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Can Red-Hot Rockies Actually Steal NL West from Dodgers, Giants?

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Can Red-Hot Rockies Actually Steal NL West from Dodgers, Giants?
USA TODAY Sports
Nolan Arenado and the Rockies are on a roll, and they would like your attention.

The NL West party is being crashed before our very eyes. Only the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants were invited but, darn it, the Colorado Rockies have shown up.

They look like they mean business. And, oh, they just might.

Entering Thursday, the Dodgers are 2.5 games off the pace, and the Giants are in first place on percentage points with a 21-13 record. But after winning three in a row, eight of 10 and 15 of 20, there are the Rockies at 22-14.

And here's the thing about the Rockies: It's not just their record that says they're good.

The Rockies began the day with a run differential of plus-55. That's tops in MLB. They also have a Simple Rating System—a Baseball-Reference.com stat that shows how many runs better or worse per game a team is over an average team—of 1.4. That's tops in the National League.

How have the Rockies done it? Simple: By pounding the snot out of the ball on offense and using good pitching and good fielding to keep other teams' offensive damage at a minimum.

That's as good a formula for success as any, and Colorado's looks like it could be built to last.

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

We can start by talking about Colorado's offense, which thus far has a lot in common with the Death Star.

The Rockies entered Thursday with a collective .310/.356/.509 batting line, 50 home runs and 215 runs scored. Those are all MLB-leading figures.

This is what happens when every regular you have is hitting like an All-Star (via FanGraphs):

Colorado Rockies Regulars (Min. 60 PA)
Name PA K% AVG OBP SLG OPS
Nolan Arenado 153 11.1 0.324 0.346 0.535 0.881
Carlos Gonzalez 142 18.3 0.284 0.324 0.53 0.854
Charlie Blackmon 141 7.1 0.359 0.396 0.602 0.998
Troy Tulowitzki 139 10.1 0.414 0.511 0.775 1.286
Justin Morneau 137 12.4 0.331 0.35 0.585 0.935
DJ LeMahieu 115 15.7 0.294 0.365 0.353 0.718
Wilin Rosario 95 13.7 0.239 0.274 0.398 0.672
Brandon Barnes 81 21.0 0.357 0.416 0.457 0.873
Drew Stubbs 74 23.0 0.323 0.37 0.492 0.862
Michael Cuddyer 67 10.4 0.317 0.373 0.533 0.906

FanGraphs

Those averages aren't going to stay that high forever. We all know that. The real question is just how badly things are going to come crashing down to earth.

But let me give you a couple reasons for optimism.

One is Troy Tulowitzki, Carlos Gonzalez and Michael Cuddyer. When healthy, we know they're good hitters. When healthy this year, they'll be good hitters.

Then there's Coors Field. It's already playing a huge part in the early awesomeness of Colorado's offense, as the Rockies have a 1.001 OPS there next to a .276 OPS on the road. That OPS surely will be coming down, but Coors Field's powers of inflation won't be. The Rockies are going to keep hitting there, which will make their offense dangerous at least half the time.

But then there's that K% (K/PA) column, which I bring it up because there are only two guys out of 10 who are striking out more than the league-average rate of 20 percent for hitters this year.

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
Another thing that's different about Charlie Blackmon: He's crushing lefties to the tune of a 1.136 OPS.

It's also encouraging that the two guys who are striking out more than 20 percent of the time, Drew Stubbs and Brandon Barnes, are both striking out much less often than they're used to. For that matter, so are breakout wunderkind Charlie Blackmon, Justin Morneau, Wilin Rosario and, to a somewhat lesser extent, Nolan Arenado.

All of this is good. For while we can't ignore how the Rockies have benefited from a league-high .339 batting average on balls in play (BABIP), that figure is a lot easier to stomach knowing that they've put a ton of balls in play. That's a solid way to please the BABIP gods.

This reeks of a new philosophy brought on by a new hitting coach. It so happens the Rockies have one in Blake Doyle, and it's getting easier to buy into the preseason buzz that, despite not having any previous MLB coaching experience, he was a good choice.

"I guess I can see why fans are worried, because it comes off as a little weird, but if you get to know him, you will understand why he's good for this organization," said Arenado, via The Denver Post. "Like my dad always says, you can't judge a book by its cover. Blake knows his business."

But then, maybe you didn't need me to sell you on the idea that the Rockies are going to create runs better than most. Maybe you're not sold on their pitching's ability to hold up its end of the bargain, which has long been a dicey proposition with the Rockies.

Here's the good news: This staff might be better suited to do its part than any that's ever come before it.

