Anatomy of a Murder

To avoid any misunderstanding, a preface: Clayton Kershaw was amazing last night. His fastball had terrific late movement, so good that you could plainly see it on television. His slider and curveball were otherworldly. The curveball that befuddled Wilin Rosario in the 7th inning last night will be my lasting memory of the no-hitter. Kershaw deserves every bit of the praise he’s received — from high quarters and low ones like mine — for his performance.

Since I’m a Rockies fan, I want to focus less on Kershaw and more on the Rockies’ plate appearances last night, which generally were abysmal. A few hard shots found gloves instead of gaps but, in the main, the Rockies looked terrible.

I agree with my friend Jordan Freemyer, who rightly notes that Kershaw would’ve dominated just about any batting lineup last night. Great pitching has a way of making hitters look bad. But one corollary, I think, is that the Rockies likely would’ve been dominated by just about any pitcher last night.

What went wrong? Well, a few things, all of which contributed to the Rockies netting a total of one baserunner.

1.  Falling Behind. In the mind’s eye, it’s easy to picture the Rockies chasing at Kershaw’s pitches last night. But the chasing generally came later in the at-bats. The Rockies received — and either took or missed — plenty of first-pitch strikes. In fact, Kershaw’s first-pitch strike rate was 75 percent. So far in 2014, the Rockies have seen first-pitch strikes in 63.6 percent of their at-bats, a major-league high that Kershaw well surpassed. And, in the main, these were fastballs thrown by Kershaw. In fact, 71.4% of Kershaw’s fastballs last night went for strikes. Perhaps surprisingly, Colorado had pitches to hit from the outset, but completely failed to take advantage.

2.  Missing Out. Once Kershaw was ahead in the count, he drew the Rockies out of the zone, and with terrific success. For the Rockies’ part, chasing Kershaw’s pitches was folly. Here’s Kershaw’s strikezone plot from last night (from Brooks Baseball):

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Now, here’s the plot modified to show pitches outside the zone that the Rockies either missed or fouled off. There are 27 of those out of the total 107 pitches Kershaw threw:

Screen Shot 2014-06-19 at 7.10.45 AM2Colorado thus swung and made no meaningful contact on 25 percent of Kershaw’s pitches, because they were chased outside the zone. Falling behind put the Rockies’ hitters in a defensive posture, and Kershaw made them pay for it. And, for their part, the Rockies did themselves no favors by obliging Kershaw’s fairly straightforward gameplan. They’d have been much better served by staying patient, even at the risk of taking a second strike, than by expanding the zone for Kershaw.

3.  Trouble with the Curve(s). The strikezone plot underscores just how disastrous it was for the Rockies to expand the zone. Twelve of the 27 pitches at which the Rockies swung and missed (or fouled off) were down and in to right-handed hitters. This underscores just how terrific Kershaw’s breaking pitches were last night, with the Rockies flailing haplessly at them (evidenced by the swinging strikes). Here, for example, is a different plot that breaks down Kershaw’s pitches by type (again, from Brooks).

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You can see here just how many sliders and curves Kershaw threw down in the zone (indicated in red and orange). But you can also see how many curves and sliders found themselves inside the strikezone. Nonetheless, the Rockies were unable to do anything with them. Colorado swung and missed on over 38 percent of Kershaw’s sliders. Taking fastballs and swinging at the breaking stuff made for a poor combination.

Where does this leave the Rockies? In a way, it remains to be seen. We’ll know more this weekend when they play Milwaukee. It well could be that Colorado ran into a pitcher who unquestionably had the stuff for a perfect game last night. But it also could be that the Rockies’ lineup, at least as it was constituted last night, has a mixed-up plate approach that needs to be corrected to avoid getting blanked again.

Look Good, Feel Good

Screen Shot 2014-06-18 at 10.38.31 AM“Not everybody knows your rules, Larry. You’ve got your own set of rules and you think everyone’s going to adhere to them but they’re NOT. Because nobody knows them.”

Fan attire is important to me. I really don’t know why, since I’m generally of the live-and-let-live variety. It shouldn’t matter to me what other people choose to wear to ballgames.

But, honestly, it does. There is, in my view, a dress code for fans at baseball games, one that repeatedly and persistently is broken.

