Rookies in the rotation key to Rockies' rise

Kyle Freeland is just one of the four rookie starters helping propel the Rockies into first place in the NL West. Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

On Friday night, the Colorado Rockies got a win from rookie Anthony Senzatela. Or, should we say, another one, because it was his ninth of the year, good enough to tie for the MLB lead in wins with guys like former Cy Young winners like Clayton Kershaw and Dallas Keuchel.

Now sure, starting pitcher wins aren’t exactly a meaningful metric as much they're a symptom of teamwide excellence. But between Senzatela, Kyle Freeland (Saturday’s starter), German Marquez and Jeff Hoffman, the first-place Rockies aren’t just making a run at their first National League West title, they could make some history along the way. The rookie Rockies' 3.70 ERA (through Friday) would rank fifth among MLB rotations, but with 25 wins between those four already in the bank, the Rockies could set a record for most wins by rookie starters in the expansion era. That record was set by the Marlins, with 43 rookie starter wins in 2006. The Oakland A’s set the record for a playoff team in 2012 by getting 40 victories in 101 turns.

That A’s team surprised everyone by taking sole possession of first place for the first time all year on the last day of the season in an amazing come-from-behind American League West title (sorry, Rangers fans). This year’s Rockies are nothing like that -- they’ve been out in front most of the season, and their four rookies are a big part of the reason why.

The rookie quartet has provided the Rockies with an unexpected stability in a rotation that could have been undermined by injuries and illness at the outset. With 2016 14-game-winner Chad Bettis undergoing chemotherapy in March after he had already needed surgery in December, the Rockies also lost No. 1 starter Jon Gray to a broken foot three starts into his season. Throw in lefty Tyler Anderson landing on the DL with a knee injury, and what was one potential job opening at the start of spring training became four jobs. Usually, that might signal a team about to spiral out of contention. It would certainly excuse it. Instead, the Rockies had the depth to deal with their dilemma. Hoffman, Marquez and Freeland ranked fourth through sixth in Keith Law’s top 10 Rockies prospects, with Senzatela ranking 13th while coming back from an arm injury.

Admittedly, all four rookie Rockies benefit from the virtues of being on an already strong team, especially a strong bullpen. The Rockies’ pen ranks third in the majors in stranding inherited baserunners (24 percent), and have allowed just 24 of the 91 men left on base by starters to score. They also have the benefit of a great defense behind them, contributing to some below-average BABIPs (.290 for Freeland, .268 for Senzatela). You can say those numbers will regress -- especially as we move into warmer weather -- but if the Rockies sustain their excellence afield, their young pitchers stand to benefit. The wins are a symptom of that success.

The decision to hire Bud Black to manage also needs to be mentioned. Black was an excellent handler of pitching staffs going back to his days as the Padres’ skipper and even earlier as the pitching coach of the Angels team that won the World Series in 2002. Tyson Ross and Andrew Cashner ranked among his bigger success stories in San Diego; both were doubtful rotation prospects when they came under Black’s care. But give a strong staff manager a strong collection of talent and you can expect results at any altitude. What the Rockies’ rookie quartet has going for it, in terms of what they can do as well as the help they’re getting, would work in any ballpark.

All four of the Rockies’ rookies rely heavily on fastballs, as they’re all in MLB’s top 30 among starters in terms of fastball frequency. Overall, the Rockies rank second in baseball in fastballs thrown by their starters, and they’re third in average fastball velocity, trailing just the Pirates and the Mets, two teams that came into the year more famed for their rotation talent. It also makes for a remarkable difference from the "great changeup experiment" that inspired the Rockies' disastrous decisions to sign Mike Hampton and Denny Neagle back at the beginning of the Aughties.

The Rockies' foursome didn’t come from a cookie-cutter, though. Hoffman gets some of the highest spin rates in baseball on his curveball, even while his fastball sits around 95 mph. Marquez also throws 95 mph. Senzatela’s fastball is only slightly slower, averaging 94 mph, complemented with a sharp slider. They have plus stuff on top of the benefits of working with a plus defense and a strong pen.

Freeland in particular is generating a lot of ground ball outs, ranking in the top five in MLB in ground balls and in ground ball/fly ball ratio. That’s his game, working quickly (just 3.6 pitches per plate appearance, just outside the top 10) while getting lots of weak contact and balls in play with a low-90s fastball. So while batters miss on his pitches on just 14.2 percent of their swings, which ranks 159th out of 172 pitchers with five or more starts, he’s keeping his infield busy.

Will it work all year? It might not have to. Gray just started a rehab assignment, so his recovery from his broken foot is already well in hand. Anderson might not be out much longer with his bum knee. And Bettis is coming back faster than expected from his treatment from cancer. But with these wins already in the bank and between the rookies’ in-season performance and those reinforcements, the one thing the Rockies might not need to worry about as a contender at the trade deadline is trading for a starter.