DENVER – Sometimes a baseball season is 162 games. Sometimes, it’s just one.
And then there are those times when after playing 162 games and then one more… and then one more… your season becomes defined by a three-game sample size in which you were handily swept by the Milwaukee Brewers in a very public display of offensive futility.
That’s not to say that the Colorado Rockies offense wasn’t their biggest issue throughout all of 2018. Except for brief moments when the bullpen stole that dubious distinction, it was.
There are two main schools of thought on this.
One says, citing statistics like wRC+, that the Rockies offense is, or at least was, fundamentally flawed to the core. Their decent raw numbers are propped up by Coors Field and therefore the acquisition of Daniel Murphy represents a slight upgrade over DJ LeMahieu that is unlikely to move the needle much.
The other, citing some of the flaws of wRC+, see the issue with the offense as a bit more specific. The Rockies struggled particularly against righties and most especially at the end of the season when it mattered most. And, of course, the ever-present effects of the Coors Field Hangover remain a constant point of contention.
Daniel Murphy could not be more specifically tailored to address these three concerns.
This is an admittedly large category. Most starting pitchers in baseball are right-handed. But the Rockies were getting outclassed by Jordan Lyles and Chris Stratton last year.
They got on base at a clip of .315 against right-handed pitchers in 2018, the lowest mark among postseason teams, despite the boost Coors Field gives to raw statistics.
This is why Murphy as a replacement for LeMahieu in the lineup is not as simple as the slight upgrade he brings in terms of either the raw or more advanced statistics.
In 2018, one of his worst offensive seasons, Murphy hit .319/.356/.508 against righties and overall he has a career .834 OPS to LeMahieu’s career .734 mark.
Throughout his time in MLB, Murphy hasn’t had extreme splits by any means but he has always handled righties a bit better than lefties and given how prominent such pitchers are and the Rockies’ overall struggles again them last season, it makes all the sense in the world to move out a contact right-handed bat for a contact left-handed bat.
It can always be difficult to project how a player who has never had to cope with the Coors Field Hangover Effect will manage, but there is another part of Murphy’s profile that is promising.
Murphy has a career 11.9 percent strikeout rate combined with a 41.3 percent groundball rate.
LeMahieu is an excellent contact hitter, but by comparison, strikes out 15.2 percent of the time and hits the ball on the ground 53.8 percent of the time.
While it’s true that LeMahieu was already one of their more consistent hitters and it’s not like Murphy is replacing the streaky Ian Desmond in the lineup, the veteran of New York and Washington is, in theory, a better version of LeMahieu from a consistency standpoint.
Also, Murphy was famously at the forefront of the launch-angle revolution in 2016 when he began to top 20 home runs a season, passing on some of that information to players like Ryan Zimmerman who saw similarly increased power totals.
If a return to health and move to Coors Field means you can pencil Murphy in for at least 20 home runs while he keeps making contact at a high rate, he could have one of the most impressive all-around slash lines in baseball.
It is not insane to predict already that Murphy has a great chance at a batting title because of these specifics of his batting profile.
Like most baseball analysis, all of this is a conversation about how best to maximize a player’s potential to help his team over the course of 162 games.
But the Rockies are coming off the second-best season in their franchise history, winning 91 games despite clear problems with the offense.
With the pitching set to be even better in 2019, Colorado is absolutely counting on being in the postseason picture once more… but doing something a little different this time once they get there.
The vast majority of the Rockies’ 2018 roster had never played in a postseason series before they faced off against the Milwaukee Brewers in the NLDS. And the small handful of players who had any playoff experience whatsoever either came originally from other clubs or were drawing solely on the Wild Card loss in Arizona the year before.
Their lack of familiarity with that kind of baseball – combined with a brutal schedule – saw the season end in a whimper as the Colorado club was shutout in their final two games, including their last at the offensively-friendly ballpark.
It was tempting to place the blame on the “holes” in the lineup that had been there all season, but no man was immune.
In the NLDS, Charlie Blackmon, DJ LeMahieu, Nolan Arenado, and Trevor Story combined for just seven hits, only two went for extra bases.
Those four players, far and away the best bats the Rox boasted, have a combined 20 games of postseason experience (five games each) and none have performed especially well. Story tops the list with an .864 OPS, having been especially good in the two Wild Card games where he has hit .500/.500/.900 but there is a steep dropoff after that.
Story himself went .167/.167/.417 in the NLDS. LeMahieu’s career postseason OPS is .511, Arenado’s is .507 and Blackmon’s is a daunting .255.
Fans and media can argue all day long about the overall quality of the Rockies offense, but if those four players aren’t getting it done, you can’t really place the blame on the bottom half of the lineup. Colorado’s problem in the NLDS wasn’t necessarily that their bats weren’t talented enough, it’s that they got very little out of their most talented bats.
Those are all individually small sample sizes and the whole point here is that experience ought to bring improvement in this area, and that should also be true for the younger players getting their very first taste of this atmosphere (David Dahl) but the bigger issue is clear; the Rockies needed someone to slow the big moment down and be a rock for the offense.
Daniel Murphy has 25 games of postseason experience (five World Series games) and has slashed .309/.398/.588 with eight home runs and 19 RBI for a .986 OPS.
In 2015 he famously homered off of Clayton Kershaw (twice), Zack Greinke, Jake Arrieta, and Jon Lester
Sometimes a baseball season is 162 games. Sometimes, it’s just three. The acquisition of Daniel Murphy will have an impact over the 162, but he’s come to Colorado for those final three.