Strikeouts are everywhere in baseball nowadays. You and I both know it. For those who dislike them, don’t worry, because the 2021 Colorado Rockies are here for you.
We all know punchouts have been steadily rising for decades, with a vast majority of fans and big media publications lamenting it at every turn. Just go on Twitter and you’ll see what I’m talking about. Every pitcher wants to strike everybody out, hitters don’t care about whiffing, they don’t have a two-strike approach, they swing for the fences, etc.
First, let’s get a view of just how many strikeouts there are in modern baseball. What you’re looking at below is a graph showing you the strikeout percentage of every pitching staff in the Majors in 2020:
That’s a lot of strikeouts. As you can see, even the worst of the worst in terms of K’s, the Marlins, Tigers, and Mariners, were all cleanly above 20%. That is, even the bottom of the barrel managed to strike out one of every five hitters the opposing team sent to the plate. MLB average was 23.4% in 2020, which is dangerously close to one in every four plate appearances ending with the batter heading back to the dugout right away.
Now, strikeouts have been rising forever, so that’s not a surprise, given the increases in velocity, movement, and reliever usage. But some of you fine people might’ve noticed there was one team missing from that graphic. Indeed, you’d be correct. Here’s the team that was missing:
Yeah. Pitchers for the 2020 Colorado Rockies struck out 16.8% of batters faced. That is not a typo. For reference, the last time 16.8% was an MLB average K% was 2006. There are many incredible facts here:
- The 2020 Colorado Rockies had 12 pitchers who pitched at least 10 innings in 2020. Of those 12, only two (Daniel Bard and Tyler Kinley) had a K% higher than the MLB average of 23.4%.
- There were 126 starting pitchers who tossed 30+ innings in 2020. Of those 126, only eight of them struck out 15.1% or less of all batters faced. FOUR of the eight were Rockies pitchers.
- There’s an adjusted stat for K% called K%+, which adjusts K% to the era and context because striking out 20% of hitters faced in 1972 is not the same as striking out 20% of hitters faced in 2020. 100 is average, higher is better. The 2020 Colorado Rockies had the lowest K%+ of ANY pitching staff of ANY team in the integration era (71). In other words, no other pitching staff since 1947 was worse at striking guys out.
There’s a couple more facts, but I think I’ve already made my point. The 2020 Rockies had guys whose K% dropped either a ton or just a bit from previous years (Jon Gray, Jairo Díaz, Germán Márquez, among others) and a couple of their main starters break the mold of modern pitching and find success by pitching to weak contact instead of inducing whiffs (Kyle Freeland, Antonio Senzatela).
Combine that with pitching half your games at Coors Field, which naturally sees less strikeouts because pitches move less at altitude, and you have a team that struggled to barely punch out one of every six hitters they faced in the year where league-wide strikeouts rose to rates never seen before.
2021 Colorado Rockies: The Fastball Problem
There’s more to it than that, because it’s not like the Rockies have a staff of soft tossers who can’t get a fastball past somebody. In fact, the Rockies had the seventh highest four-seam-fastball velocity of all teams in 2020 (94.3 MPH), but getting a fastball past someone is not about velocity, it’s about location.
Let’s put this in simple terms: high fastballs get swings and misses, low fastballs do not. Here are all the four-seam-fastballs that were swung on and missed across all of MLB in 2020 based on location:
Clear theme here, right? It’s the main reason every forward-thinking MLB team is having pitchers throwing four-seamers up in the zone, because that’s where the whiffs are. And since every team is looking to strike guys out, they pitch to do it. Makes sense. For example, here’s the 2020 Tampa Bay Rays’ average four-seamer location:
Lines up pretty well with the Swing and Miss heatmap, doesn’t it? Now here’s the 2020 Rockies’ average four-seam-fastball location. Look at the difference:
This is no 2020 small-sample fluke, either. Since Bud Black became the team’s manager ahead of the 2017 season, the Rockies have, on average, thrown their 4-seam-fastballs lower in the zone than any other team. As a result, no team in baseball has gotten swings and misses on four-seamers less often than the Rockies. Guess which dot represents the Rockies:
That’s right. There are the Rox, alone in the bottom left corner. As you can see, no team has thrown their fastballs lower and gotten less whiffs than the Rockies. That red line you’re seeing is basically the correlation between the two metrics, and it’s clear how strong it is.
Now, while Coors Field plays a big role in the lack of whiffs, the Rockies are doing themselves no favors by throwing those fastballs right to the spot where they’re at their most hittable. But why in the hell would they do this? And can they even fix it?
2021 Colorado Rockies: Pitching To Contact In Coors Field
That sentence seems like a terrible idea. Actively seeking contact when you pitch in the best hitter’s park in the Majors sounds like something a parody team would do. But believe it or not, it’s what the Rockies have done over the past few years. Bud Black talks about pitching down in the zone all the time. They’ve been trying to keep the ball down, get groundballs, and take advantage of their terrific infield while hiding their horrific outfield defense.
Has it worked? Well… yes and no. The Rockies rank first since 2017 in groundball rate (46.4%), which is good, but only 24th in strikeout rate (20.6%), which is bad. Their fWAR as a pitching staff ranks middle of the pack. They’ve had many hard throwers, many guys with good breaking balls, but their fastball philosophy we went over before keeps their K ceiling low, which in turn keeps their pitching ceiling low.
