Monday, September 21, 2015

Next Up: The Colorado Rockies

Having taken two out of three from the Dodgers, the best team in the National League West, the Pirates will attempt to defend their two-game lead over the Cubs for the first wild card position against the worst team in the National League West, the Rockies.

How Are They Doing Lately? Over the last 30 days, the Rockies are 14-15, placing them in eighth place, exactly in the middle, in the 15-team National League. They've scored 4.4 runs per game during that span, seventh in the league, while giving up 4.5, the eighth most (and eighth fewest). The Rockies aren't a great club--they're tied with the Brewers for the third worst record in baseball--but it's worth noting that in their division, the National League West, only the Dodgers have a better record over the past 30 days.

What's Going Right? Rockies relievers have been good over the past 30 days. Their 3.35 ERA is fifth best in the league, tied for second best adjusted for Coors Field. They've struck out batters at a below-average rate and walked them at an above-average rate, but they've been the fourth best in the league at keeping fly balls in the park, quite a feat considering where they play their home games. At the plate, the Rockies are fourth in the league in homers (36) and tied for second in triples (9) over the past 30 days, and they're the league's most efficient base stealers, going 16-for-18.

What's Going Wrong? Rockies batters have the fourth lowest batting average in the league over the past 30 days at .247, and their .295 on base percentage is second worst. Their slugging percentage is better, .402, ranking ninth, thanks to those home runs and triples. Rockies batters have the second-lowest walk rate in the league over the past 30 days, explaining the low on base percentage. They're free swingers, the only National League team to have swung at over half of all pitches over the past 30 days That includes the highest percentage of swings on pitches outside the strike zone, helping explain why they're below average at making contact. When they do make contact, they've hit the fourth-lowest percentage of batted balls on the ground and the fourth-highest percentage of fly balls--the right approach for Coors Field--but their high proportion of soft contact has yielded the highest rate of infield fly balls in the league.

Rockies starters have a 5.27 ERA over the past 30 days, the fifth highest in the league. As always, playing their home games in the most extreme hitters' park in the game affects that figure. Adjusted for Coors Field, the starters' ERA improves from fifth worst to seventh worst.

Who's Hot? Acrobatic third baseman Nolan Arenado is getting love from Rockies fans as an MVP candidate (he doesn't have a chance), and over the past 30 days, he's batting .298 with a .320 on base percentage and a .579 slugging percentage (seventh in the league), with nine homers (third), 19 runs scored (tied for ninth), and 23 RBI (tied for fourth). Right fielder Carlos Gonzalez has hit eight homers but contributed little else, with a .222 batting average and .262 on base percentage. Former Pirate Justin Morneau, who returned at the beginning of the month after nearly a four month absence due to neck and concussion issues, has a .306/.390/.472 slash line in eleven games since his return.

The Rockies starter to watch is tonight's pitcher, Jonathan Gray, a highly-regarded rookie who's pitched better than his 4.19 ERA over the past 30 days would indicate: 21 strikeouts, six unintentional walks, and no homers over 19.1 innings. He'll be on a short leash, probably not exceeding five or six innings pitched. The Rockies' other best starters over the last 30 days are Jorge de la Rosa (3.00 ERA) and Chad Bettis (3.29 ERA). on Sunday. This being September, the Rockies have called up a lot of youngsters and have used 16 pitchers in relief over the past 30 days. The best has been closer John Axford, with seven saves, a 0.84 ERA, and 14 strikeouts over 10.2 innings pitched.

Who's Not? Rookie outfielder Kyle Parker is 5-for-47 over his last 20 games (that's a .106 batting average). Another rookie, first baseman Ben Paulsen, has a .239 batting average and .268 on base percentage over the last 30 days; he's been largely spelled by Morneau. Starters other than Gray, de la Rosa, and Bettis have combined for a 7.39 ERA over the past 30 days. 

What's the Outlook? The Pirates took two of three from Colorado when the teams met at the end of August. With the Cardinals (four games ahead of the Pirates) and the Cubs (two games behind) hosting three-game series against the Reds and Brewers, respectively, the Pirates will be hoping to take their four-game set in Denver. 

One of the risks of playing in the thin air in Colorado is the idea that it screws up pitchers' and hitters' mechanics such that they play poorly in the games immediately following a trip to Coors Field. Jeff Sullivan at FanGraphs examined this earlier this year, and found little evidence to support it. The Pirates had better hope that's the case: After Thursday afternoon's game, they fly to Chicago for three games against the Cubs, then head home for three against the Cardinals. Those games will likely determine where they open their postseason play. The Pirates have the second best record in baseball this year. But since the Cardinals have the best, and the Cubs the third best, the Pirates appear likely to have to win the wild card play-in game, possibly on the road, in order to reach the Divisional Series.

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