As the 2020 season began, the Rockies weren’t considered a legitimate playoff contender, not even in a 60-game season.
After all, they finished last in 2019 with a rotation that had the highest ERA (5.87) in the National League.
And the Rockies didn’t bother to fix their starting staff. That brought second-guessing from critics.
Colorado stuck with Jon Gray, Germán Márquez, Kyle Freeland and Antonio Senzatela, four pitchers that helped them get to the playoffs in 2017 and 2018 who followed up with a collective collapse last year.
Now, in the early part of a shortened season, the biggest reason the Rockies are contending is the rotation’s consistent turnaround.
“You’ve got to pitch every night to win, and that’s what we are doing,’’ said Colorado manager Buddy Black, a former starter, on a Zoom conference call with reporters.
Sure, it is a small sample size. But, the Rockies rotation has had success. They are best described as a young, talented developing staff, adding pitches and learning from mistakes.
The Rockies started rebuilding their rotation with the young pitchers in 2017 and wound up making the postseason that season and in 2018, losing in the wild-card game and the Division Series, an accomplishment Rockies management wasn’t expecting with a rebuild.
Gray is 28, and he’s the only struggling starter on the staff. But he did have a 3.84 ERA last season.
Freeland is 27. Márquez and Senzatela are each 25.
Senzatela’s ERA has dropped from 6.71 last season to 2.65 after three starts this season.
He’s throwing more curveballs, a pitch that he was playing around with during a game of catch with Márquez, who suggested Senzatela try it in a game.
Márquez, acquired from the Rays in a trade for outfielder Corey Dickerson, has top-of-the-rotation stuff, including a 97 mph fastball that has put him in the top 10 among NL starters for strikeouts since 2017.
This year, Márquez added a changeup that makes his fastball more effective.
“He doesn’t get a lot of the national acclaim that other pitchers get,’’ Black said. “But inside the circles that I communicate with, he’s right there with the big boys.’‘
Freeland, a lefty who grew up in Denver, has started the season with a 2.41 ERA after it ballooned to 6.73 last season. In 2018, he finished fourth in the NL Cy Young Award voting.
Freeland came into this season with a new delivery and more confidence in increasing his use of changeups. He’s been primarily a fastball-slider pitcher.
“A changeup is a great pitch to get hitters off my fastball,’’ Freeland told reporters on Zoom. “Throughout my career, I favored fastball and slider, two pitches with a little bit of movement.
“With the changeup coming out of my hand, hitters see it as a fastball. It’s important to keep hitters off-balance throwing a pitch that looks like a certain pitch.’‘
Generally, the Rockies’ storyline is that they’ve had plenty of run production, but not enough pitching, especially playing in Denver’s thin air and the spaciousness of Coors Field.
This season, Rockies outfielder Charlie Blackmon leads the NL with a .484 average and a .514 on-base percentage going into Tuesday night’s game at home against Arizona.
Shortstop Trevor Story has six home runs. Former National Daniel Murphy has a .367 average with a .404 on-base percentage. All-Star Nolan Arenado has three home runs and .241 average.
Black predicts better offensive numbers from his lineup: “I don’t think we are hitting on all cylinders.’‘
If that happens, and the rotation continues consistent pitching, the Rockies could end the Dodgers’ seven-year run as NL West champions.