At a game during the last Rockies homestand — one game — I saw two Cardinals jerseys, two Giants jerseys, a Red Sox jersey, and at least four Broncos jerseys. I also saw a Drew Brees jersey.

The Rockies weren’t playing St. Louis, or Boston, or San Francisco. Or the Denver Broncos. Or the New Orleans Saints. They were playing the Dodgers, and despite the generally decent turnout of LA fans to Coors Field, they had a run for their money from fans wearing gear from teams that weren’t facing the Rockies and, in fact, don’t play the same sport.

This won’t do. It’s chaotic and nonsensical and, most importantly, provokes terrible revenge fantasies in which I scalp tickets to the AFC Championship and sit on the 50-yard line dressed head to toe in a Rockies uniform (but with stirrups, not high socks). As satisfying as that would be, it also would be very expensive.

There’s a complaint among some fair-minded people that baseball has too many unwritten rules. I don’t agree, since unwritten rules are part of our lives, even outside of baseball. But in the interests of addressing that concern, I’d put the following on the back of every Rockies ticket stub, right underneath the “Waiver and Release of Liability” and above the “Rain Check Policy.”

DRESS CODE

Holder is admitted on the condition, and by use of this ticket, Holder agrees to wear:

Headwear:

  • a Colorado Rockies ballcap (defined as either an official on-field cap, a spring training/batting practice cap, a fashion cap, or one of those weird New Era caps with different colors provided that such colors are neutral and not green and gold or something dumb like that);
  • a generic ballcap with no team logo;
  • a ballcap of the visiting team (defined as the ballclub that’s visiting that day, not St. Louis just because they’ll be in town in a month);
  • a minor league ballcap, because those are pretty neat;* or
  • no ballcap, provided that there’s no weird head-painting of something like a Yankees or Nuggets logo.

Shirts / Jerseys:

  • a Colorado Rockies shirt, provided that Holder is not also wearing a ballcap of the visiting team, because what the hell?;
  • a generic shirt with no team logo;
  • a shirt with the logo of the visiting team, provided that Holder isn’t also wearing a Colorado Rockies ballcap (see above);
  • a shirt with a cool old minor league logo or something like that;
  • the visiting team’s jersey; or
  • a Colorado Rockies jersey, provided that the jersey is not one of those cheap knockoffs. Former players are acceptable, but the dated Avs-Rockies “Roy ker” jersey doesn’t count as a Rockies jersey. Seriously, put it away. Please note that a Denver Broncos jersey is under no circumstances a Colorado Rockies jersey. No exceptions for Sunday games in September.

Violation of the foregoing is grounds for ejection from the ballpark.

 

Screen Shot 2014-06-18 at 10.40.50 AMNow, that isn’t hard to follow, is it?

 

* language amended to include all minor-league ballcaps upon wise counsel from Charlie Petro (@petrocw).

Gone Fishin’

No really. I’m heading to the Big Thompson for a long weekend of catching (but mostly missing) trout. The downside is there’s not much time to write about Tyler Matzek’s outstanding performance last night, which was the third best by a Rockies rookie making his first big-league start. But consider these two items.

First, like I noted on Twitter last night, Matzek was the first Rockies starter to throw 7 or more innings of 5-hit, no-walk ball in over two years. Juan Nicasio was the last Rockie to do that, on May 12, 2012. This is exactly the kind of dominant performance that the Rockies haven’t received from their starters in this current slump, and it’s exactly the kind of dominant performance that will get them out of it.

Second, in the space of three days, we’ve seen two of the best debuts by a Rockies starting pitcher in franchise history. Christian Bergman’s opening performance on Monday night was the 11th best by a Rockies starter.  Here’s the Top 15, from Baseball Reference:

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It’s a pretty cool feat by the new duo, and a welcome sign. While it’d be a mistake to put too much confidence in Matzek and Bergman this season, at a minimum this week has shown the Rockies are still plenty worth following this summer, even if they slide out of postseason contention.

In the meantime, Matzek’s terrific work netted a win and put the Rockies in a position to earn a split with the Braves this afternoon. The injuries and poor play have made this homestand a bummer, but breaking even with Atlanta today would be a nice send-off for the Rockies’ road trip.

Troubling Our Own House

Juan Nicasio surrendered an even 10 runs last night, including 7 in the first inning. The bullpen chimed in with a few more, and the Rockies lost 13-10. It was a game from the Bad Old Days before the humidor, with the two clubs combining for 23 runs on 29 hits in just under four hours of playing time. Yuck.

