If you asked me before the season whether I thought the Colorado Rockies offense could be the best in baseball, I wouldn't have ruled out the possibility.
After all, we're talking about a team that plays half of its games at the ultimate hitters' haven. Why would you ever rule out an offense that played 81 games at Coors Field? Even the 2012 Rockies team that lost 98 games finished third in the majors in OPS and sixth in runs scored.
But Coors Field is only part of the equation. For this particular offense to emerge as a juggernaut, there was a lot that needed to go right.
Surprisingly, most of it has fallen into place over the first 40 games of the season.
The result has been an offensive outburst that is reminiscent of the powerful Rockies teams of the 1990's with Dante Bichette, Larry Walker, Andres Galarraga and Ellis Burks forming the core of the "Blake Street Bombers."
First in the majors in most offensive categories, including runs, doubles, homers, batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and OPS, the 2014 Rockies are a force to be reckoned with, at home and on the road and their opponents are well aware.
So just how have they done it? Here's a closer look.
First and foremost, superstars Carlos Gonzalez and Troy Tulowitzki are producing, which shouldn't be a surprise. No one has ever questioned either player's ability. Gonzalez has a .912 OPS since joining the Rockies in 2009, and Tulowitzki has an .891 OPS since he entered the league in 2006.
Their ability to stay healthy has been questioned, as it very well should be. Gonzalez had averaged only 124 games per season since 2011. Tulowitzki has averaged 110 games per season since 2010.
Playing 40-50 games per season without your best player(s) is never an ideal situation.
So the fact that they have each started 36 of the team's 40 games is a great sign. Rockies fans are finally seeing what their team is capable of with both of their hitting stars healthy.
Gonzalez, 28, has struggled at times, including a current 1-for-14 slide, but he can put up huge numbers in bunches. Prior to his recent slump, Gonzalez had 15 hits in 35 at-bats with three homers. He also began the season on a 15-for-40 tear with four homers, three doubles and a triple.
He's clearly been a factor, despite being one of the few hitters in the lineup with a sub-.300 batting average.
Tulowitzki, on the other hand, started the season on fire and has yet to slow down. With a 1.263 OPS, 11 homers, 11 doubles and 33 runs batted in, he has clearly been the best player in baseball. He's capable of carrying a team on his back, though there hasn't been any need for that as of yet.
How does a player come out of nowhere to being on the verge of becoming an MLB superstar? Falling off the radar is usually a prerequisite. That player would have had to have been "on the radar" at some point.
Charlie Blackmon (pictured) fits that criteria.
After posting an .843 OPS with 11 homers and 19 stolen bases in 86 Double-A games during a 2010 season in which he missed significant time with a hamstring injury, Blackmon was named the seventh-ranked prospect in the organization, according to Baseball Prospectus, heading into the 2011 season.
He was certainly on the radar and in the conversation as being one of the Rockies' "outfielders of the future."
Blackmon's first big league shot came in June of that season. After a 14-for-37 start, he struggled mightily for the next few weeks before a fractured foot ended his season in early July.
A forgotten man by 2012, he didn't return to the majors until mid-August and didn't do enough to put himself back in the picture for a starting job in 2013. With Gonzalez, Dexter Fowler and the newly signed Michael Cuddyer filling out the starting outfield, Blackmon found himself with no clear path to a starting job.
Heading into the spring, he was one of several candidates for the center field job that opened up when Fowler was traded to Houston. Despite a mediocre output (.635 OPS in 55 at-bats), he was fortunate to get the first crack at the regular job.
He has taken full advantage of the opportunity.
While there was never any indication he would be "five-tool, MVP candidate" good (.352 BA, nine homers, nine doubles, 29 RBI, eight steals), and it's likely that he'll eventually slow down some, don't be too surprised when he finishes with a .300 batting average, 20-plus homers and 20-plus stolen bases.
Circumstances, mostly injuries, prevented him from getting a fair shot to be an everyday player until now. Now at age 27, he may be in a better position to handle his success and maintain it over a full season than he would have in his early 20's.
Every offseason, several players whose value has declined for some reason or another are picked up by teams on "buy low" free-agent deals or trades. These players are usually considered injury-prone or past their prime with deteriorating skills.
In most cases, these perceptions are true. But occasionally, a player proves that theory wrong and shows that there is still plenty left in the tank.
That appears to be a strong possibility with former AL MVP Justin Morneau (pictured), whom the Rockies signed to a two-year, $12.5 million deal this past offseason.
