As the 2013 season inches toward the halfway mark, the Colorado Rockies continue to remain in the NL West race. Despite falling back to earth after a torrid April, they sit at just three games out of the division race heading into play on Friday. While their 37-37 record doubles as the current fourth place standing in the division, the upstart Rockies own the best run differential in the division.
Injuries to shortstop Troy Tulowitzki and center fielder Dexter Fowler could seriously curtail the offense from the 2013 version of the Blake Street Bombers. In their absence, the pitching staff will have to prevent more runs in order to give the team a chance.
On Thursday night, one of baseball's most unheralded pitchers of this generation made his Rockies debut.
While it was odd to see the sight of Roy Oswalt in a Rox uniform, his presence and any ability left in his 35-year-old tank could be the difference between Colorado acting as a buyer or seller at the July 31 trade deadline.
The opening act to Oswalt's latest gig didn't yield great results (5 IP, 9 H, 4 R, 4 ER in a loss to Washington). But his ability to miss bats, command the strike zone and dominate on occasion suggests the chance remains for the former Astros star to regain a moderate level of success.
In the midst of allowing nine hits and four runs over five innings, Oswalt struck out 11 batters and didn't walk one. In the interest of fairness, referencing Oswalt's K/9 rate after five innings of work is ridiculous, but his ability to retire many hitters via the strikeout continues a trend from his short stint in Texas last summer.
Over the first 11 seasons of Oswalt's career in Houston and Philadelphia, the right-hander posted a 7.3 K/9 mark in over 2,100 innings of work. Over the last two years, spanning only 64 innings, Oswalt has struck out 9.8 batters per nine innings.
While he's missing bats at a far higher rate, the results haven't followed. Last year, Oswalt posted a 5.80 ERA in 59 innings for Texas.
Of course, as Oswalt continues to take turns in the Rockies rotation, he'll inevitably pitch in the hitter-friendly area known as Coors Field. When he does, limiting balls in play will be key to his survival. If the K/9 rate stays high, his pitching acumen will do the rest, allowing him to provide Colorado an upgrade over Jeff Francis.
The key to assessing Oswalt's value to the Rockies is context.
At the age of 35, with a history of back trouble and without a 200-inning season on his resume since 2010, the Oswalt of old isn't coming back.
That pitcher, despite rarely coming up in conversations about the best arms of the last generation, is ranked 17th all-time in ERA-plus among pitchers who have thrown at least 2,200 innings. Some names below Oswalt on that list include Tom Seaver, Bob Gibson, Jim Palmer and Curt Schilling.
Keep an eye on the next few starts from Oswalt. If his stuff continues to miss bats at a rate similar to the number he posted in Texas last summer, it's hard to imagine results not following suit.
Since 2010, including the first half of the 2013 campaign, only one pitcher, Tim Lincecum in 2012, has pitched to an ERA above 5.00 while striking out a batter per inning. In fact, of the 44 individual pitching campaigns that have yielded at least one strikeout per inning since 2010, only three have been worse than 4.00: Lincecums's 2012, Ryan Dempster's 2013 to date and Brandon Morrow's 2011.
In other words, if the increase in Oswalt's strikeout rate can continue for the rest of the season, he'll likely give Colorado an ERA under 4.00.
With the NL West up for grabs, it could keep the Rockies in the race all summer long.
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