Wednesday, May 29, 2024
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Rockies Players to Watch in 2021

Following the trade of Nolan Arenado, a hole lies on the left side of the Rockies infield and in the middle of their lineup. A long-time fantasy king, Arenado will be departing Coors Field, notorious for inflating game scores and acting as a gold mine for fantasy baseball.

The often dubbed “Coors effect” receives far more attention than its counterpart, the “Coors hangover.” Statistical analysis in recent years has granted insight into the full picture when it comes to Coors Field. Research shows that pitches move significantly different at the mile-high Coors Field versus the rest of MLB’s parks.

As a result, Rockies players need to be viewed in a different light. They have the most difficult task in MLB having to adjust to different variations of the sport. As I brought up in my analysis of the Nolan Arenado trade, data – via Connor Kurcon – shows that the first two or three days of a road trip are notably more challenging versus the next few for Rockies hitters.

Still, members of the Rockies will play 81 games at their hitter’s haven home park where they lead the league in offensive home-field production since 2002 when Fangraphs began tracking splits data. Conversely, they’re the worst offensive team in baseball on the road since at least 2002.

The same fate falls upon the pitching staff as they’ve been the worst in the league by Weighted On-Base Average (wOBA) since at least 2002 while at home and 20th in road wOBA against.

To summarize, view Rockies players — pitchers and hitters — with a grain of salt, knowing consistency will not be their trademark. Even in this context, there are some players likely to step up following Arenado’s departure. Beyond Trevor Story and Charlie Blackmon in the lineup and German Marquez in the rotation, who can be expected to perform?

Starting off in the infield, we have the two players set to benefit the most from Arenado’s departure, Ryan McMahon and Brendan Rodgers.

A Long-Awaited Breakout

McMahon has been a regular in the Rockies infield for two years now and it’s been a bumpy ride. In 2019, McMahon launched 24 home runs while also walking 10.4% of the time. However, a near 30% strikeout rate dampened his on-base percentage to just .329.

Max’s Sporting Studio’s Predictive Weighted on Base Average (pwOBA) is lukewarm on McMahon, as he recorded a league average .319 pwOBA in 2019.

McMahon’s 2019 Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+) was 88, 12 percent below league average but, after a 98 wRC+ in the second half along with 17 of his 24 home runs, McMahon seemed on pace to breakout.

An average exit velocity and hard-hit percentage both in the 92nd percentile seemed to support this breakout potential. Instead, things got worse in 2020 as the 26-year-old infielder struggled his way to a 76 wRC+ amid a jump in strikeouts and a decrease in quality of contact.

The only positive to take away is that 2020 offered some skewed samples across the board, as analyzed by Kyle Berger on this site. McMahon’s walk rate and quality of contact are worth keeping an eye on and give him a reasonably high floor.

Fangraphs’ ZiPS projection system is somewhat optimistic about McMahon, pegging him for a .781 OPS with 22 home runs. The potential variance for McMahon is as equally risky as it could be rewarding. Don’t be surprised if his OPS finishes a whole .100 above or below his ZiPS projection.

From a fantasy perspective, McMahon is worth a late-round flyer. In dynasty leagues, consider trying to capitalize on his low value, as it’s unlikely to get any lower.

A Floridian Phenom

Brendan Rodgers has been a heralded prospect for what seems like a decade now, though it’s only been 6 years since he was drafted 3rd overall out of Lake Mary High School in Florida in 2015. Despite some injuries along the way, Rodgers has put together a fantastic minor league career with a .855 career OPS and 66 home runs in 387 games, all while playing between 2.5 and 4.3 years below the league average age.

Rodgers’s first taste of MLB hasn’t been as positive. So far – albeit in just 102 PAs — the 24-year-old owns just a .462 OPS. Part of that lies on him and part of it lies on Rockies staff for rarely allowing him to start consecutive games. For a player that has starred at every level he’s ever played, not being able to establish a rhythm through everyday playing time could have a huge effect on his play.

Video via MiLB

Therefore, the exit of Nolan Arenado could be a saving grace for the Florida native. With the versatility to play 2B, SS, and 3B, Rodgers finally has a clear shot to playing time. McMahon primarily played at 2B last year and it’s unclear if he’ll make the move back to his natural position of 3B, stick at 2B where he has been a capable defender, or slide over to 1B.

