, the Rox have simple outpitched the starters of the opposition, even when Kershaw or Cueto or Bumgarner has a good game. The Rox are doing that by having solid at-bats, great defence, and solid starting pitching. The Rox don’t have to hope that the other teams’ best had a bad night’s sleep or blister. They just need to play their game.

 

EXPECTATIONS OF THE BEST PITCHING IN THE NATIONAL LEAGUE

 

The best pitcher in baseball is Clayton Kershaw. Sorry, if you are going to argue that you really aren’t paying attention. And if you say he isn’t good in the playoffs, look at the actual games and you see he just has bad 7th innings because his managers haven’t trusted their bullpens. Kershaw is the best…and despite is rather odd OCD-driven rant against Tyler Anderson earlier this year, still one of my five favorite non-Rockies in baseball.

 

With that being said a division win doesn’t happen because of one great pitcher. It take a great staff. And looking at just starting rotations, the best starting group in the National League West is found at…20th and Blake. At least so far. This is based on a whole starting rotation, and using the Dangraphs’s ERA-. The leader thus far is Mike Leake, who the Rox miss his series. But Kershaw is #2, Grienke is #4, and #5…is Kyle Freeland! The next NL West pitcher is at #9…Senzatela. Two D-Backs are at #13 and 14 (Ray and Walker). Chatwood is at #20 with Corbin of the Dbacks at #26. Tyler Anderson is in at #30. Now those are only for pitchers that have been pitched enough innings to meet the definition of an ERA qualifier (pro-rated for the percentage of the season completed…and yes, since starters pitcher less these days, the innings to qualify needs to be lowered). If we use 20 innings pitched as a starter, Alex Wood is #3 and Brandon McCarthy is at #35 but they are still the only Dodgers pitchers in the top 50, with the Dbacks sporting #s 4,13,14, and 26 and the Rox at 7,11,16 (Marquez), 31 (Chatwood), and 46 (Anderson). Rich Hill, the Dodgers’s #2 is not repeating his past two seasons and carries an ERA- 17% worse than league average at this time.

 

While wining playoff series means having three great starters, and with a combination of Kershaw, Wood and Hill/McCarthy or Grienke, Walker, and Ray both the Dbacks and the Dodgers are probably more dangerous…at this time…than the Rox, for the race that is 162, the Rox actually have a better starting rotation than the Dodgers and marginally better than the Dbacks. And that is with getting just 13 innings from Gray so far and nothing from Bettis. Additionally, Jeff Hoffman thus far has proven to be the best “first-up” among the three when an emergency starter is needed. Yes, ERA- takes into account park effects, and early season offensive output could have overstated the impact of the three ballfields, but the number as they are so far shows the Rox at least having a good argument for the best rotation in the West. And the deepest.

 

After mistakenly listening to Chris “MadDog” Russo…whose baseball IQ is the same as my beagle’s…no wait, she’s pretty good at playing centerfield…and him commentating that this was the Dodger’s division because they were clearly better than either the Dbacks or Rox, largely because of their rotation, I realized just how much expectations can cloud us to different realities.

 

EXPECTATIONS MAKE HITS INTO ERRORS

 

A number of outlets have covered this already but it bears repeating that our expectations of certain players can cause scorers to be unfair when assigning hits and errors. The first inning slow-roller hit by Billy Hamilton last Sunday and charged by Nolan Arenado was going to be a hit as soon as he topped it. Nolan charged the ball, barehanded it…it seemed wet looking at the replays…but he was unable to grab it cleanly and it flipped off his thumb and hit his eye. Look, Billy Hamilton is among the three fastest players in baseball right now. No one was going to throw him out there. But because Nolan can do the impossible the scorer gave him an error for trying to make an impossible play. Granted, if anyone was going to do it…it was Nolan. But come on scorer, you can’t have expectations that require one player to be held to a standard no one else is. Now, had he done that with Yadier Molina hitting…its an error. But it was Billy Hamilton. Nolan Ryan couldn’t haven grabbed that ball and fired it hard enough to first to get Hamilton. Give the man an hit and let Nolan have his perfect fielding record back!

 

EXPECTATIONS CAN MAKE US MISS THE BIGGER PICTURE

 

I was among those who was shocked the Rox released Miguel Castro at the start of the year so Stephen Cardullo could be added to the 40-man roster. I loved Cardullo’s story, and he earned his place on the team in Spring Training (sadly it didn’t happen in the regular season but playing part-time is really hard), but they could have either kept another player already on the 40, like Pat Valaika, or they could have cut Chad Qualls…granted that meant losing money and they had hopes he might be able to provide at least league average relief as the 8th man in the pen. Still not sure why they did it…but they did. With Jesus Tinoco’s lost 2016 (he’s been great in one start and decent in another back at High-A this year) the whole Tulo trade has come to be viewed as whether or not Jeff Hoffman will make it. While his 2016 was ugly in the bigs, his returns this year so he might be on the same learning path as Jon Gray, and if that is the case, then having 7-years of a solid #2 or #3 starter probably makes the deal a “push.”

