Is it time to worry about Carlos Gonzalez?

Colorado Rockies slugger Carlos Gonzalez has gotten off to a rough start. Should we be worried? Photo Credit: Harry How – Getty Images North America

Colorado Rockies fans have grown accustomed to Carlos Gonzalez being a feared hitter in the middle of the order. Why wouldn’t they? With a career slash line of .298/.357/.534, 765 hits, 148 doubles, 31 triples, 133 home runs, and a 125 wRC+ as a Rockie, it’s only natural that both he and the fans have come to expect him to hit. This year, however, has been a major struggle for CarGo. In his first 61 PA of the season, he has a dreadful .175/.213/.298 slash line, good for just 24 wRC+. In his last seven games, he is an awful 1-for-24 and in his last start he was dropped down to sixth in the order. Is this just a slump, or is it time to worry?

The easiest way to find out if there’s something really wrong with CarGo is to compare some of the peripheral statistics of  what he’s done this season to what he’s done in his career. Does it look more like bad luck, or has something changed that has caused him to suddenly not be able to hit?

Some of the big statistics to look at when trying to figure this out are BABIP, HR/FB%, K%, BB%, O-Swing% (the percentage of pitches out of the strike zone that a hitter has swung at), Z-Swing% (the percentage of pitches in the strike zone that a hitter has swung at), and Contact% (percentage of the time a hitter makes contact when he swings). Let’s take a look at these areas and see where he has been this year in comparison to his career numbers:

BABIP
2015 – .196
Career – .341

K%
2015 – 18%
Career – 22.2%

BB%
2015 – 4.9%
Career – 7.8%

HR/FB%
2015 – 7.1%
Career – 18.2%

O-Swing%
2015 – 33.6%
Career – 35.3%

Z-Swing%
2015 – 74.3%
Career – 66.3%

Contact%
2015 – 74%
Career – 74.8%

So, the results are in, and this looks like a whole lot of bad luck to me. His BABIP is almost a full 150 points below his career average and his HR/FB% is more than 10% lower than his career average as well. The likelihood of those things continuing all season are slim to none and as they revert closer to his career averages, we will see his offensive numbers improve.

In addition to what appears to be some bad luck, his 18% strikeout rate would actually be the best of his career. On top of that, despite having a career low walk rate, he has actually swung at slightly fewer pitches out of the strike zone this year than he has in his career while swinging at more pitches in the strike zone than he has in his career. If anything, this may suggest a bit of an improvement in plate discipline for CarGo and could be a good sign going forward. He is also making contact at almost the exact same rate that he has throughout his big league career, so that doesn’t appear to be the issue either.

Now, if we really want to find something to worry about, there’s always the proverbial “eye test.” CarGo just doesn’t look good right now. It seems like he isn’t staying on the ball the way he needs to and is instead just rolling everything over for an easy groundout into the shift. It’s frustrating to watch him do this, but it’s also something we’ve seen from him before and is something that he has always snapped out of in the past. The next time you see him make solid contact and take the ball either up the middle or to the opposite field, watch out.

Another thing that completely baffles me has been his reluctance (though he is definitely not alone here) to just lay down a bunt when the opposing team shifts to put three infielders on the same side of the field. Even a mediocre bunt is going to be a hit when the defense plays him this way and when a hitter is in a slump like CarGo, he should do anything he can to just find a way on base. Sometimes a simple bunt single is all it takes to get a hitter on track and back into a good place offensively. Another plus is that, if he does it enough times, the defense will be forced into a more traditional alignment, which will open up holes for him when he swings away. CarGo, if you’re reading this, try a bunt please.

Slumps are no fun for anyone involved. The fans don’t like to watch it, the coaching staff doesn’t like trying to figure out what’s wrong, and the player certainly doesn’t like experiencing it. However, as unenjoyable as this, or any, slump might be, I’ll take solace in knowing that he he isn’t broken. He’s just been unlucky. Who knows, maybe this time next week I’ll be writing about how CarGo is the hottest hitter going.