Alex Gallardo/Associated Press
Jordan Lyles is getting an awful lot of ground balls, and he's not the only Rockies pitcher who is.

The Rockies entered Thursday with a 4.09 ERA. That's nothing special by normal MLB standards, but it's excellent by their standards. And how this is happening can be traced to one thing in particular:

Ground balls.

According to FanGraphs, the Rockies are third in MLB in ground-ball rate at 48.9 percent. That's not entirely an accident, as the Rockies also ranked third in MLB in ground-ball rate last year and then acquired a couple ground-ball pitchers in Jordan Lyles and Brett Anderson.

Though Anderson has only made three starts, he and Lyles are among 12 Rockies pitchers who own ground-ball rates of at least 45 percent this season.

Colorado Rockies Ground-Ball Pitchers
Name G GS GB%
Christopher Martin 7 0 70.0
Nick Masset 2 0 66.7
Brett Anderson 3 3 59.3
Boone Logan 13 0 59.1
Jordan Lyles 7 7 56.3
Jorge de la Rosa 8 8 54.5
Matt Belisle 16 0 50.0
Wilton Lopez 4 0 50.0
Rex Brothers 16 0 48.7
Thomas Kahnle 13 0 46.7
Tyler Chatwood 4 4 45.7
Juan Nicasio 7 7 45.1

FanGraphs

Behold a Rockies mission in action, and one with a pretty obvious reason for being. By keeping the ball on the ground, Rockies pitchers mean to avoid letting the thin air and big alleys of Coors Field beat them.

“That’s one of the absolutes,” Rex Brothers told the Associated Press of Colorado's ground ball philosophy. “It started last year. And especially where we pitch, everybody knows that the ball will fly there.”

The notion that ground balls are the way to go in dealing with Coors Field is not misguided. Consider this:

Colorado GB% and Home ERA
Season GB% Home ERA
2014 48.9 3.95
2010 46.5 4.25
2007 46.5 4.34
2009 47.3 4.41
2013 47.3 4.43
2011 46.1 4.72
2006 45.7 4.72
2008 46.8 4.83
2003 43.7 5.10
2005 44.2 5.19
2002 43.3 5.47
2012 45.2 5.97
2004 45.3 6.27

FanGraphs

Out of all the times the Rockies have compiled a GB% over 46.5 since the data started being tracked in 2002, their home ERA has finished over 4.50 only once (2008). And with their collective GB% higher than ever this year, that 3.95 home ERA doesn't look like a fluke.

Not that it's all owed to Rockies pitchers. Good defense is a factor too.

Coming into Thursday, the Rockies are tied for first in MLB with 27 Defensive Runs Saved, according to FanGraphs. The tandem of Arenado and Tulowitzki at third and short is a big reason why, as they've combined for 16 Defensive Runs Saved, and they have a solid partner in crime at second base in DJ LeMahieu (three Defensive Runs Saved).

As such, we shouldn't be surprised that the Rockies are combing their high ground-ball rate with one of the lowest averages on ground balls in the majors (.203, according to Baseball-Reference.com).

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

All told, here's what we're looking at.

Though it won't be doing the Death Star thing forever, we are looking at a Rockies team that's going to hit. We're also looking at one that has the right idea when it comes to pitching and defense. 

This should answer the question of whether the Rockies should be ignored until they go away. On the contrary, they look like a team that's not to be taken lightly.

Including by the Dodgers and/or Giants. Both are good, but neither is totally unbeatable.

Who wins the NL West?

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Like they did last year, the Giants still have some starting pitching issues. Tim Hudson and Madison Bumgarner have been really good, but everyone else has been inconsistent. Their offense also has some inconsistent parts—namely Pablo Sandoval, Brandon Belt, Mike Morse and Hunter Penceand doesn't have the benefit of playing regularly at a hitter-friendly park.

I dare not underestimate the Dodgers' pitching, especially not with Clayton Kershaw back and already looking awesome. With him leading that staff, the Dodgers do strike me as the team to beat.

The Dodgers' bullpen, however, is curiously not as good as their starting rotation. And with Hanley Ramirez, Carl Crawford and Andre Ethier struggling and Matt Kemp still looking like a shell of his old self, the Dodgers' lineup is not as deep in reality as it is on paper. And, like the Giants, the Dodgers don't have a hitter-friendly ballpark to help out.

A short while ago, the NL West looked like it was going to be a two-horse race. Right now, it's a three-horse race. And given what that third horse has going for it, it's a good bet to stick around. And yes, it could even win the race.

As we part, I'd just like to say this: told ya.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked.

 

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

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