For the second time in three years, the Colorado Rockies are in the postseason. Many thought their terrific run in 2007 was a fluke after finishing with a dismal 74-88 record in 2008, but it’s looking more and more like that season was the aberration. These Rockies, led by young stars such as Troy Tulowitzki and Ubaldo Jimenez, are here to stay. Waiting for a chance to exact revenge on the Rockies for sweeping them in the 2007 NLDS are the defending World Series-champion Philadelphia Phillies. Here is a look at the players who, if properly used, will help the Rockies upend the Phils:
Jorge De La Rosa/Jason Hammel/Jason Marquis
The Rockies’ top two starters have been solidified. Ubaldo Jimenez has Cy Young-potential and began to show it this year, posting a 3.47 ERA despite pitching half of his games in Coors Field. Meanwhile, Aaron Cook, who boasts one of the best sinkers in baseball (especially since Brandon Webb went down to injury), returned with a vengeance at the end of the regular season. He allowed just one run in 13 innings against two good offenses (St. Louis and Milwaukee). That leaves Jim Tracy with a tough decision about who to send to the hill in Game Three.
De La Rosa, who would be the obvious choice, is the ultimate wild card for a team that is all too familiar with the term. He bounced back from an 0-6 start to ultimately win 16 games for the Rockies, and his ability to miss bats—especially those of the left-handed variety—was a big reason why. Lefties posted just a .568 OPS against Jorge, and his 4.75 K/BB ratio against them heavily outweighed his performance against righties, where the ratio fell to 1.92.
All of this, of course, is moot for now. De La Rosa’s groin injury will keep him out of this first round series against the Phillies. In his place as the Game Three starter the Rockies could go with Hammel, who has had patches of success in his first year in the NL, or Marquis, who shut the Phillies down in the only start he made against them this season. Hammel would be the better choice (and could end up starting in Game Four if it goes that far, anyway) because of his ability to keep hitters off-balance with a plus curveball, and because of the fact that Marquis has really struggled over the past month.
Any way you look at it, most clubs would like to have the option of running guys like Jason Hammel and Jason Marquis (based solely on the success they’ve experienced this season) out there if one of their better starters was unable to go due to injury.
Iannetta lost his job to the “hot-hitting” Yorvit Torrealba in the month of September, as Torrealba’s batting average began to surpass Iannetta’s. In the minds of most casual baseball fans, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that—especially when you consider his clutch stats (.477/.544/.591 with runners in scoring position). However, a closer look will indeed suggest that Iannetta is the better option behind the plate. First off, neither catcher is particularly good at throwing out would-be base stealers, but Iannetta’s 26 percent (18-for-68) trumps Torrealba’s 14 percent (8-for-57). In addition to the defensive upgrade, Iannetta is able to rely less on luck when attempting to get on base. Torrealba has walked just 21 times this season (which is an improvement over last season, believe it or not) and has a .347 batting average on balls in play (BABIP)—all contributors to his .351 on-base percentage. Meanwhile, Iannetta’s 43 walks have helped mask his terrible luck with batted balls; his .247 BABIP is among the worst in baseball. Because of the relatively high walk total, though, Iannetta’s OBP isn’t too far behind that of Torrealba, at .344.
With all that said, the largest advantage the Rockies will see with Iannetta in the lineup is that he absolutely crushes lefties (hello, Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee); his .986 OPS against southpaws is the best on the team. He also has the ability to hit the long ball, with 16 home runs in just 289 at-bats. The Rockies could (and should) consider using a platoon behind the plate, as Torrealba more than holds his own against right-handed pitchers (.316/.376/.400).
Tulowitzki has regained his 2007 form, when he was one of the best shortstops, offensively and defensively, in all of baseball. After a third consecutive slow start, Tulo started heating up in early June (and, not coincidentally, so did the Rockies). He was hitting just .218/.309/.382 when the Rockies lost their third game in a row in Houston on June 2, but he emerged from a red-hot June (in which he hit seven home runs) hitting a much more respectable .253/.346/.469, and things only got better for the soon-to-be 25-year-old shortstop. Tulo finished the year with 32 home runs and a .929 OPS.
Tulowitzki has the ability to do something that a lot of other Rockies’ hitters do not—hit off-speed pitches with consistency. He has great pitch recognition and does a good job of staying back on soft stuff. If a pitcher leaves an off-speed pitch up in the zone, he will almost surely make him pay for it, whereas a lot of other Colorado hitters will pass on those pitches, looking for a fastball instead. He is also terrific at what a lot of other Rockies’ hitters DO have success at doing, which is hitting first pitch fastballs (and hitting them hard).
Colorado is coming off another very good finish (20-11 in September and October) and is drawing a lot of parallels to the 2007 club that won the National League pennant. However, this club is much more well-rounded, especially in the starting rotation, and as SI.com’s Bruce Jenkins wrote in a late-September article, “even their depth is deep.” The team, provided it executes properly, has enough pieces to overcome its only real weakness heading into the playoffs (the middle relief). If Jim Tracy makes smart moves (i.e. starting Iannetta and Garrett Atkins against lefties, not over-managing his bullpen, etc.), and De La Rosa’s injury isn’t too serious, the Rockies should have another deep postseason run.