Meet the Colorado Rockies
Note: This analysis was written prior to Manuel announcing that Cliff Lee would start Game One. At the time, Cole Hamels was listed as the Game One starter.
On Friday, you got an idea as to where all four playoff-bound teams stood. Back then, we had yet to learn of the Phillies’ true opponent for the first round of the post-season, as the Colorado Rockies had dreams of toppling the Los Angeles Dodgers for the NL West division title. Now that we do know for sure that there will be a rematch of the 2007 NLDS, it’s time to get to know the Rockies better.
What can be said about the Rockies? They are quite resilient for one. Following the firing of Clint Hurdle and the promotion of Jim Tracy, the Rocks went on a tear, winning 74 of their next 115 games, a winning percentage of .643. They finished the season with the National League’s second-best offense. Any ideas as to which team is numero uno? The defending champs, of course! The spotlight can be shared, though: the offensive categories the Coloradoans led in were triples and bases on balls (pause for polite applause).
Even though they are quite potent offensively, it’s their pitching that really helped push them forward. No one expected Jason Marquis, Jorge De La Rosa, and Jason Hammel to contribute the way they did.
Marquis had hovered around league-average production with his pitching following his first season with the St. Louis Cardinals, and most expected even worse with a move to the hitter-friendly confines of Coors Field. Marquis experienced no adverse effects from the thin air, as his home ERA was 0.06 lower than on the road. The ideal strategy in that thin air is to induce ground balls, and Marquis did just that 55.6% of the time, the third-highest ground ball rate in the Majors.
De La Rosa could never put it together when he was in Milwaukee and Kansas City, and it didn’t appear like it would happen in Colorado either, as he posted a near-5 ERA last season. Yet, somehow, he lowered his ERA this season over a half-run and averaged half a strikeout more per nine innings while also lowering his walk rate. Believe it or not, that 93 MPH fastball of his is his worst pitch. Jorge made his money with his off-speed stuff, particularly his slider and a change-up that is about 9 MPH slower than his fastball on average.
As for Jason Hammel, it’s a simple matter of command. While with the Tampa Bay Rays, he lowered his walk rate every year between 2006-08 but couldn’t get it under four per nine innings. He was traded to Colorado and his BB/9 rate decreased by nearly two — a vast improvement. This season, he had six outings in which he pitched at least five innings and left without walking a single batter. FIP even thinks he was better than this ERA showed — he finished with a 3.71 FIP compared to his 4.33 ERA.
The Rockies made their living with a bit of a Moneyball strategy — finding value in players other teams had already passed over. The Phillies, for example, took a much riskier and much less rewarding venture by signing Pedro Martinez than the Rockies did by experimenting with Hammel. The Rockies, however, do not have the lustre that attracted a future Hall of Famer to Philadelphia, so they routinely have to improvise. When everything’s coming up Milhouse, you may happen to find yourself in the playoffs.
Now that we’re more intimately acquainted with our cross-country foes, let us dive into the meat of the matter: who’s better? For this expedition, we will be using the value stats conveniently collected, organized, and displayed by the kind folks at FanGraphs.
First, let’s have a look at the team’s regulars’ offensive contributions by position.
*Note: Ryan Spilborghs, Carlos Gonzalez, and Seth Smith’s values are combined in LF, as are each team’s starting and back-up catchers’ values.
The Phillies have an edge at every position except shortstop, where Troy Tulowitzki has produced 36 more batting runs than Jimmy Rollins. That, unsurprisingly, is not the biggest disparity. At second base, Chase Utley has produced 55 more batting runs than Clint Barmes.
In the outfield, the Phillies lay claim to two players who arguably deserve some ninth- or tenth-place NL MVP votes. The Rockies, meanwhile, have given three different players significant playing time in left field. This gives the Rockies some versatility that the Phillies lack. For instance, when Ryan Spilborghs is in left field against Cole Hamels or Cliff Lee, the Rockies have both Seth Smith (126 OPS+) and Carlos Gonzalez (122) on the bench available to pinch hit late in the game. The only above-average hitter the Phillies will have on the bench is Ben Francisco (109 OPS+).
On that note, since the Phillies will be utilizing two lefties in the first two games and the Rockies two righties, let’s focus on the platoon splits.
