There was a lot of excitement going into this current road trip for the Colorado Rockies. They had just swept the Mets at home to climb above .500 and were 1½ games behind the Giants in the National League West ... and then they ran smack-dab into the Cardinals. Ah, the life of a fan.
Anyone who has followed the Rockies the past few years has seen the team do well early on, only to crater later as the season takes its toll. Usually, the team's early fortunes are based on whichever guy happened to be the winner of the Hot April Sweepstakes. In 2014, it was Charlie Blackmon, highlighted by a 6-for-6 performance in the home opener. Next it was DJ LeMahieu, who ended April 2015 hitting .406. This year, the story's been Trevor Story.
Usually those hot starts lead to a crash and burn. Perhaps the many Chicago transplants in the Denver area brought with them some of the June swoons the Cubs used to be famous for. For fans devoted to the Rockies, always envious of their winning Denver Broncos brethren, a Rockies season can feel like a half-finished love poem lying crumpled at the bottom of a wastebasket. For those in Denver who aren't baseball diehards, the Rockies' season is usually well over by the time Broncos training camp starts.
There are reasons, however, to think that while the Rockies might not be punching their World Series tickets in 2016, this team might be worth watching past June. They dropped two of three to the Cardinals to fall back to .500, but the Rockies have faced the sixth-hardest schedule in the majors, according to Baseball-Reference.com. Unlike previous seasons, they've also had more balanced splits, without horrible home/road or righty/lefty discrepancies. Beyond the win-loss record, the underlying rate stats are also better. Instead of the 200-point gap in OPS on offense between home and road as in 2015, the difference is closer to 120 points.
It might not seem like it based on a 5.00 team ERA, but there are a lot of little things adding up to a better staff. The Rockies are starting to get some length out of their starting pitchers. In May, Rockies pitchers have gone at least five innings in all but two starts, and they are middle of the pack in quality starts. Usually among the worst in the league in walks allowed, the Rockies rank 10th. They've already recorded four shutouts, equaling their total of 2015. Solid performances from Chad Bettis and Tyler Chatwood might mean Jorge De La Rosa and Jordan Lyles might actually have to earn their way back into the rotation based on performance instead of necessity. Some fans disagreed with the handling of young pitchers Jon Gray and Eddie Butler, but they look more promising than when initially called up.
Yep, the Rockies' pitching staff is actually good enough that there are actual job competitions. For as much flak as their offense gets for being a Coors Field creation, little attention is given to their pitchers because of that Coors Field inflation. Their road ERA of 3.68, good for sixth in the NL, can attest to that.
On offense, many Rockies hitters are playing near their career levels without anyone going crazy. The hitters who are surpassing expectations are young guys who are improving. The charge is led by Nolan Arenado. Now that he's become an elite power hitter in addition to an otherworldly defender, he's spent 2016 improving his plate discipline by being more selective when he swings, reducing his strikeouts and taking more walks without sacrificing power (he has more walks than strikeouts). Nor is he just a Coors Field creation -- he has a .927 OPS on the road. As he joins the conversation for the best player in baseball, there's even a chance he could add a batting title to his résumé. Is a Triple Crown in his future?
Meanwhile, Story might not be hitting a home run every game, but he's trotting out a batting average over .300 in May with plenty of power and a reduced strikeout rate. Carlos Gonzalez, normally a slow starter, went through a recent power drought but is still collecting hits at a pace that shows he should have a healthy and productive 2016. Overall, though, no one is on a scorching-hot streak on offense, yet the Rockies are still figuring out ways to win games. That says a lot about what the Rockies could do if they truly get hot.
Then there are all the little moves general manager Jeff Bridich has made. He brought in Mark Reynolds and Ryan Raburn to help an offense that had an OPS 100 points lower against left-handed pitching. He found Tony Wolters, who might already be one of the best pitch-framers in Rockies history, to steal a few extra strikes for a young pitching staff that can use all the help it can get. And those Rockies fans who were angry when Bridich traded Corey Dickerson for reliever Jake McGee have lowered their pitchforks as they've seen the job the rebuilt bullpen has done.
The team still has some warts. Segments of the lineup don’t click on all cylinders and the high-slugging, low-on-base-percentage approach means they strand a few more runners on third base than they probably should. They're also a bit infamous with the fan base for their poor baserunning decisions -- #ThatsSoRockies is alive and well. The Rockies might not be the hottest team in the league, but what they're doing appears more sustainable. It might not be this year, but fans can glimpse that stability leading to a future where the talk of October is no longer just the Broncos.
Richard Bergstrom writes about the Rockies at Rockies Zingers.