Rockies counting on fewer pitches, more wins

Rockies counting on fewer pitches, more wins

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- The Rockies' pitch-efficiency project was going smoothly. Through the first four Cactus League games, Ubaldo Jimenez, Jhoulys Chacin, Jason Hammel and prospect Greg Reynolds combined for nine scoreless innings.

But in Thursday afternoon's 7-5 Cactus League loss to the Giants, left-hander Jorge De La Rosa provided an unpleasant reminder of last April, a period of struggle that led the Rockies to make conserving the pitch count an emphasis for starters this spring.

De La Rosa's first two innings consisted of acceptable pitch totals of 11 and 15, respectively. But he uncorked 24 in the Giants' three-run third inning, which included home runs by Darren Ford and Buster Posey, the latter a tape-measure shot for two runs.

"They say Spring Training is for working," De La Rosa said. "I have to keep working hard and making better pitches."

De La Rosa and the other starters will need to be at top efficiency before the regular season begins on April 1. Outside of the singular excellence of Jimenez, who went 5-0 with a 2.21 ERA and threw a no-hitter to boot, Rockies starters had an inglorious first month of 2010.

Starters other than Jimenez had eight starts in which they exhausted 65 or more pitches but didn't make it through the fifth inning. In those games, the Rockies went 2-6, both victories with De La Rosa running up five-inning pitch counts of 118 and 95.

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There also was Greg Smith's 31-pitch first inning before exiting a game the Rockies eventually lost, 12-11, to the D-backs. Also, two games with 65 or more pitches but fewer than six innings ended up one-run losses -- a key figure for a team that went 28-30 in such finishes.

The problems left the Rockies' relief staff to cover the fourth-most innings in the National League during that month. Of the five NL teams with the most bullpen innings in April, the Rockies were the only one to finish the year with a winning record. The team with the fewest April bullpen innings, by the way, was the eventual World Series champion Giants.

Colorado's bullpen was compromised before April. During Spring Training, Huston Street had a right shoulder injury that kept him out until late June, and primary setup man Rafael Betancourt was not at his best because of a right shoulder issue.

Jimenez was the main reason the Rockies finished April 11-12 and four games back in the NL West. But even a slightly better performance could have kept the Rockies out of the draining position of playing catchup. The Rockies forced themselves into contention before dropping 13 of their final 14 games.

Manager Jim Tracy marveled that the bullpen didn't run out of gas early.

"Let's face it, Ubaldo Jimenez saved our season with the way he pitched early in the year," said Tracy, who along with pitching coach Bob Apodaca is emphasizing attacking the strike zone with the fastball as a remedy. "When he took his turn, more times than not, our bullpen was gasping for breath and needed a day off. If not for him, our bullpen would have been crushed by the All-Star break."

Pitchers generally want to average around 16 pitches per inning. Jimenez came in at 16.3. Aaron Cook, yet to pitch this spring because of right shoulder soreness, was close at 16.5. Cook threw 111 in a complete-game 2-1 victory over the Marlins at Coors Field, but counterbalanced that with 85 in three innings of a 5-2 loss at Washington. Others had similar peaks and valleys.

The inconsistency was also inning-to-inning. Take Hammel's work in two April games, when he managed to go seven innings but was just inefficient enough for the Rockies to lose both, although he didn't figure in either decision.

On April 10 against the Padres, Hammel went through the first three innings on 27 pitches, uncorked a whopping 40 in the fourth, then totaled 26 in his next three frames. On April 21 at Washington, he threw no more than 18 pitches in five of his seven innings, but 23- and 29-pitch innings felled him.

"That's got to change," Hammel said. "I get past that hurdle and I'm destined for some green pastures."

Jimenez, De La Rosa and second-year right-hander Chacin must balance being strikeout pitchers with conserving pitch counts. A ground-ball pitcher, like Cook, can build a strategy on forcing outs as early as the first pitch. It takes three for a strikeout, and it takes time to learn to do that efficiently.

"The approach that you have to have is go after a hitter, not just get a strikeout," Jimenez said. "When you're a young guy, that's what you think: strike people out, show them what you've got. You have to realize that if you have good stuff, strikeouts are going to come."

Problems arose last season with two strikes.

"It's getting to 0-1, 0-2 and not letting him work you to a three-ball count," Cook said. "Once you've got him in that position, go ahead and put him away."

Colorado opens at home within the NL West, against the D-backs (April 1-3) and the Dodgers (April 5-6). Then there is an eight-game road trip against the Pirates (April 7-10) and Mets (April 11-14), as the Rockies attempt to show they're better on the road than their 31-50 performance of last year. The Rockies are demanding that their pitchers be ahead of hitters in the beginning.

"There's no reason in the world we can't be just as competitive in April as we have been in the middle part of the season to the end of the season," Apodaca said. "I always want it to start with the starting pitching."

Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Hardball in the Rockies, and follow him on Twitter @harding_at_mlb. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.