Mind over ERA: how the Colorado Rockies finally built a playoff contender through pitching

first_img Newsroom GuidelinesNews TipsContact UsReport an Error ANAHEIM — Jon Gray’s fists are coiled, one on top of the other, as if he’s gripping an invisible bat with everything his forearms can muster. The Colorado Rockies pitcher is trying to draw an analogy: “It’s like holding onto it like this, you know?”Gray is talking about his brain, the organ he considers most responsible for his midseason demotion to Triple-A. He could not reconcile his elite strikeout, walk and home run rates with a 5.77 earned-run average. Some of this was bad luck, but the 26-year-old compounded his problems by overthinking. Gray now realizes he had to let go. He had to get away.“Sometimes it doesn’t feel comfortable but you’ve got to take a step back,” he said. “It’s your job and everything. You want to do great, but you can’t hold onto it and try to make things happen.”When Gray returned to the majors, the Rockies won each of his next seven starts. They nearly made it eight in a row Monday, but the bullpen collapsed and the Angels came from behind to win 10-7. This wasn’t Gray’s fault, but by now he’s had plenty of practice letting things go.“I feel like it’s a difference in the mindset whenever I throw the ball, really,” he said. “It’s not really a physical change in me, or mechanical. I kicked everything I was thinking of while I was pitching to the side and tried to have fun throwing the baseball every day, and then things got better. I don’t know. I just had more fun.”Baseball can be fun for the Colorado Rockies’ pitching staff. Imagine that.A two-game split in Anaheim left Colorado tied with the Arizona Diamondbacks for first place in the National League West, a half-game behind the second wild-card berth. The Rockies’ offense has been below average by most measures, their bullpen mediocre. They have a chance to reach the playoffs in back-to-back years for the first time ever on the strength of their starting rotation – something that seemed impossible when baseball arrived at Denver’s mile-high altitude.With one exception in 132 games, Bud Black has started Gray, Kyle Freeland, German Marquez, Tyler Anderson, Antonio Senzatela or Chad Bettis. Bettis is the oldest at 29, Marquez the youngest at 23. Only Marquez, acquired from the Tampa Bay Rays in the Jake McGee-for-Corey Dickerson trade, is not homegrown. Each has been remarkably healthy.center_img “Last year was sort of a collection of the whole group – position players, bullpen, starting rotation,” Black said. “This year, I think the starting pitching has been probably the biggest part of our success. We’ve needed them to carry that.”What happened to the days of Andres Galarraga, Larry Walker and Todd Helton turning every game at Coors Field into a slugfest? How did the Rockies solve baseball’s biggest enigma?Start with the draft. Freeland (2014), Gray (2013) and Anderson (2011) were all first-round picks. Bettis (2010) was a second-rounder, while Senzatela signed as a 16-year-old amateur from Venezuela.Targeting pitchers early in the draft was nothing new – Colorado has used 24 of its 39 first-round picks on pitchers – but there was a reason to believe in this group from the outset.“When they changed the draft rules (in 2012), it put that club in position to get guys like Gray, Anderson, and Freeland – some of these pitchers who would normally slide down the draft because of bonus money or whatever else they could attract,” said Bill Geivett, a Rockies executive from 2000-14. “Now there’s a lot more parity in terms of what clubs like the Rockies can get in the draft. But that was always the goal, to be able to do that.”Geivett left a front-office position with the Dodgers, a franchise defined by its Hall of Fame pitchers, to join the Rockies, where fans wearing a pitcher’s jersey were almost nonexistent. He has since authored a book (“Do You Want To Work in Baseball?”) that draws on lessons learned with both franchises.Geivett said the analytical ingredients of a successful pitcher at Coors Field are typical: lots of strikeouts, few walks, a high ground-ball rate, a low fly-ball rate.“Everything that’s important in pitching is just really important there because mistakes get magnified,” he said. “That’s the only difference.”The Rockies have tried to cultivate an edge through development. From Little League, baseball players are taught that the best hitters fail 70 percent of the time. It works as a morning mirror mantra and a postgame quote – useful, except when it comes to Coors Field, where it simply is not true.There, Barry Bonds had a .468 on-base percentage. Even Wally Joyner didn’t make an out half the time. To challenge the conventional wisdom that they couldn’t win with pitching, Rockies pitchers needed to be convinced that the conventional wisdom is not true; that the best hitters might not fail 70 percent of the time. And they needed pitchers who could be convinced.“We sat with this group of young pitchers, some of whom had already emerged at the major league level, some of whom were fighting their way at Double-A, Triple-A,” General Manager Jeff Bridich said, “and said, ‘look guys, my plan right now is to go with this group. We believe in this group. We believe this group can take us where we want to go at the major league level as long as you guys continue to learn from each other, push each other, develop together, challenge each other to get better.’ ”The battlefield of the mind is a tricky place. A starting pitcher’s war is never totally won, since a new battle pops up every fifth day. Win most of the time and your team might make the playoffs, but your opponent still has an unfair advantage at altitude. This is why the Rockies’ strategy for developing pitchers places a disproportionate focus on psychology.Their new mantra?“If you pitch at Colorado, you’re going to give up hits, you’re going to give up runs, so what are you going to do about it? Altitude does matter, but your attitude matters more,” explained pitching coach Steve Foster.Freeland, 12-7 with a 2.90 earned-run average, is a classic finesse pitcher. He’s matured into a Cy Young candidate at 25 by painting the edges of the strike zone, limiting hard contact and letting his defense do most of the work.Foster believes Marquez has better pure stuff than most pitchers in the league.Gray, a classic power pitcher, is the poster boy for the Rockies’ developmental framework. His four-seam fastball can touch 99 mph on a radar gun, but it has topped out at 97 since he returned from Triple-A. Foster said the extra 2 mph are still in there. For Gray, part of letting go means not trying to strike every hitter out. He’s striking out fewer than one batter per inning since his return from Triple-A, something he’d never done as a major leaguer.At 26, Gray learned to put more stock in his attitude than his ERA.“You have to live experience,” Foster said. “You can’t buy it.”Well, maybe some teams can, but when it comes to pitchers, the Rockies can’t.For the first time ever, it’s working out OK.last_img

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