Is that the right approach? I don’t think so but again, when you pitch at Coors Field, you have to take a different approach. Pitches don’t move as much, the outfield is huge, spin doesn’t work as well… It’s different. I think the 2021 Colorado Rockies, however they pitch, are still going to be a low strikeout staff. But can they actually get somewhat close to MLB average?
2021 Colorado Rockies: Gaining Some Strikeouts
While I do believe the 2021 Colorado Rockies are going to be a low strikeout staff, I don’t actually believe they’re going to set an integration era record like they did last season. So let’s examine their main pitchers and see how they can gain some K’s. I’m going to stick with the starters because they’re the most important ones.
He’s the best pitcher in franchise history, plain and simple. Since his first full season in 2017, the 26-year-old Venezuelan has struck out 24.2% of batters faced, a very healthy number when paired with his low walk rate (6.4% over that span) and overall efficiency. Like all Rockies pitchers, Márquez would benefit from elevating his four-seam-fastball a bit more to pair with his extraordinary curveball and excellent slider. This is where he’s tended to throw his four-seamers since 2017:
Elevate that a tiny bit more and Germán Márquez would turn into a bonafide ace. His curve is already one of the better pitches in the Majors and his slider is terrific. All he needs is his fastball to follow suit. And if that happens, things will get spooky for the rest of the league. I truly believe that.
Kyle Freeland has been through some ups and downs and is emerging as the leader of this 2021 Colorado Rockies team. The lefty is a command pitcher through and through and he doesn’t throw his four-seamer down, instead pitching up and in against righties. He’s never been a big-time strikeout pitcher and he’ll likely never be, but the key to getting back to his 2018 strikeout levels (20.5% K rate) instead of his 2019-20 level (16.1%) is his changeup.
Freeland threw his changeup a lot more during his bounce-back 2020 campaign, with the pitch being very successful at getting grounders and keeping hitters out in front, however, it was swung on missed only 18.2% of the time, which is incredibly low. For comparison, of the 28 starters to toss at least 200 changeups in 2020, the next lowest rate aside from Freeland’s 18.2% was Logan Webb‘s changeup, which got whiffs almost 30% of the time.
Freeland also throws his changeup very hard. His average fastball last season clocked in at just over 92 MPH, with his change averaging 86 MPH on the dot. I’ve already seen Freeland show off some increased velo in Spring Training this year, so if the velocity difference increases a bit between the heater and the change some of those swings might turn into misses, which would be great for the 2021 Colorado Rockies.
Most of what I said about Márquez applies to Gray as well. From 2016-19, Jon Gray struck out 24.7% of batters faced with his fastball-slider combination. In 2020, his fastball velocity dipped like crazy and his strikeouts were cut almost by half, but I attribute this to the lack of ramp-up process that 2020 featured, so I’m not overly worried about it affecting a guy who will be very important for the 2021 Colorado Rockies.
His velo seems to be back, which is good to hear, and I imagine the K’s will come back with it. The slider has always been quality, so even if this season may be his last in a Rockies uniform, Jon Gray should leave with plenty of K’s along the way.
Take it from someone who’s watched him pitch for a while: Antonio Senzatela improved drastically in 2020. He got in better shape, his command improved, and his confidence in himself and his arsenal did the same. Senzatela stands out because, despite good velocity, his four-seam fastball has little spin and dreadful vertical movement. Pair it with the fact that he tends to work east-west rather than north-south and you have a pitcher who barely misses bats. In fact, he had the lowest K% of all qualified starters in 2020 (13.5%).
Maybe there’s a path here for more whiffs if his curveball keeps improving and he throws it a bit more, but the style of pitching, movement profile and overall intent make me believe he’s destined to be a low-strikeout pitcher despite his good velo and great slider. Does that mean he’s doomed to fail? No, of course not, if he limits walks and keeps the ball on the ground. But he’s inevitably walking a tight rope with that style, at Coors Field in particular. I still believe he can be a great contributor for the 2021 Colorado Rockies and beyond, but don’t expect many 10 strikeout games from him.
The 2021 Colorado Rockies have not officially set their rotation yet but I’d be in utter shock if Gomber wasn’t the fifth and final member of the staff. The main piece the Rockies got in return for Nolan Arenado, the lefty has looked spectacular this spring and his low-spin fastball is a good natural fit for Coors Field.
So far in his MLB career, he’s struck out 20.8% of batters faced and he’s got the classic starter mix (fastball, curve, slider, changeup), so there are different weapons here to get guys out multiple times through. He hides the ball well and has a very over-the-top release point that’s very different from the other pitchers on the rotation.
With Gomber, it’s about command. His stuff plays, he’s got an aggressive mindset and he looks like he’s throwing a lot of strikes so far, which is good. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to think he can maintain that 20.8% K rate and even improve it as he develops.
So what do we take away from this? Mainly that the Rockies are pitching not to strike guys out, unlike any other team in baseball. Like I originally said, if all these strikeouts frustrate you, you might want to take a look at some Rockies games, particularly when Senzatela and Freeland are on the hill. It’s at least a nice change of pace and while I can’t guarantee Rockies hitters will put the ball in play, it’s something, right?
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Main image credit: Embed from Getty Images