The Rockies’ offensive outburst obscures, if only a little, the fact that the pitchers once again coughed up double digits in runs at Coors Field. That’s now happened seven times this year in the span of 31 games. To put that into context, consider that last year the Rockies gave up 10+ runs at home in only six games. The Rockies are on pace to do it over 18 times this year, which would be the most since 2004.

Nor is this a statistical oddity — to the contrary, it’s part of a broader problem. After last night, the Rockies have given up 174 runs in their home ballpark, which puts visitors on a course for 458 runs in the season. That’d be over 70 runs more than last year and a disappointing setback after 2013. And while it’s trite, it’s worth noting the correlation between runs surrendered and home losses.

Screen Shot 2014-06-11 at 10.22.12 AM

Amazingly, in baseball, giving up runs decreases the chances of winning. If this doesn’t impress the Nobel Committee, then I give up.

But what it does show is that, with rare exception, the Rockies can’t simply slug their way into a winning record at home. Last night was a good example of that. The pitching has to hold up its end of the bargain. Over the past six weeks, it hasn’t done that. And, given the injuries, the reserves will play a big role in redirecting the trend.

That’ll undoubtedly induce more than a few eye-rolls, but a little patience is in order. Christian Bergman was terrific in the series opener, and tonight we’ll finally get to see what Tyler Matzek brings to the big leagues. Eddie Butler’s shoulder seems less serious that initially feared, and Tyler Chatwood and Brett Anderson are almost certain to pitch again this season. And that’s not to mention that De La Rosa and Chacin are still in the rotation. There’s time, in other words, to regain the advantage at Coors Field.

But regardless of who takes the mound, it’ll be up to them to staunch the bleeding of runs and, in so doing, to replenish the win column for home games. The offense can’t do it alone.

28 Days Later

The Rockies were 23-17 on May 12, only 2 games back in the division and still at the peak of their offensive production (.854 OPS). Since then, power hitting has plummeted (slugging has dropped by 40 points, OPS by 50 points), pitching has faltered (team ERA has climbed by half a run), and the Rockies have lost their footing.

Did I say “lost their footing?” I meant plummeted off the cliff. The Rockies have the 2nd worst record in baseball over the past 30 games (9-20, with one suspended game), 2nd worst over the past 20 games (5-14, again, with a suspended game), and are tied for the worst record over the past 10 games (1-9). Thank goodness for the Rays.

Over this 28-day stretch, the once-formidable Rockies offense is now below league average, carrying a 98 sOPS+ that ranks 18th in baseball. Compared to its overall production in 2014, the Rockies offense has had the worst 28-day stretch in the league (78 tOPS+, last in baseball).

As a result, the Rockies are now a season-worst five games under .500 (29-34) and 12.5 games back in the division. By way of (depressing) comparison, the 2012 Rockies club was 13 games back at this same point in the season.

And like the 2012 Rockies club, the 2014 team is still in free fall. Injuries can’t account for the past month, where the Rockies have played  anemic baseball. When the history of the 2014 club is written, it’d be wrong to ignore the team’s worsening trend before the team’s worsening health. But injuries have prevented the Rockies from arresting their plunge. Every team has poor stretches. But poor stretches — coupled with a burgeoning disabled list — make for a very grim combination.

The Rockies are unlikely to declare forfeits the rest of the season, so the show must go on. That means calling up reserves for the rotation, which started last night with Christian Bergman’s terrific performance and the news that Tyler Matzek will start on Wednesday. All Bergman did was give the Rockies six innings of 2-run, 4-hit ball against a division-leading Braves club. Bergman’s Game Score was 56, the best posted by a Rockies starter in the past 11 games. When the club gets serviceable starting pitching (a Game Score of 50 or better), it’s 21-8 this year.

Of course, that’s a record achieved in part by a generally healthy offense. That offense is gone with Cuddyer, Arenado and CarGo on the disabled list. And its current iteration — which includes Drew Stubbs and Charlie Culberson — isn’t likely to carry the team as far. That’s particularly the case since Charlie Blackmon (.575 OPS in the past 28 days) and Justin Morneau (.567 OPS in the past 28 days) appear to be tapering off from their hot start, which leaves Troy Tulowitzki, Corey Dickerson, and an inconsistent Wilin Rosario as the team’s big bats. But baseball is fickle and it’s possible that the club could generate enough offense to turn things back to where they were in early May.

