26 July 2007

Rockies Preview: Series of Contention

by Joshua Worley

I have to argue against the notion that the Rockies are true contenders. They are 51-50, in fourth place. It's possible for them to go on and win the NL west. Possible could mean a 1% chance, even. But it's not likely. They need to win some more games to really become a contender.

Now, the Rockies are only 4.5 games back of the Dogers. That's not a huge deficit. But for comparison, the Snakes, another team I don't believe has what it takes in the NL west, are suddenly a mere 1.5 games back. I only have room for one bad contender in my brain. The Padres and Dodgers are the good contenders. The Snakes are the bad contender, and the Rockies are the young, cheap team that can't quite put it together. I will say, though, that I expect the Rockies to finish ahead of the Snakes at year's end. This isn't an extreme prediction, as the Rockies are already better than the Snakes just based on run differential. Speaking of run differential, you know how the Padres have had a huge advantage over the Dodgers in run differential all year, which caused a lot of people to think if was just a matter of time before the Padres ran away with the division? Well, the Padres run differential advantage has now dwindled to a very small margin. The Dodger pythagorean record is 55-47; the Padre pythagorean is 56-44. If the Dodger pitching staff wasn't in the process of falling apart as if it was an aging slugger on steroids, I would predict the Dodgers would overtake the Padres in run differential by the end of August.

Back to the Rockies. Remember when Helton was threatening to hit 0.400 on the year? Well, he's in danger of falling below 0.300 now. In the past month he's been hitting as he did last year: plenty of walks and not much else. There are worse players to have, but he's not earning the money. Helton is not the guy for the Dodgers to worry about. Atkins, surprisingly, is someone to worry about. He's hit 8 home runs in June. Hawpe and Holliday have also continued their excellent play. With these big four, the Rockies have a very solid and often dangerous heart of the lineup. In the past, it's been the rest of the lineup that has let them down. What about now?

Well, I can list the Rockies lineup on a typical day for them, which I will do below with position and home OPS.

Taveras -- CF -- 0.788
Matsui -- 2B -- 0.860
Holliday -- LF -- 1.133
Helton -- 1B -- 0.952
Atkins -- 3B -- 0.868
Hawpe -- RF -- 1.069
Tulowitzki -- SS -- 0.841
Torrealba -- C -- 0.774

Even with the humidor, an 0.800 OPS at home isn't quite as impressive as it might be, but still ... the lesser four on the Rockies are all right around a decent level at home. They aren't black holes in the lineup, as has been so often the case. What will this lineup do to Tomko and Hendrickson? I'm terrified of the answer.

Torrealba has been red hot in July, leaving dazed and confused rookie catcher Chris Iannetta on the bench most games. Tulowitzki had a famous string of clutch ninth inning home runs, and he's been a steady producer since that binge. He has missed the last two games with food poisoning, but I'm guessing he'll be back by at the latest Friday. Matsui has been a revelation after he laid an egg with the Mets. And Taveraz is better than Juan Pierre, unless the park factors are more extreme than I think.

The Rockie bullpen is -- not awful? I thought it was awful, especially with Fuentes famous string of meltdowns right before the All-star game that spoiled a lot of Tulowitzki's home runs. But I'm looking down this list of relievers and seeing several men having good years. Corpas, Buchholtz and Affeldt all have sub-3 ERAs. And they don't give up home runs! Corpas has allowed 3, the other two none. Jorge Julio and Hawkins have also been pretty good, with sub-4 ERAs. Fuentes is on the DL, so the Dodgers can't count on getting to him.

I'm thinking now that the Dodgers may be lucky to come away with a split of the four game series. Normally one would hope for at least 3 of 4, but with the pitching the way it is ...

The first game matches Brad Penny against Rodrigo Lopez. This is a trap game for over-confident Dodger fans. Lopez has a shiny 3.55 ERA at home; his one home weakness is home runs, with 7 allowed in 38 innings. I can easily see the Dodgers being held to 4 or fewer runs in this game, and then if Penny struggles --- crap. Here's the thing, though: the Dodger lineup is good. Even with the past two awful games in Houston, it is. I think they will get to Lopez, and give Penny the breathing room he needs to pitch well in Coors. There I go, being over-confident, falling into the trap I tried to warn others about.

The second game is Tomko against Josh Fogg. Now, Fogg is going to be hit at Coors. The Dodgers will score at least 4 runs against him, maybe more. He just doesn't strike out enough batters, and that's death at Coors with all the room for balls to fall in. Even though he's only allowed 3 Coors home runs in 37.1 innings, he still has an ERA of 5.54. So, there will be a chance for the Dodgers to win this game, just because they figure to score runs unless they run into a freak performance from a bad pitcher. The problem is Tomko. First of all, he's due to be awful. Not because his last two starts were good, but because in general he's awful. He's talking about this cut fastball he's revived to turn things around, but I'm guessing the scouts are all over this by now and the hitters will be able to adjust, even if the pitch is able to cut properly in Coors. I'm figuring the Dodgers lose a high scoring game in this one.

The third game is Billingsley against Francis. Francis has a 4.73 ERA at home. I wonder what kind of home ERA Billingsley would have if he was a Rockies pitcher? I think it would be better. His nasty stuff might not be quite as nasty in Coors, but it would be nastier than the nasty of most other pitchers. Yeah, that was a nasty sentence. But the point is that for Billingsley, I think it's going to be mental. Will he be intimidated by Coors, or will he have the confidence in his stuff that will be good even a mile high? After his nine inning gem on Monday, I think he'll be good, and lead the Dodgers to victory over the capable but unspectacular Francis.

The last game is Hendrickson against Ubaldo Jimenez. Who? Well, he's a recent call-up from Colorado Springs. He did great in AA Tulsa at age 22, though even there one might see a red flag in the number of walks he allowed. Walks have been a huge problem for him once he was promoted to AAA Colorado Springs, where he's had an ERA of 5 for half of last year and half of this year. Most likely he nibbles a lot because it's so easy for hitters to hit home runs, so he may still be very good. Even if he's good, he's now pitching against a good lineup in Coors field, so he figures to be a 5 ERA pitcher or worse. But the Dodgers are sending Hendrickson against him, so I'm calling it a toss-up.

So, there it is. 2 wins, 1 loss, and a toss-up is the prediction. Dodgers take the series 2.5 to 1.5. ;-)

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