The Rockies have finally started playing decent baseball, leading many to search for answers about the turn-around. One very popular sentiment is that the Rockies have been more patient at the plate in June than they were in May. This was actually a headline in this morning’s Denver Post. It’s an interesting theory, and, if true, it would make a lot of sense. Inevitably, swinging at more hittable pitches will produce better results, as will drawing more walks. However, that’s not the reality of the Rockies’ situation.
In modern day baseball, we have the ability to track pitches, and from that ability, experts have been able to generate statistics like swing percentage and swing percentage at pitches outside of the strike zone (O-Swing %). Granted, this data is somewhat flawed because it is based on the observations of humans — we could spend all day on this — but it’s still accurate enough to give us a picture of what’s really going on. The fact is, in June, the Rox haven’t displayed anymore plate discipline than they did in either April or May. Instead, their offensive emergence has been the result of regressions to the norm, simply making better contact, and getting rid of Jose Lopez.
One common misconception about the 2011 Rockies is that May was the beginning of an offensive swoon. In reality, they weren’t that much different on offense in May than they were in April — slightly above average. And, yes, I do realize that I sound like a hypocrite. Please bear with me for a second.
The first thing that needs to be put into context is that an average offense in today’s climate is far below what an average offense was ten years ago. In April, the Rox scored 119 runs — 10th in MLB. In April of 2001, they scored 161 runs — 1st in MLB. If they had scored 119 that year, they would’ve been in the bottom half of the league offensively. So when I say they were above average in this season’s first two months, realize that they were still far worse than what we are used to seeing.
As I said in the previous paragraph, the Rox finished 10th overall in runs scored in April. In May, they scored 122 runs. That was good for ninth overall and fourth in the National League. They didn’t have a problem scoring. They had a problem scoring consistently — something that wasn’t an issue in April and hasn’t been a problem in June. Of their 122 runs in May, 82 were scored in 9 out of their 29 games. In the other 20 games, they averaged two runs per contest. In my mind, the inconsistency was attributable to a combination of trying too hard and total fluke. I can’t prove the former, but the latter is pretty much fact. If they were a bad offense, they wouldn’t be capable of the twelve and fifteen run outbursts that we occasionally saw in May. An example of a bad offense would be the Giants, who have only scored ten or more runs just twice all season.
Last season, the Rockies ranked fourth in baseball with a .310 BABIP. Typically, they finish near the top of the league in that category. This is largely because of Coors Field. In April of this season, their BABIP was .280 and it was .289 in May, landing them in the bottom of the league both months. There were a couple of contributing factors to this. First of all, guys like Jose Lopez and Alfredo Amezaga aren’t very good at making solid contact. However, more than anything, it was a lot of bad luck. Tulo’s slump epitomized this. During May, his BABIP was below .200 even though he was squaring up a lot of pitches. In that month, he struck out with less frequency than April and June. That’s not typical of a guy in a slump. It was arguably the most unlucky month of his career, and, obviously, the entire team suffered. It was inevitable that their BABIP would rise and it has significantly in June.
As far as a lack of plate discipline, there is just no evidence to support that. In April, the Rox swung at 25.3% of pitches outside of the strike zone — one of the better percentages in baseball. In May, that number increased slightly to 27.9%, which was still one of the better percentages in baseball. So far this month, the team’s O-Swing percentage is 27.8%. Also, their walk rate in June is basically the same as it was in May. There is no measurable difference in the team’s plate discipline from month to month. They are consistently adequate in this area.
Even though the Rox are swinging at the same kind of pitches, better contact has played a part in their offensive turnaround. This month they have increased their line drive percentage by roughly 5%. That is a big factor in their .320 BABIP in June. Line drives have a much better shot of falling in for hits than grounders or fly-balls. However, ripping line drives 23% of the time probably isn’t sustainable. Last year, only one team hit more than 19% line drives. Basically what I’m saying is that this is a hot streak at the plate — as if you didn’t already know that.
For the Rox, June has been a regression to the mean. Obviously, there are always exceptions, but baseball’s averages play out over the course of the season. Teams and players go through slumps and hot streaks, but it all has a way of evening out. For every piece of bad luck there will be some good luck. When a team is at their worse, they really aren’t that bad, and, when they are at their best, they really aren’t that good. Hopefully all the bad play is behind them, but there’s no guarantee. So, who are the real Rockies? They are a slightly above average baseball team. Fortunately, in the NL West, slightly above average might be good enough.