I just wouldn’t count on another reversal of fortune 28 days from now.

The Second Inning

Eddie Butler’s debut may not have met expectations. It may have produced another loss, the Rockies’ eighth in a row. And it may have dropped the team to four games below .500, a mark the Rockies didn’t reach until Independence Day last year. Our ballclub has eaten all of the seed corn from its hot April start, and will have to work hard over the remainder of this homestand to avoid hitting the division’s basement.

But I don’t want to write about any of that. I want to write about the top of the second inning in last night’s game, which looks pretty unremarkable: 1 run, 2 hits, 3 groundouts. But the numbers just tell us what happened – they don’t tell us all of the little reasons for why it happened.

Matt Kemp was the first batter to face Eddie Butler in the second inning. He seemed overmatched, falling behind quickly before grounding out. The at-bat was important, at least to me, because it showed how Butler was willing to challenge a struggling-but-still-potent hitter with an elevated fastball in the zone, despite being ahead 0-2. Butler didn’t let the first inning get to him, and it showed in that opening matchup against Kemp.

Andre Ethier was up next, and he jumped on the first pitch to lace a groundball between Culberson and Tulo for a hit. It was a reasonably hard hit ball, but I was surprised by how far Tulo was shaded up the middle. I’m sure it made sense, since Ethier is left-handed and Butler throws off-speed pitches, not to mention the Rockies have a book on where to position defenders for a particular hitter. But the hit shows that averages are just that — averages resulting from various outcomes — and if Tulo was playing a truer shortstop on that ball, Ethier would’ve been out.

As it stood, Ethier was at first, and right-hander Justin Turner came to the plate. Once again, Tulo played closer to second base, and as with Ethier, it made a difference. Turner hit the ball to Tulo’s right — closer to the true shortstop position. Tulo reached the ball, but didn’t have the time (and wasn’t turned the right way) to start a double play. He made a terrific throw across his body to get Turner at first. Ethier advanced to second, and Butler had two outs.

What happened next stood out to me, because Tulo came to the mound, grabbed Butler by the belt, and chatted for about 15 seconds. It was a good time for a short talk. For the second time in as many innings, Butler had a runner in scoring position without a force. But there were two outs, and Tulo clearly was encouraging Butler (and also keeping him focused). Of course, I have no idea what they were talking about — maybe changing signs with Ethier on second, maybe the greatness of Peanut Butter Cap’n Crunch. But Tulo took the moment to show his leadership on the diamond, one former Rockies prospect bucking up a current one.

Butler threw several good sliders last night. The slider he threw to Drew Butera wasn’t one of them. It hung in the zone too long, and Butera tattooed it to center field. It was a low line drive, so Ethier never hesitated heading home. Another run in, and the inning wasn’t over.

At least not officially. Hyun-jin Ryu batted with Butera on second. He eventually tapped a slow roller back to Butler, which was another moment that stood out to me. It must be a strange feeling for a player to pour all of his focus and energy into making the right pitches in his first big-league start — all of the thinking and guessing and worrying — and then have to switch it off in a split-second in order to field his position. Butler did it ably, though, maybe more muscle-memory and instinct than actual thought, fielding the ball and tossing it over to Morneau for the final out.

The second inning came and went, and soon will be forgotten in the expanse of the season. But it deserves a little mention, because I thought it captured a small portion of the hidden pieces and parts that make baseball such a fascinating game.

Butler’s Night in the Sun

The Rockies’ pitching has been dreadful in recent weeks, and nothing changed last night. Juan Nicasio pitched 5.1 innings, but really should’ve been pulled much sooner. He gave up 7 runs on 11 hits before handing the ball over to the bullpen, which proceeded to do what the bullpen has been doing of late. Five more runs scored, and with them, the DBacks ensured their sweep.

The bullpen deserves every bit of the scorn it’s currently receiving, but save a little for the starters, too. Since the May 9-11 series in Cincinnati, a Rockies starting pitcher has gone seven innings exactly twice. Both times it was Jorge De La Rosa (May 16 and June 3). That’s a stretch of 22 games. Little wonder that the Rockies are 6-16 in those affairs.

