The 2017 season couldn’t be off to a much better start for the NL-West leading Colorado Rockies. Despite the fact that Colorado leads its division, FanGraphs still has the Dodgers as by far the most likely playoff team in the NL West. The Rockies haven’t earned the trust of analytics yet, and there has to be a reason why.
One reason is likely Colorado’s +7 run differential, by far the worst of any division leader. However, whenever the noise of early season results gets too loud, it’s always good to anchor our analysis in BABIP in order to get a clearer picture of what’s happening with a team. In Colorado’s case, there is a glass, and the milk in that glass can be seen in two ways.
The Rockies have two players amongst their plate appearance leaders off to great starts, and two who are struggling. Based on pedigree, history, age, and contract status, they aren’t necessarily who you might suspect.
This Ain’t Likely To Last
Charlie Blackmon- The Rockies’ 31 year-old centerfielder is enjoying quite the romp to begin 2017. He sports a 134 wRC+ and a slash of .313/.354/.619, bolstered by his eight home runs. However, he’s only walking at a 5.5% clip and his BABIP is a totally unsustainable .337. Blackmon has been a solid player in his time in Colorado, but the Rockies are barely leading the division while getting elite play from a guy who is not an elite player. If Blackmon doesn’t get more selective at the plate, he is set up for a very painful regression when the BABIP gods turn on him.
Mark Reynolds- Reynolds continues to hold value because he continues to be exactly who he has always been: a high K guy with some pop. One of the key components to Reynolds’ value has been his ability to draw walks. And while he is still at a respectable 9% walk rate to start the year, that number has been declining slightly over the past few seasons. Reynolds has a slash of .321/.379/.661 benefitting greatly from his .339 BABIP. Unlike Blackmon however, if he maintains or improves his walk rate, he’ll still hold value when the air gets let out of his batted ball balloon.
Then Again, Neither Should This
Trevor Story- The Rockies’ second-year shortstop makes for one of the most intriguing year-plus case studies in the game. Once we get beyond the temptation to use his surname as a pun, Story’s arc from rookie phenom to injury to struggling sophomore offers all kinds of opportunity for amateur baseball sleuths. Here is what we know: He’s got a 66 wRC+ which puts him at the level of Bob Uecker, which would be bad enough before considering Uecker is 82 years old. His slash is a miserable .173/.283/.404 and he is whiffing at a staggering 38.3% rate. The good news is that he is also walking at better than league average 13.3% rate and his BABIP sits at .231. All the K’s makes it tempting to think the league has either A) figured him out or B) adjusted to him for the time being. However, his batted ball peripherals suggest he has a chance to regain his first-year form. His fly-ball rate is way up to 66% from 47% the year before. His groundball rate is actually down from 2016, which is really important. The problem is too much of that elevation is the result of a 22% infield fly ball rate. Considering the difference in fractions of an inch from a barrelled up dinger and a harmless pop-up to short, one would have to think that Story is gonna make the mechanical adjustments necessary, and as long as he’s walking at his current rate, he’s likely to be afforded the chance to make those adjustments in Denver. As far as where he’s hitting the ball, his pull-center-oppo distribution is essentially the same as well. Take the BABIP and the fact that he’s having no trouble elevating the ball, and hope for an uptick is not pie-in-the sky thinking for Rockies fans.
Carlos Gonzalez- The final year of Gonzalez’ $80 million dollar deal is not off to the start either Car-Go or Rockies management wanted. He’s got a 29 wRC+, which makes Uecker look like Mike Piazza, if we’re going to extend our comp from earlier. He is slashing at .192/.259/.298 while his peripherals are hovering around league average (8.6%BB/21%K). Yes, he has been bitten by the Bad BABIP bug (.225), but his batted ball profile is a red flag. HIs line drive rate is down from 21.3% in 2016 to 16% this season. Those line drives have largely become ground balls, which by now everyone realizes is a BIG problem. He’s at 51% groundballs this season, up from 46% in 2016. It goes without saying, but I’m gonna say it anyway: the ground is no place to dig yourself out of a slump.
The more you look at the Rockies, the more you realize they are likely flying high on serendipitous wings. They have played 16 games in Coors Field and yet are only eighth in the league in runs scored. Their pitching has been good, but not great by any stretch. Blackmon and Reynolds are gonna regress eventually, and while Story at 24 has a strong chance to rebound, expecting the 31 year-old Gonzalez to bounce all the way back seems like a stretch. He’s better than what he has produced so far, but it’s gonna take more than an uptick from two players to shield the Rockies from the regression the BABIP and overall evidence argues they have coming.