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As the Rockies prepare to enter the second half of the season, their record sits eight games under .500 at 40-48. Coming into the season, if most fans could see the record as it sits now, it would probably be about what many expect — maybe even a little better.
But enfolded in that record is a season of peaks and valleys, with unexpected thrills and some disappointing collapses from players the team had expected to perform. Fans and analysts alike have continued to be amazed at the feats of Trevor Story, while the bullpen has largely continued to inspire a lack of confidence outside of a few strong performers.
Here’s a look back at the bright spots and lowlights of the first half of Rockies play as we enter the second half, and team storylines to keep an eye on as 2016 reaches its climax.
When discussing the most surprising displays in the first half of the season, most people’s minds will jump to the outstanding performance of Trevor Story, who tied the rookie record for home runs before the All-Star Break with 21. Story is well on track to break the Rockies rookie home run record set by Wilin Rosario (28).
As exciting as the home runs are, it’s important to note that Story has continued to put together a stronger approach at the plate, signaling that his offensive success thus far may be more than a mirage. His batting average has remained fairly consistently in the .260 – .280 range, rising to his highest mark of .284 in June. Meanwhile, his high strikeout rate has dropped consistently, hitting 28 in June after a total of 39 in May. Finally, his OBP was a strong .370 in June and has also been consistently rising. He is making strides to a more complete batter’s profile, even as the league becomes more accustomed to him. We haven’t yet seen the best of Trevor Story.
Meanwhile, many of the Rockies’ best surprises this season have been in a surprising area … on the mound.
All eyes were on Jon Gray coming into the season, as he looked to take his next step towards being the future ace he has long been billed as. Although his ERA itself isn’t that impressive (4.67), a lot of that is due to some difficult starts early in the season. Since a blow-up start against St. Louis on May 19, when Gray was tagged for nine runs, he has gone at least six innings in eight of his last nine starts. Of those, seven have been quality starts. He has a total of 10 quality starts this season, the most quality starts for a Rockie prior to the All-Star break since Jorge De La Rosa pitched 11 in 2013.
While Gray is quickly becoming a consistent and reliable arm, it’s his peripheral stats that are the most exciting. He has raised his strikeouts per nine innings to an impressive 9.6 while lowering his walks down to 2.9. If Gray can maintain the momentum of his last several months, he stands to improve even further towards being the best pitcher on the staff.
Tyler Anderson and Tyler Chatwood are another two pitchers who deserve recognition for their performances thus far. After returning from Tommy John surgery, nobody was sure exactly what to expect from Chatwood. So far, he has become a welcome stalwart of the rotation and one of the most consistent performers of the past several years.
He has put up a 3.29 ERA through 95 innings pitched, but perhaps most impressive has been his ability to limit hard contact. Despite a relatively low strikeout rate of 5.6, Chatwood has kept his walk rate down to 3.4 and limited home runs to an impressive .6 per nine innings pitched. He has maintained a WHIP (Walks/Hits per Innings Pitched) of 1.2, showing that he has managed to maintain effectiveness through allowing soft contact, despite having a lower than average velocity fastball (at 91.14) mph. He won’t blow people away, but he has nonetheless been reliable, and the Rockies’ road warrior, posting a stellar ERA of just 1.3 through 48 innings pitched on the road.
Anderson has also impressed since his call-up in June, having not allowed more than three runs in any of his six starts this far, good for a 3.03 ERA in 35 innings pitched. Although Anderson has only one Win so far, he has received very little run support from the rest of the team but has posted four quality starts so far. As Jake Shapiro points out, he could struggle in the second half, but so far has been a very welcome addition to the rotation.
Although this year’s Rockies feels like an improvement over last year’s team, there have been plenty of periods of struggle and frustration, as most coming into the season could have expected.
To finish the first half, the Rockies returned to Coors for a four-game set against the Phillies, still limping from a 1-5 road trip out west. Although the team started off strong on the road, going 8 – 4 in April and 7 – 10 in May — a respectable beginning — their record dropped to 6 – 12 on the road through June and the first half of July. The Rockies have long struggled on the road, a trend that looks to be continuing this season. Teams, in general, are sure to struggle when they have difficulty scraping wins on the road, and until the Rockies can escape their disastrous road trips, they will not be competitive.
Of course, the Rockies have not been particularly strong at home, either; their record so far is 20 – 22 at Coors. In fact, the Rockies have only one walk-off win so far this season and have really struggled to come from behind. When trailing in the 7th inning, the Rockies have only won five games, dropping 42. They have not won a single game after trailing in the 8th or 9th innings.
A large part of those struggles in the later innings have been due to the largely disappointing performances of the bullpen (though there are some bright spots), and particularly veterans who were expected to be at least somewhat stabilizing arms when added. That includes the massive struggles so far of former closer Jake McGee, who lost his job after going on the disabled list in June and has posted four blown saves on the season so far. A big part of the problem has been the substantial drop in velocity on McGee’s fastball, combined with losing some of the drop in his curveball. Without complete effectiveness of his pitches, McGee is not fooling anybody and has become more of a burden out of the bullpen than a boon.
Also struggling this season are Eddie Butler and Jorge De La Rosa, both of whom have moved (at least periodically) to the bullpen in middle relief and out of their starting roles. Butler is now back in Triple-A after posting a 6.96 ERA through 54 innings, including six innings out of the bullpen, where he gave up seven runs.
De La Rosa has been known as one of the few pitchers to ever figure out Coors Field, but that hasn’t
held true this year, after posting a 4.41 ERA at home and 5.74 overall. Although his strikeouts have actually risen on the season to 8.3 per nine innings, his highest mark since 2010, his walks have seen a spike as well to 4.2 per nine innings and his home run rate has risen to 1.7, while his WHIP sits at a concerning 1.5. De La Rosa simply isn’t fooling batters the way he used to, allowing opposing hitters to square up against him as they haven’t since his challenging 2012 season.
In effort to combat the struggles, the Rockies moved De La Rosa to the bullpen in May. Since then, he has done well, allowing one run in eight innings pitched. Hopefully for Rockies fans, De La Rosa will be able to settle into a relief role through the back half, as the rotation surprisingly has enough solid arms and momentum that he may not need to return to a starter’s role.
Storylines To Watch In The Back Half
While the Rockies are seven games back in the Wild Card race, we shouldn’t expect them to make any moves to compete this season. But that doesn’t mean the back half isn’t crucial. The end of July will be very telling, as the trade deadline looms and Bridich wrestles with the decision of whether or not to trade slugging outfielder Carlos Gonzalez, ridding the team of another fan favorite after the blockbuster Tulowitzki trade last season but potentially bringing back valuable prospects to help lead the team to serious contention in the next couple of years.
The trade deadline and whether the Rockies elect to buy, sell or do neither will dominate headlines for the next several weeks, but also of interest to fans should be if Jon Gray can maintain the momentum he has built in the first half and continue to improve in the back half, or if fatigue will once again halt his progress as it did at the end of his 2015 season.
And of course, one of the most exciting parts of the latter half of the season, especially for non-competitive teams like the Rockies, is the prospects. The Rockies have several players all but busting down the doors in the minor leagues, included highly touted prospects David Dahl, Raimel Tapia and catcher, Tom Murphy. We should expect to see at least Dahl and Murphy this season, as well as the versatile Jordan Patterson.
The Rockies aren’t very good in 2016, but the truth is … they’re better than many thought they’d be. Contention seems to be inching closer from the horizon, and with a successful campaign in the back half by some key components, the team’s situation could be very different by the time the next All-Star break comes around in 2017.