So tonight the Rockies will steep Eddie Butler into this cauldron of ineptitude, where he’ll try to pitch the club into the win column for the first time in eight games. Since 2002, only 14 other Colorado rookies made their pitching debut by starting a game. Neither Aaron Cook nor Ubaldo Jimenez is on that list, as both debuted in relief appearances before starting. But some of the names are notable ones:

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How did they fare? Well, a few of the rookies pitched extremely well. Franklin Morales, Juan Nicasio, Drew Pomeranz and Christian Friedrich were terrific in their debuts, giving up a total of two earned runs in their four starts. Others struggled, like Edwar Cabrera and Chad Bettis. And, on average, the numbers suggest that our expectations for Butler should be tempered. The 14 Colorado rookies had a collective 5.91 ERA, 6.49 FIP, and 1.59 WHIP in their debuts.

These averages are interesting, but I’m not sure they tell us all that much about what to expect from Butler, since they lump in legitimate pitching prospects (e.g., Jeff Francis) with lesser lights (e.g., Alan Johnson). These past starts do tell us, though, that while we ought to be reasonable about what to expect from Butler, we shouldn’t be too shocked if he pitches well, ala Morales and Nicasio.

The numbers also tell us that the Rockies likely will treat Butler’s arm with care. The aforementioned 14 rookies went an average of 5 innings in their first game. So save your beer runs tonight for when the bullpen takes over. You can thank me later.

 

 

The Drubbing

Baseball can be mean, and it was no meaner than the eight-run blowout visited upon the home team. Losing by eight in your own park is a brutal blow to the hometown fans.

And it’s not just the blowout. It’s getting a hard-earned lead in the game, then watching as the bullpen coughs it up in the late frames. There’s not much more demoralizing than that.

I refer, of course, to the Rockies’ 12-4 shellacking of the Reds in Cincinnati, which happened on this date last year. Carlos Gonzalez hit three home runs, Troy Tulowitzki hit two, and Todd Helton even joined in the fun, hitting his sixth home run of the season over the left-center field wall. It was a good old-fashioned drubbing by the visiting team after falling behind early in the game.

And it told us nothing about either team’s fortunes for the 2013 season. The Rockies finished with 74 wins, the Reds with 90 (including 49 wins at home, where the Rockies had blistered them). The Reds went 5-5 in the ten games after that game, and the Rockies went 5-5 in the next ten games.

It was a single ballgame, one that offered next to zero foreshadowing as to whether wheels remained attached to the high-capacity road vehicle, or whether the losing team was the equivalent of bread browned by heat. Baseball simply doesn’t provide that kind of insight in the space of nine innings.

So it goes with the Rockies’ game last night, where Colorado played the Reds’ role from a year ago, and the DBacks played the part of the Rockies. It was frustrating and disappointing and awful, but it told us practically nothing about either the Rockies’ problems (which already are well known) or how the Rockies will fare in correcting those problems.

The back-end of the bullpen, for example, is one such problem. It was a huge problem last night, and it’s been a problem for much of the season. While early on it was masked by run support acting like Clearasil on my 14-year old face, some of us saw the relief corps as an issue before the season’s first pitch was thrown. Last night might’ve reinforced the concern, but it didn’t reveal it.

Like I said last weekend, we Rockies fans were well-chuffed a short time back. The team bursted out of the gate and, in so doing, raised our hopes. It even led to some early (albeit qualified) victory laps.

It’s understandable — if “irrational exuberance” can motivate entire financial markets, a little allowance ought to be made for baseball fans.  But the sport has a indelible way of tapping us on our shoulders in the midst of our exuberance, and reminding us that baseball takes the long view. That’s good advice when a ballclub is riding high, and good advice when a ballclub is struggling. One game, or one series, does not usually a season make.

Now, to be clear, that’s not an excuse for complacency or lassitude or apathy. The Rockies need to find answers — and quickly — if they want to be competitive this summer. But their circumstances aren’t given to simple answers, and sometimes the best answer is patience, because a team generally is better off hoping that major-league talent climbs back to its normal levels, rather than rushing unproven talent or selling the future for a short-term fix.

Then again, in a season that I’ve always considered as a dress rehearsal for being competitive in 2015, I’m excited to see some of the youngsters get their shot in the big leagues.