At age 32 (he'll be 33 Thursday), Morneau is having a career resurgence with a .949 OPS, eight homers, 11 doubles, 29 runs batted in and 13 multi-hit games. And if you think those numbers are misleading because of imbalanced home-road splits, think again.
While he does have twice as many strikeouts on the road (12) than at home (six), a majority of Morneau's splits are nearly identical (.987 OPS, four homers, six doubles, 16 RBI, three walks in 67 at-bats at Coors Field; .913 OPS, four homers, five doubles, one triple, 13 RBI, three walks in 73 at-bats on the road).
Four years removed from his days of being an elite major league hitter—he had an .869 OPS with 31 homers, 37 doubles and 117 runs batted per 162 games from 2003 to 2010—Morneau hasn't been the same hitter since a concussion that cut his 2010 season short.
He has shown flashes over the past two seasons, but his numbers have been ordinary overall (.773 OPS, 19 HR in 2012; .734 OPS, 17 HR in 2013).
In 2014, however, Morneau appears to be on a different level once again. He has gone hitless in only three starts all season. He has hit on the road, versus lefties (12-for-40, two homers, two RBI) and with runners in scoring position (13-for-40, two homers, three doubles, 18 RBI). A regression could be coming, but it's hard to see him slowing down too much.
When you have six or seven regulars crushing the ball, there is a possibility of a substantial drop in production once the inevitable injuries begin to hit. The Rockies have been up to the challenge, though.
Having lost 2013 batting champ Michael Cuddyer, who was off to another great start (.906 OPS, three homers in 16 games), to a hamstring injury in mid-April, the Rockies haven't missed a beat with a plethora of backup outfielders chipping in.
Corey Dickerson (pictured), who was sent to the minors a week into the regular season, has returned with a vengeance. Since Cuddyer went down, Dickerson, 24, playing mostly in right field, is 18-for-44 with four homers, four doubles and and 11 runs batted in.
There won't be much room for him once Cuddyer returns—his timetable is still yet to be determined, though Cuddyer says he doesn't expect a long rehab assignment—but this is one of those good problems that successful teams often have.
Drew Stubbs has also turned it on since Cuddyer's injury, collecting 19 hits in 52 at-bats, including two homers and five doubles. If that wasn't enough, Brandon Barnes, the team's fifth outfielder, is 20-for-48 with six doubles over the same span.
In addition, Jordan Pacheco has three multi-hit games in six starts since starting catcher Wilin Rosario went on the disabled list with a viral infection. Backup Michael McKenry has a hit in each of his four starts since joining the team in Rosario's absence.
Gold Glove third baseman Nolan Arenado obviously brings plenty of defensive value to the team, but he hit just 10 homers during his rookie campaign while posting an on-base percentage that barely cracked .300.
The Rockies were hoping for some progression, but the 23-year-old appears to have taken more than just a small step forward at the plate. A recent 28-game hitting streak, which was snapped last Friday, boosted his batting average to .322.
He's already more than halfway to his homer total from last season with six and has nearly half as many doubles as last season (29 in 2013; 14 in 2014). According to ESPN Stats & Info, three of his home runs have come on pitches in the lower half of the zone after doing so just four times on 1,019 pitches in that area last season.
And while he's definitely taking advantage of Coors Field to boost his homers—all six have come at home—Arenado has a .326 batting average with nine doubles on the road.
Tulowitzki has taken the youngster under his wing, and, although Tulowitzki has been tough on Arenado at times, Tulowitzki thinks Arenado can be one of the best.
"I think you can see he's somebody who can be a superstar in this game, if he's not already. So you don't want that guy going in the wrong direction. You kind of teach him the ropes," Tulowitzki told Patrick Saunders of The Denver Post.
With a 23-17 record (13-5 at home), good for second in the NL West and two-and-a-half games behind the division-leading San Francisco Giants, the Rockies are more than just a potent offense.
Their defense is tremendous. The bullpen has been solid, as has the rotation. Staff ace Jorge De La Rosa has a 2.70 ERA over his last five starts. Juan Nicasio has a 3.77 ERA in eight starts. Jordan Lyles is 5-0 with a 2.66 ERA in his eight starts, making him one of the biggest surprises in baseball. Two top pitching prospects with front-line potential, Eddie Butler and Jonathan Gray, are waiting in the wings in Double-A.
But there's no mistaking what it is that can make them an elite ball club. As much offense as Rockies fans have experienced over the years, it's unlikely they've seen a group of hitters this good in a long time.
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