Be sure to subscribe, like View from the Rooftop on Facebook, follow on Twitter, and check back on Monday, April 27, as I take a look back at the third week of the season and look ahead to week four. As always, comments and feedback are welcome and thanks for reading!

How to Handle the Colorado Rockies Bullpen

Adam Ottavino is the best reliever the Rockies have. How should they use him? Photo Credit: Thearon W. Henderson – Getty Images North America

For years, the “right way” to utilize a bullpen has never really come into question. The idea is that a team should have their best relief pitcher be the “closer” and throw the ninth inning. The second best reliever on the team should be the “eighth inning guy,” and the third best reliever on the team should be the “seventh inning guy.” The thinking behind this is that the later it gets into a game, the more important the situations become. Obviously, a manager wants to use his best reliever in the most important situations, so it just makes sense to put the best relief arm in the ninth inning. Is the ninth inning always the most important though? That’s what we’re here to find out.

The best way to determine the importance of a situation is the Leverage Index (LI). To see which inning has been the most important so far in 2015 I took a look at the win probability charts over at fangraphs.com which told me the inning that had the highest LI for Rockies relief pitchers when they entered the game. Here’s what I found:

Seventh inning – Four games with the highest LI, one game tied for the highest LI, one game with the second highest LI, two games with the lowest LI

Eighth inning – Six games with the second highest LI, two games with the lowest LI

Ninth inning – Five games with the highest LI, one game tied for the highest LI, two games with the lowest LI

This is a very small sample size, but it still gives us some interesting data. Both the seventh and the ninth inning have been the highest LI inning more than anything else, while the eighth inning has almost always been the second highest. Maybe we’ve found a sweet spot and have been correct all along in thinking that the second best reliever belongs in the eighth inning. What to do with the best reliever, Adam Ottavino in the Rockies case, is still very much up in the air.

Personally, I don’t think it’s wise to tie your best relief pitcher down to just the ninth inning every game. If my team is ahead by one run in the seventh inning and the other guys have their 3-4-5 hitters coming up, I don’t want to blow that lead because I’m “saving” my best bullpen arm for the ninth. It makes sense to me to use the best guy you have right there, because that is where he will be able to benefit the team the most.

Naturally, not everybody will think this way. Others might believe that it’s more important to give each reliever a specific inning every night so that he can be comfortable in a routine, but I don’t believe that is very important for most guys. I would much rather put both the players and the team in a position to succeed by giving each pitcher as many right on right or left on left match-ups as possible and by using the best relief pitchers when the other team’s best hitters are coming to the plate.

The Rockies have lots of strong bullpen options in 2015. On the right side, they have Adam Ottavino, Rafael Betancourt, John Axford, Brooks Brown, and LaTroy Hawkins (yes, he’s still a strong option despite his rough start). They also have two strong left handed options in Boone Logan and Christian Friedrich that should allow manager Walt Weiss plenty of opportunities to mix and match and use people when it will be best for both them and the team. How well he’s able to do it will play a big role in determining how effective the Rockies bullpen will be.

How do you think Walt Weiss should handle the Rockies bullpen? Should he be traditional, should he mix and match, or do you have an even better idea? Let me know in the comments and be sure to like View from the Rooftop on Facebook, follow on Twitter (I will be live tweeting just about every game), and check back on Monday, April 20, as I look back at week two of the season and look ahead to week three!

The Perfect Rockies Lineup

Corey Dickerson is too good to be hitting sixth in the batting order. Photo Credit: Barry Gutierrez – The Associated Press

The Colorado Rockies are fresh off an opening series that saw them score 20 runs on 38 hits, 16 of which were doubles, en route to their first road series win/sweep since June of 2014. In all three games, the batting order was exactly the same. That means that it must be perfect, right? Actually, it probably isn’t. Let’s take a look at what the Rockies can do to get the most out of their lineup.