Affliction

The Rockies’ offense remained stuck in neutral last night, scoring just two runs at home and extending their losing streak to five games. Colorado mustered seven hits and two walks against Arizona, a level of anemia achieved by the Rockies in only 11 games this year. Not surprisingly, they’re 1-10 in those games.

It’s also not surprising that 8 of those 11 games have come since May 6, when the Rockies thrashed the Rangers 12-1 at Coors Field, reaching the high-water mark for the offense (so far) in 2014.  The win on May 6 pushed the team slash line to .306/.354/.505, and Colorado sat seven games over .500.

Since then, the offense more or less has declined, and the Rockies’ record has declined along with it. The current slash line is now .283/.333/.466. That’s the lowest each percentage (BA, OBP and SLG) has been since the first week of the season.

Of particular concern are the Rockies’ struggles with getting runners on base and hitting the ball with power. Here are the trends of the Rockies’ on-base percentage and slugging percentage over the 24 games since (and including) May 6:

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Not good.

Now here’s the discouraging part: These numbers aren’t abnormally low. Consider the Rockies’ team slash lines for the past three seasons (and 2014):

2014: .283/.333/.466 (.347 wOBA)

2013: .270/.323/.418 (.324 wOBA)

2012: .274/.330/.436 (.331 wOBA)

2011: .258/.329/.410 (.324 wOBA)

In my view, the Rockies’ 2014 offense is the best of this bunch, particularly with a healthy Troy Tulowitzki. And the numbers (so far) reflect this, as the 2014 offense is outpacing its counterparts from the last three years. But, also in my view, the 2014 offense isn’t that much better than last year’s, and so far the numbers bear this out, as well, particularly when it comes to getting runners on base. It’s not a huge shock, then, that the Rockies currently have a record (28-29) very close to last year’s mark (30-27) at 57 games into the season.

Of course, troubles come not in single spies, but battalions. The starting rotation is struggling, and the back-end of the bullpen is worrisome. And I’m not persuaded that personnel moves here or there will solve the broader issues. Unless Eddie Butler can hit as well as pitch, the Rockies’ offense needs to break out of its funk tout de suite.

On Coors Field

Jorge De La Rosa takes the mound for the Rockies tonight, which is a good reason to think Colorado will snap its four-game losing streak. He faces the Arizona Diamondbacks, who sit at 23-36 and have one of baseball’s worst road offenses, another good reason to expect a win. And, as the final cut, the DBacks will start Chase Anderson, who was pitching in Double-A this time last month, and is making just his fourth career major-league start this evening.

Anderson has been uneven for Arizona in his first three outings, going five innings in each but not escaping the sixth. He pitched well against the White Sox in hitter-friendly U.S. Cellular Park (1 R, 2 H, 1 BB, 6 SO in 5.1 IP), but came back to earth in his outings against the Dodgers and Padres. After three starts, he has a 4.02 ERA and has allowed just about three baserunners every two innings.

Since this is Mr. Anderson’s first trip to Coors Field, and coming in only his fourth career start, no less, that should bode well for the Rockies, too, right? Well, that’s been more of a mixed bag.

Only 37 visiting pitchers have made one of their first four career starts at Coors Field. Of those, just 20 have done it since the Rockies installed a humidor at Coors Field in 2002. Jake Peavy started his third career big-league game at Coors Field, and Tim Lincecum started just his second. Casey Kelly was the last to do it, starting his second game here in September 2012.

So how have young opposing pitchers fared when they’ve made one of their first four career starts in Denver? Here’re some numbers:

  • These pitchers posted a collective 5.73 ERA in their 20 starts at Coors Field, with a 5.30 FIP.
  • Not surprisingly for young pitchers in a hitter’s park, the Rockies have generated traffic. On average, they had a 1.68 WHIP.
  • Curiously enough, though, these pitchers put together a respectable resume at Coors Field. Nine of them had a Game Score of 50 or better for their outings, and of those, five pitchers posted a score better than 50 (so above average). And where the rubber hits the road–with wins and losses–the Rockies are an even 10-10 in these 20 games.

Every team is different every season, of course, so history only guides us dimly here. But if it offers us anything, it’s that the DBacks starting Chase Anderson doesn’t make tonight a sure thing for the Rockies. Jorge facing Arizona’s offense, though, probably does.