The Rockies were defeated by the Diamondbacks in the National League Wild Card Game on Tuesday night, abruptly ending any dreams of a deep playoff run. With 19 runs scored between the two clubs, the two offenses confirmed the pundits predictions that this game was bound to be a high scoring affair. However, just because the results confirmed the predictions, doesn’t mean these predictions were well-founded. In other words, just because the Rockies swatted 13 hits and pushed across 8 runs, does not make up for the fact that they had one of the worst offenses in baseball this season.
I know that sounds crazy. Colorado finished second in the NL in runs with a lineup featuring two MVP candidates in Charlie Blackmon and Nolan Arenado and former batting batting champion DJ LeMahieu. Despite all of that, when we strip away the effects of Coors Field and use park-adjusted metrics to evaluate the Rockies offense, an offense that looks formidable on the surface, appears subpar upon closer inspection.
The Rockies currently rank 27th in the league a team wRC+ of 85, which puts them one spot ahead of the Padres and one spot below the Phillies on the league leaderboard. Not exactly good company. Other park adjusted statistics like OPS+ tell a similar story of the Rockies offensive woes, as club finished 28th in the MLB according to this metric.
Critics of these statistics may say that stats such as these actually over adjust for Coors Field as evidenced by the fact that in the Rockies 25 year history, they have never posted a mark above league average. It is hard to believe that any team could perform below average for a quarter century, so this metric must be flawed.
This argument falls apart due to the fact that the Rockies collective franchise wRC+ at home is 99, which is exactly league average for a National League team. Furthermore, they have posted home wRC+ of over 100 eight times in their franchise history, dispelling the notion that wRC+ misrepresents the Rockies true offensive talent. Instead, it suggests that the Rockies offensive struggles are historically the result of poor road performances.
So why have the Rockies struggled on offense so much away from Coors field? The most convincing theory is that Rockies hitters are vulnerable to breaking pitches because their home ballpark suppresses the movement on said pitches. Rockies hitters become acclimated to hitting these inhibited breaking balls, which makes such pitches appear sharper on the road.
While this explanation has historical validity, it doesn’t do much in the way of explaining the Rockies road struggles in 2017. The quality of contact Rockies hitters have made against breaking pitches this season is exactly the same on the road as it is at home as represented by an identical .225 xwOBA.
Away from Coors Field, the Rockies also posted a .311 BABIP, which was the third highest mark in the league, despite ranking 29th in the MLB in hard contact percentage. By resolving their historical road vulnerabilities against breaking balls and receiving such good fortune on batted balls, it would seem that the Rockies would have performed better on the road, but their 26th ranked road offense proves otherwise.
The reason for these struggles are largely due to a ground ball heavy batted ball profile. On the road the Rockies ranked 5th in baseball with a GB% of 46.9%, which helps to explain why the had a high team BABIP, but the 29th ranked Isolated Slugging percentage in road games. In the era of the long ball, it is much easier to score runs with one swing than it is trying to string a bunch of singles together.
The Rockies extreme ground ball tendencies help to explain their poor performances on the road, but this collective batted ball profile is far costlier to their run production at their home ballpark.
At home this season, Rockies batters hit ground balls 45.1% of the time (10th highest in the MLB) and fly balls 33.1% of the time (27th in the MLB). Coors Field is a hitter’s paradise because of the optimal combination of thin air and a spacious outfield. The thin air makes the ball travel further, which equals more home runs. The spacious outfield makes more line drives and fly balls drop in for base hits because the outfielders have more ground to cover. In other words, batters must hit the ball in the air to tap into the Coors Field advantage, but the Rockies do exactly the opposite.
It is no wonder that the league wide BABIP of .471 on line drives and fly balls in Colorado, but is just .399 on such batted balls elsewhere. Surely, it would benefit the Rockies to fill their lineup with players who are prone to hitting the ball in the air, but their recent acquisitions demonstrate the front office has no desire to construct their lineup in this way.
Last offseason, the Rockies curiously signed Ian Desmond to a long term deal, despite posting the 10th highest GB% a year prior. At this year’s trade deadline, they traded for Jonathan Lucroy, who this year has the 6th highest GB% in all of baseball. Obviously, there are far more important considerations than ground ball rate when deciding whether or not to acquire a player, but these both stand out as glaring examples of the Rockies front office failing to capitalize on what could be a home field advantage.
While the Rockies failed to construct a lineup with optimal batted ball tendencies, their pitching staff demonstrated a willingness to pitch to their home ballpark. Rockies pitchers induced a league high 51.8% ground ball rate and a league low 28.4% fly balls. As a result, Rockies pitchers allowed just a .314 BABIP in 2017, which is dramatically lower than their three year average BABIP against of .328.
If the front office is able to put together a lineup that fits their home ballpark like they have done with their pitching staff, the Rockies have a legitimate chance to make the playoffs in back-to-back years for the first time in franchise history in 2018.