First, let’s talk about the way a lineup is traditionally structured. Typically, teams will put their fastest runner at the top of the order, followed by someone who can bunt and handle the bat to get the leadoff man into scoring position. The third and fourth spots are where a team’s two best hitters belong. From the fifth spot on down, the hitters will go in descending order of quality. Is this the proper way to do things? According to The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball by Tom Tango, Mitchel Lichtman, and Andrew Dolphin, it isn’t.

If baseball statistics and sabermetrics interest you, The Book is an absolute must read.  It focuses on a lot more than just lineup construction, but that’s where we’ll stay for now. Using things like run expectancy, how often each spot in the batting order comes up, what types of things (is a walk more beneficial leading off than it is hitting sixth?) were most beneficial for each place in the batting order, and other complicated things that you can read about if you choose, the writers of The Book attempted to create the optimal lineup.

They first looked at some things that seemed fairly obvious, and ended up being just what they expected. For example, the number four hitter should be better than the number five hitter. Then, they looked at things that maybe weren’t so obvious. Who should be better, the second hitter or the fourth hitter? This continued on as they compared various spots in the batting order to each other. I highly recommend getting and reading the book to see exactly how they figured this out, but here are the most important conclusions they came to:

– The top three hitters should bat first, second, and fourth.

– Of those three, the batter with the highest ISO should bat fourth.

– The batter with the most walks should bat first.

– The fourth best hitter should bat fifth.

– The fifth best hitter should bat third.

– The rest of the batting order should be in descending order of quality.

– If the eighth best hitter is significantly better than the ninth best hitter, like in an average National League lineup with a pitcher, the team will actually score more runs batting the pitcher eighth because it creates more RBI opportunities for your best hitters at the top of the order.

Now that we know those “rules,” let’s try to optimize the Rockies batting order. First, let’s sort the Rockies typical starting lineup by their projected wOBA (weighted on-base average) for this season. Here’s that list:

Troy Tulowitzki – .400

Carlos Gonzalez – .370

Corey Dickerson – .365

Justin Morneau – .356

Nolan Arenado – .345

Charlie Blackmon – .328

Nick Hundley – .316

DJ LeMahieu – .306

Looking at that, we know that Tulowitzki, Gonzalez, and Dickerson should go first, second and fourth. Tulowitzki is projected for the highest ISO of the group, so let’s put him fourth. From the two that we have left, Gonzalez is projected to have more walks, so we’ll put him first. That leaves the second spot for Dickerson.

The fourth best projected hitter is Morneau, so he goes fifth. Arenado is our fifth best, meaning he belongs in the third slot according to The Book’s rules. From there, the rest of the job is easy. Blackmon goes sixth, Hundley goes seventh, the pitcher belongs eighth, and LeMahieu should bat ninth. There we have it, the optimal Rockies batting order! Let’s take a look at it, with the player who has actually hit in that spot for the first three games in parentheses:

Carlos Gonzalez (Charlie Blackmon)

Corey Dickerson (Carlos Gonzalez)

Nolan Arenado (Troy Tulowitzki)

Troy Tulowitzki (Justin Morneau)

Justin Morneau (Nolan Arenado)

Charlie Blackmon (Corey Dickerson)

Nick Hundley (Nick Hundley)

Pitcher (DJ LeMahieu)

DJ LeMahieu (Pitcher)

It looks like the Rockies have only been putting one of their nine hitters in the optimal place in the batting order. Does this mean that they’ll never score runs or that they can’t win with the batting order they’re using now? Obviously, after watching the first series of the season, the answer to that question is no. Even perfect lineup optimization for a full season probably only gains a team 10-15 extra runs. Nonetheless, it makes sense to try to gain any advantage you can in baseball and 10-15 runs could become one or two extra wins. This is one area that the Rockies could improve in, even if it’s only by a little bit.

Do you think this lineup would be better than the one the Rockies are using now? Have an idea for a lineup that would be better than both of these options? Let me know in the comments! Don’t forget to subscribe, like View from the Rooftop on Facebook, follow on Twitter, and check back on Monday, April 13, as we look back at the first week of the season, look ahead to the second week of the season, and name the first Rockies player and pitcher of the week.