 

But the fact is that the entire Tulo deal comes down to one much bigger equation. At the end of this year the salary responsibility for both Tulo and Jose Reyes will be done. With CarGo’s $20 million coming off too, the Rox are in a great situation as it pertains to long-term salary commitments. Which means that the real measure of the success of that trade comes down to this – if the Rox can sign Nolan Arenado to a 7 or 8-year contract using those saved dollars, then the Tulo trade will have been a win. With Manny Machado going to free-agency the year prior, it means that at least one other big market team will have filled its 3rd baseman position (Turner’s resigning in LA last winter is another spot filled). I think the Rox still might be in danger of losing him to a team like the Angeles if he gets to Free Agency, so this year is big. Sign Arenado and all is good. The fact they are winning and showing the ability to be part of the playoff discussion for years to come with their young rotation and deep farm system…should help the process.

 

AND FINALLY…EXPECTATIONS REQUIRE US TO NEVER FAIL

 

Last year had a lot of disappointment for Rox fans. A team that was sniffing the post-season for the first time since 2009 on August 1 imploded and left us all wondering when they really would compete again. Even a Purple-tinted shades wearer like me can get to despair. But among the many disappointments last year was the season of Ryan McMahon. Ryan had been one of the top prospects in their system since his rookie-ball batting title in 2013. He had another great season in 2014 at Ashville, with 46 doubles and 18 homers and then the next year in High-A had another 43 doubles and 18 homers. Yes…he strikes out a lot (so does everyone these days I guess). And yes, despite great feet and arm, his defense in the minors at 3rd base (the Rox love drafting ex-high school quarterbacks as 3B of the future) has not impressed (remember when the scouting report on Nolan was that he would probably have to be shifted to 1B because of his defense?).

 

Then 2016 happened. Now, first, he was learning to play 1B and 2B far more regularly as they team plotted to fill bot their huge gaping hole in the farm system as regards 1B prospects and second, hoping that 3B would be blocked for the next decade. And second, he played on the road the entire year. From what I heard while it was great for team morale, it really hurt development last year the team having to play on the road the entire year. Can you imagine being 21-years old, playing from a hotel room all year, learning a new position, and facing players 3+ years older than you? Needless to say, Ryan really struggled last year, posting a mere .724 OPS (interesting note, in 2012 as a 21-year old 3B in the more offensive Texas League, Nolan had a hugely disappointing .766 OPS, though with far fewer Ks). And just like that, McMahon fell off a lot of top 100 prospect lists. Because, you see, great future players never fail in the minors. That is the expectations. Now, it is true that most former top prospects who fail do so in the minors before they fail in the majors but…Nolan isn’t a rare case. Lots of players – like this guy Trevor Story – have to repeat a level before they cane make it to The Show and thrive and become starters, All-Stars or MVP candidates.

 

The good news is that McMahon has come into AA this year – playing actual home games – and been sensational. In 45 games this year playing 2B, 3B, and 1B he is hitting .321/.394/.539 for an OPS of .933 and already 14 2B, 2 3B and 6 HR. He even has cut his strikeouts down to “just” 35 in 45 games (never been close to less than a K/game in the minors since Grand Junction when he Kd 59 times in 59 games). I expect they will send him to AAA if things keep up by mid-June, following the pattern last year with David Dahl. McMahon has also shown some nice baserunning, including 7 steals with  0CS but also good general baserunning this year (something that wasn’t true last year from what I read).

 

And speaking of expectations, since Nolan is hopefully the 3B of the future as well as the present, most expect him to be the 1B of the future. It is why the signing of Ian Desmond rather than any of the myriad of big boppers last winter made so much sense. Desmond can play the outfield, 2B or 1B, and if the team develops a young 1B option, they aren’t stuck with a one-dimensional player and no bench flexibility. I always assumed that while Desmond was going to play 1B this year that his 5-year deal had more of a Ben Zobrist angle to it than Todd Helton. But listening to what Jeff Bridich has said, McMahon’s best position is…2B. He seems to have a very natural defensive orientation to the position. And that is big because DJ LeMahieu, while a great defender, batting champ, and fan-favorite…is also a Free Agent in 2019. They can’t afford to pay everyone (and I have no idea what they should do when Charlie also hits FA in 2019). But if McMahon can play 2B with plus defense and bring a near-Nolan level of OPS with the bat…well…that is an expectation I would love to see met!

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