For Rodgers, he needs to take advantage of the opportunity. While irregular playing time has exaggerated his MLB struggles so far, those struggles have still been self-induced. His average exit velocity of just 86 mph on 64 batted balls and his 33/4 strikeout to walk ratio (K/BB) should sound the alarm, although shoulder injuries have plagued the 24-year-old.

At this point, Rodgers may go undrafted in redraft leagues unless there is a Brendan Rodgers truther in the draft room. The risk of taking him in one of the last rounds isn’t as great as it might seem on the surface. Rodgers is still an uber-talented hitter who’s set to receive near-everyday playing time in 2021, assuming he plays up to par.

As is the case with McMahon, the real Rodgers strategy could take place in dynasty leagues. While he’s likely to be rostered in basically every dynasty league, his value lies at rock bottom. Consider throwing a trade proposal to the Rodgers owner in your league for a low to mid-tier asset.

Shouldering the Rotation

Finally, let’s take a look at the pitching side with Jon Gray. Like Rodgers, Gray was taken 3rd overall by the Rockies, though two years earlier in 2013. At one point viewed to take the throne as the best starter in Rockies history, Gray’s career has been stalled by injuries and inconsistency.

Between 2016 and 2019, Gray ranked 20th among starting pitchers in fWAR as he flashed the ace upside he was drafted for. In each of those four seasons, Gray also recorded a pwOBA better than league average.

100 is average for pwOBA+, anything below 100 is better than average (i.e. a 98 pwOBA+ is 2% better than league average).

Unfortunately, things completely unraveled in 2020. Gray seemed to have a dead arm as his fastball only averaged 94 mph compared to 96 mph in 2019. Also, Gray decided to increase his changeup usage from 2.9% to 13.1%, an extremely questionable and confusing move indicated by an astounding .642 wOBA against the pitch.

Video via MLB

All-in-all, Gray’s strikeout percentage dropped from his career average of 23.8% to just 12.6% with his ground ball percentage tanking from his career average of 46.3% to 36.7%. With strikeouts and ground balls representing the keys to success for Rockies pitchers, failure was written on the wall.

Following his September 1st start against the Giants in which he only lasted 2.2 innings, Gray was shut down with a shoulder injury that seemed to have been bothering him the whole season.

With all this in mind, Gray’s disastrous 2020 can be pinned on poor health as he didn’t resemble the same pitcher in terms of both results and execution. Now heading into a contract year, Gray has all the incentive he needs to return to form in order to secure a big free agent deal. A healthy shoulder should mean an appearance of the Jon Gray that baseball fans know – a frontline starter.

For redraft leagues, Gray should be a late-round target and, as is the theme for this piece, a buy-low target in dynasty leagues.

In terms of the rest of the rotation, Kyle Freeland and Antonio Senzatela should be considered as late-round picks. Senzatela’s upside is high if he utilizes his breaking pitches more to garner higher strikeout totals. The newly acquired Austin Gomber should be on fantasy radars but his pitching style likely won’t generate much success at Coors Field.

In the bullpen, Scott Oberg should return as the club’s closer and, hopefully, reassert himself as a late inning weapon. Yency Almonte, Daniel Bard, and Mychal Givens are deep-league longshots.

The Rockies recently signed C.J. Cron to a minor-league deal, according to the team, and now represents the likely starter at 1B. After signing with the Tigers for the 2020 season, Cron was off to a hot start, swatting 4 homers and walking 17.3% of the time in 52 PAs, good for a 138 wRC+. His season was cut short after spraining a ligament in his knee that required surgery. 1B is a deep position for fantasy but Cron should almost definitely top 30 homers assuming he’s healthy and given regular playing time. He stands as a late-round bargain.

Finally, keep an eye on likely leadoff hitter Raimel Tapia, whose high-contact approach and plus speed will always play in some capacity. In terms of sleepers, rookie backstop Dom Nunez will get an opportunity to be a regular. His power potential and walk rate should get fantasy consideration but he’s not roster-worthy at this time.

Featured image via Twitter @Rockies

Tyler Paddor

A proponent of prospect analysis and endurer of Rockies idiocy. Twitter: @RoxDontRake