Are the Red-Hot Rockies For Real?

iThanks to a 2-run blast by shortstop Troy Tulowitzki and some great pitching from Jhoulys Chacin, the Colorado Rockies were able to vanquish the Arizona Diamondbacks 3-1, running their winning streak out to 7 games. The offense has been hanging with the highest scoring lineups in the National League, the defense has been much improved thanks to the addition of Tulo and some nice improvements from catcher Wilin Rosario, and most importantly, the pitching staff has become competent.

Now, the fact that the Rockies can slug the ball is no surprise. After all, they managed to finish in the top 10 in baseball in runs scored a year ago despite losing one of their two best hitters for a majority of the season. But with Tulowitzki back in action, the Colorado lineup has taken it to the next level, turning into a hit parade. And no player in the Rockies’ lineup has taken a bigger step up then Dexter Fowler.

Fowler currently ranks 3rd in the National League with 38 total bases, trailing only his teammate Carlos Gonzalez and the magma-hot Justin Upton of the Braves. The most notable improvement in Fowler’s game has been his big step up in power. The Rockies’ centerfielder already has popped 7 homers this year, standing just 8 shy of his career high. Fowler has been aiming to pull the ball a little more, which may account for his increase in big flies. Check out his spray chart from 2012:

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Fairly balanced, right? Fowler had a tendency to pull the ball a little more in 2012, but for the most part his hit distribution is even. Now check out what the Rockies’ table setter has done thus far in 2013:

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Every single one of Fowler’s hits, apart from that one green dot in deep centerfield, has been pulled. That aggressive, pull-happy approach at the plate is paying off in a big way for Dexter Fowler and it will be interesting to see if he can keep it up over the course of the season. It could mean 20-25 homers if he does.

Fowler’s not the only Rockies’ hitter crushing the ball either. His outfield mates, Michael Cuddyer and Carlos Gonzalez, have each posted massive early season numbers. The pair of corner outfielders have combined to hit 7 homers with 5 steals while knocking in 21 runs. Catcher Willin Rosario is also in on the act, hitting .306 with 4 homers and 13 driven in. And let’s not forget Troy Tulowitzki, who has bombed 5 homers already in his return to the field while hitting .314. Those numbers are even more impressive when you consider the fact that the average MLB shortstop is hitting .255 right now with just 1 homer.

Tulo’s contributions haven’t just been felt in the lineup either.  Tulowitzki has made more plays in the middle of the infield than any other shortstop in the Major Leagues, which is a testament to his never-ending range and his rocket launcher arm. Even more impressively, Tulowitzki has done all of this without making an error. His presence in the middle of the Colorado defense may be a 2-win upgrade just on it’s own over the players the Rockies’ used at shortstop a year ago.

Tulo’s defense has also gone a long way to help a remade pitching staff, one that’s at least been able to hold water in the early going. A year ago the Rockies assembled the worst collection of arms baseball has seen since 2008, as their staff allowed a whopping 890 runs. When I wrote about Colorado’s chances to contend before the season began, I noted that Rangers and Orioles each allowed about 700 runs a year ago riding homer-happy offenses to the playoffs. That meant the Rockies would have to knock off somewhere around 160-190 runs in order to be truly competitive.

Well the early prognosis for the Rockies appears to be good. They’ve 4.47 runs per game, down from the 5.49 runs the nightmare staff allowed a year ago. Some simple math tells us the Rockies are on pace to knock off about 160 runs from their total a year ago, which would put Colorado square in the middle of the chase for the NL West crown. So how have the Rockies been able to do it and can they keep it up?

Well, getting staff ace Jhoulys Chacin back to full health has been a godsend. Chacin has been brilliant for the Rockies thus far, going 3-0 with a 1.46 ERA in 24.2 innings. His breaking pitches have been dancing around hitters’ bats and his fastball and most impressively, his command has been excellent.

New acquisition Jon Garland has also played a big role for the Rockies, attacking opposing hitters with a barrage of sinkers, fastballs, and cutters. Once he gets ahead of a hitter, Garland has been leaning on a droopy, 12-6 curveball to finish the job. That kind of success probably won’t keep up however, because Garland’s 2-0 record has only been tested by the likes of the Padres and Mets, two weak-hitting ball clubs.

The rest of the rotation has been somewhat of a mixed bag as it features Jorge De La Rosa, Jeff Francis, and Juan Nicasio. If those three guys can keep the game competitive, they stand a chance of handing the Rockies a win because of an excellent bullpen, led by closer Rafael Betancourt and his 1.08 ERA.

I’m of the opinion that Colorado will remain competitive deep into September but there are also some warning signs in the Rocky Mountains. Colorado has faced one of the easiest schedules in baseball thus far, racking up 6 wins against the abysmal San Diego Padres and another 3 against the Mets. The schedule toughens up in a hurry too. After finishing this 3 game set with the Diamondbacks, the Rockies will host the team with the best record in baseball, Atlanta, followed by a couple inter-divisional series against Los Angeles and Arizona. By the time May rolls around both the Rays and the Yankees will stop by for a visit and we will know a hell of a lot more about baseball’s biggest early season surprise.

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