Is Roy Oswalt the Missing Link to a Colorado Rockies Pennant Run?

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Is Roy Oswalt the Missing Link to a Colorado Rockies Pennant Run?
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

The Colorado Rockies are in the midst of a surprising 17-11 start to the 2013 season, and now they've made a "low-risk, high-reward" move that could boost their chances of contending for the long haul.

That's the optimistic way of putting it. The less optimistic way of putting it is that the Rockies have made a "what the heck, might as well" signing that's unlikely to help them in any significant way.

That's the proper way to look at the club's announcement that it has signed veteran right-hander Roy Oswalt to a minor league contract:

The last time we saw Oswalt out on the mound, he was putting up a 5.80 ERA in 17 appearances, nine of them starts, for the Texas Rangers in 2012. He surrendered 11 home runs in only 59 innings, and was knocked around to the tune of a .903 OPS.

To be fair, there are ways to defend Oswalt's honor. If you're a FanGraphs hound, you might have noticed that Oswalt had a 4.23 FIP and a 3.27 xFIP last season, numbers that suggest his 5.80 ERA was the product of some brutal luck.

Elsewhere, Oswalt's .378 BABIP was suspiciously high, while his 9.0 K/9 was encouragingly high and his 1.7 BB/9 was encouragingly low. Based on these numbers, it really wasn't all bad for Oswalt in Texas.

No it wasn't. It was really only bad when he started.

Here's a look at some key splits, with additional information courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com:

Role Innings K/9 BB/9 OPS ERA FIP xFIP
 As Reliever  12.1  14.59  0.73  .612  3.65  2.20  1.05
 As Starter  46.2  7.52  1.93  .970  6.36  4.77  3.86

When Oswalt came out of Texas' bullpen last season, he was quite good. When he started, he was quite vulnerable.

Something tells me the Rockies aren't hoping to use Oswalt out of their bullpen. Maybe they wouldn't mind doing so, but this is a guy who reportedly had no interest in being a closer as of early February. If that's the case, it's hard to imagine him being eager to be a setup man for Rafael Betancourt.

If this is indeed a starting pitching depth move, the Rockies have quite the repair job ahead of them. If they have it in mind for Oswalt to eventually be an effective member of their starting rotation, they must cure the ills that made him an ineffective member of Texas' rotation in 2012.

One of those can't be cured, and that's Oswalt's fastball velocity. 

Baseball Info Solutions (via FanGraphs) had an average Oswalt heater at 91.5 miles per hour last year. It was no fluke either, as he was at 91.4 miles per hour in 2011 when he was with the Philadelphia Phillies.

Jason O. Watson/Getty Images
A lot of this last year for Oswalt.

A guy with a low-90s fastball is what Oswalt is now, and last year he wasn't fooling anybody with it. According to BrooksBaseball.net, opponents hit .340 with a .610 slugging percentage against Oswalt's heater.

It wasn't just a velocity problem either.

I can't re-post the graph here, but if you go over to TexasLeaguers.com and look at where Oswalt's four-seamers were going last year, what you see is a noticeable cluster at the top of the strike zone. It's harder to spot a cluster in his 2011 strike zone data, but you can see that there was a shortage of fastballs at the very bottom of the zone.

That's where low-90s fastballs need to be. Up in the zone is fine if you throw upwards of 95 miles per hour on every pitch, a la Matt Harvey, but not when you're throwing 91-92. Fastballs at that velocity up in the zone bring out the happy face in every hitter.

Is there a reason Oswalt has been up in the zone with his fastball, especially last year?

Well, he did complain about a mechanical issue last July, saying he needed to be more consistent with his arm angle. If you go back to the TexasLeaguers.com data from 2012 and look at his "Release Points" chart, you can see that there was indeed some inconsistency.

Inconsistency can be fixed in most cases, but it's fair game to wonder if Oswalt has certain physical limitations at this stage of his career. He's no spring chicken, after all, and his injury track (see Baseball Prospectus) record is pretty long. In particular, he's had nagging issues with his lower back that cropped up again last year.

If there indeed is a physical limitation at work, the Rockies are going to have to pinpoint it and work with Oswalt on finding a way to adjust for it. In that case, the process of rebooting him is only going to get more complex.

Even if the process is carried through to completion, Oswalt is still going to have a major challenge ahead of him. The Rockies can make Oswalt as good as new, but they can't make Coors Field an easier place to pitch for him.

Coors Field actually hasn't been so bad this year, as it ranks as only the 10th-best run-scoring environment in baseball according to ESPN.com's Park Factors. But we all know that's not going to last, as Coors Field has consistently been a top-five run-scoring environment. It shall be again.

So let's say this move doesn't pan out in the long run. Will it matter? Do the Rockies really need an effective version of Oswalt to contend this year?

Will Roy Oswalt boost the Rockies' rotation?

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I'll put it this way: They need effective pitching, period. And when it comes to the Rockies, that there's a quagmire that has yet to be solved.

So far, so good in 2013. The Rockies don't have much talent in their rotation outside of Jhoulys Chacin, but the team's overall ERA is a very un-Rockies-like 3.72. The rotation hasn't been much, but the bullpen has been stellar. 

But we've seen the Rockies do this before. They'd posted April ERAs under 4.00 three times before this year, yet this is a club that has yet to finish with a team ERA under 4.14 since its first year of existence in 1993.

So they've either truly and finally figured something out, or the Rockies' solid pitching so far this season is just another tease. Given the club's track record, one must side with the latter.

This is Year 21 of an ongoing experiment. The Rockies are still working on figuring out pitching in Colorado, and I doubt adding Roy Oswalt to the mix will prove to be much of a breakthrough.

 

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter. 

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