Strong April could be key to Rockies' success
Emphasis on starting pitching, moving runners should help in 2011
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- The Rockies enter 2011 with full confidence they'll be competing at the end of the season. But they also know it helps to start winning at the beginning.
Rough starts are an annual tradition, one the Rockies would like to end. In their 18-year history, they've had a winning record at the end of the first full month just three times -- 1995, when the season began in late April and they were 17-16 through May 31; 2003, when they were 15-12 through April; and '06, when they went 15-10.
Of course, there's plenty of evidence to say that April is just another month. Colorado was 10-16 in 2007 and 8-12 in '09, yet made the playoffs each time.
D-backs 7, Rockies 6 (11 inn.)
WP: Demel LP: Reynolds SV: Putz
"I think I've always said there's going to be a month when you're going to struggle, and ours happens to be early. We're trying to switch that," said shortstop Troy Tulowitzki. "But at the same time, we can't panic if we do get off to a slow start. We've come back from it before. In a perfect world, we'd love to get off to a good start and put ourselves in a good position."
Maybe a better position coming out of April would have mattered last year. The Rockies were 11-12 to start, their only sub-.500 month. But after a 13-3 streak in early September, the Rockies lost 13 of their final 14 games and missed the playoffs.
"It could have been fatigue," said third baseman Ian Stewart. "We traveled a lot the last couple weeks. But I can't say for sure."
If all is the same, they'd rather win now.
It looked during camp as if the Rockies wanted to start winning early. They won 20 spring games for the second time in their history, and the first time since replacement players were part of a 24-win spring in 1995.
Cactus League wins mean nothing come Friday, when the Rockies open at 2:10 p.m. MT with the D-backs, but they're confident the success won't stop if they stick with their spring points of emphasis.
Pitchers, especially starters, attacking the strike zone.
Aggressive base running.
|Projected Opening Day lineup|
|2||LHP||Jorge De La Rosa|
"We established early in camp that we're going to play with a certain level of intensity, and I think we're going to carry it into the season," said catcher Chris Iannetta. "We put the same emphasis on the first day of spring that we do the last day of spring, and we'll put the same emphasis on Opening Day. We're just going to continue what we're doing right now."
Starting pitching was a well-documented problem last April, when the rotation could best be described as "Ubaldo ... then pray for snow." Because of inefficient and often ineffective starts, the bullpen was forced to carry 79 innings, fourth-most in the National League.
Imagine what the relief workload would have been had ace Ubaldo Jimenez not gone 5-0 with a 2.21 ERA in five April starts, which included a no-hitter?
This spring has been much better. Jimenez, who starts the opener on Friday, was his same dominating self with the exception of one Cactus League start. Left-handed No. 2 starter Jorge De La Rosa, who missed 13 starts last year with a finger injury, is healthy again.
But the big development may be from the rest of the rotation.
With veteran righty Aaron Cook expected to miss at least eight starts with a fractured right ring finger, second-year righty Jhoulys Chacin earned the No. 3 slot by showing an ability to escape trouble. Right-hander Jason Hammel also has shown he can make quick adjustments as long as he trusts the tweaks he made to his delivery. Righty Esmil Rogers, a rookie spot-starter last year, won the No. 5 spot and, at times, has displayed a dominating fastball.
It could mean less pressure on Jimenez.
"Every time, you'd see guys coming out of the bullpen throwing two or three innings, every single day," Jimenez said. "I had to find a way to give the relievers a break. That's something I took pride in doing last year.
"That's something we have to do -- support each other. The starters are going to try to get deeper into games and save their relievers' arms. All the starting pitchers are good."
The situational-hitting issues never abated last year. It didn't show as much at Coors, where the Rockies went 52-29 and led the Majors with 479 runs at home.
But they were 31-50 on the road, better only than the D-backs, Pirates and Nationals in the NL, and it came the year after Colorado posted its first winning road record in club history. The Rockies' 291 road runs were second-fewest in the NL, and not much can be said about the .226 road batting average. The lack of success hurt badly in a year when the club posted its all-time second-lowest ERA.
New hitting instructor Carney Lansford has insisted upon approaches that move runners from second to third with less than two outs. Getting runners in from third with less than two outs -- after the inability to do so created so many close games last year -- was a priority.
After seemingly losing their way on the basepaths last year, the Rockies returned to a characteristic of manager Jim Tracy's most successful teams -- the constant push to move up a base on hits, bobbled ground balls and pitches in the dirt. The Rockies ran into outs at times during the spring, yet Tracy has lauded players for forcing opponents to make plays.
"We've worked on it all spring, and the hitting instructor is demanding that you execute situational baseball," Tracy said. "Each and every time you get a run, you're forcing the other team to have to score two more to beat you."
The issue, though, is that many Spring Training initiatives die once the regular season begins.
"Nobody should expect less than the way we played in Spring Training," Stewart said. "Last spring we had this mentality, and it just didn't translate. I'm not sure if guys really bought into it as much as they have this year."
There's a feeling that the Rockies will have more energy in April, thanks to the move to new Salt River Fields at Talking Stick from Tucson, Ariz. In the past, long bus trips either increased fatigue or limited the amount of action for key players.
"Regardless of how nice this place is, if we were playing on high-school fields, it would be a step up from Hi Corbett just based on the location," Iannetta said. "Spending six hours a day on the bus not even playing is tough."
More time together and a renewed emphasis on key improvements could translate into immediate success.
"I've been here for three years so far, and I played one with the A's, and this is the most complete team I've ever been on," said standout outfielder Carlos Gonzalez, who led the NL with a .336 batting average last year. "We made the playoffs in 2009, but in the beginning we didn't feel the way we do this year."
It would help if the Rockies are feeling just as good even after the first month of the season.
Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Hardball in the Rockies, and follow him on Twitter @harding_at_mlb. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.