- Rockies LH hitters vs. LH pitchers: .734 OPS
- Rockies LH hitters vs. RH pitchers: .784
- Phillies RH hitters vs. RH pitchers: .713
- Phillies RH hitters vs. LH pitchers: .816
- Cliff Lee vs. LH hitters: .583
- Lee vs. RH hitters: .734
- Cole Hamels vs. LH hitters: .711
- Hamels vs. RH hitters: .767
- Ubaldo Jimenez vs. RH hitters: .585
- Jimenez vs. LH hitters: .681
- Aaron Cook vs. RH hitters: .757
- Cook vs. LH hitters: .788
Four of the Rockies’ top-five hitters are left-handed and the same goes for the Phillies if you count switch-hitter Shane Victorino. The Phillies will throw out two lefty starters against the Rockies’ lefties gaining the platoon advantage while the Rockies will use two righties against the Phillies’ lefty mashers. In the batter/pitcher match-ups, the Phillies have a nice advantage here.
Before moving on to pitching, let’s stay with the regulars and compare the teams defensively. I will defer to the aesthetically-appealing graphics at Beyond the Box Score. The Phillies have the better defender at every position except shortstop and in left field where the Rockies’ trio has been pretty, pretty, pretty… pretty good.
If you recall above, we found that the Phillies had the better bat at every position except shortstop, so their advantage grew even more except in left field.
Now onto the starting pitching. This is a scouting report of sorts. I put the rates each starter utilizes certain pitches and put it in a scatter plot along with the run values the opposing offense has against that pitch. For instance, Cole Hamels throws his fastball 59 percent of the time and Rockies hitters score .45 runs above average per 100 fastballs thrown. Comparatively, Hamels throws his change-up 30 percent of the time and Rockies hitters score .11 runs above average per 100 change-ups.
Here is your Game One match-up (click to enlarge):
Essentially, the further northeast the data points lie, the bigger the advantage for the hitter. Conversely, the further southeast the data points lie, the bigger the advantage for the pitcher. As you go westward, the advantages and disadvantages wane as the pitches are not thrown enough to have a significant impact.
The results are not surprising: hitters like to hit fastballs. The keys to the match-up are Hamels’ change-up precision and Jimenez’s use of his slider.
Your Game Two match-up:
Aaron Cook throws 85% fastballs but is adept at getting the hitters to drive them into the ground and not in the air. It sounds simplistic, but Aaron Cook will be successful if his sinker sinks. As Cleveland Indians pitcher Jake Westbrook details, per MLB.com:
A good sinker is really just down in the zone. Even if it’s in the middle of the plate, if it’s sinking down, there’s good chance they’re going to hit the ball on the ground somewhere.
As for Cliff Lee, aside from a fastball, he utilizes a cutter. Unfortunately for him, the Rockies are the second-best team in baseball at hitting the cutter. That’s also bad news for Brad Lidge, who added a cutter to his repertoire and will “debut it in NLDS” according to the Phillies website.
Lastly, let’s briefly look over the relievers. Overall, the Phillies’ bullpen was more than a half-run better than the Rockies’ in terms of ERA. Neither bullpen inspires confidence, but unlike the Phillies, the Rocks have a closer they don’t mind handing a baseball with a slight lead in the ninth inning.
Since Colorado will be unable to utilize a left-handed starter, it is pivotal that their lefty relievers — Franklin Morales and Joe Beimel — are able to successfully retire the likes of Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, and Raul Ibanez.
The Phillies’ concern is obvious: the ninth inning. Charlie Manuel hasn’t named a specific closer for the NLDS and perhaps he won’t, but it would behoove Manuel to use Ryan Madson, who has been very effective this season, in those high-leverage situations. As we learned last week, Manuel does have the ability to adapt.
- The Phillies are better offensively almost entirely across the board
- The Phillies are better defensively almost entirely across the board
- The Phillies’ starters are matched up more favorably than the Rockies’ starters
- Both bullpens have specific goals they need to attain that will lead to team success
- Game 2 is the key to the series: the pitcher who cannot utilize his go-to pitch (Cliff Lee’s cutter; Aaron Cook’s sinker) will likely be responsible for his team coming up short