Untested staff learning the ropes

Untested staff learning the ropes

Untested staff learning the ropes
DENVER -- Rockies pitching coach Bob Apodaca compares breaking in several novice pitchers to the one assignment that is almost a task too tough.

"It's like me going to the grocery store, which I hate, and I see the totality of that shopping list," Apodaca said with a smile. "I say, 'Oh, gosh, it's overwhelming.' But you do one thing at a time."

Picking up an orange, some butter, maybe a ham ... going over a scouting report, convincing a pitcher his fastball is good enough, correcting a delivery flaw. There are similarities, except the Rockies' 2012 season is already cooking and in danger of being burned if a list of pitching initiatives isn't taken care of -- and quickly.

The Rockies will begin a three-game set with the Angels on Friday with a 24-32 record, 11 1/2 games behind the Dodgers in the National League West, with the stats laying much of the responsibility for the record on the starting pitching.

Going into Thursday, Rockies starters threw the fewest innings in the NL (297 1/3, which was 12 2/3 fewer than the next team, the Pirates), yielded the highest batting average (.311, 27 points higher than the next team, the Reds) had the second-fewest wins (13) and were tied with the Astros for the most homers (48).

All this comes at a time when the Rockies' offense ranks second in the NL in runs and slugging, and fourth in batting average. The bullpen, which has been effective in the few games when the starter has pitched deep and handed it a lead, is tied for the NL lead in wins with 11 despite pitching 194 2/3 innings.

The starting pitcher has gone less than five innings a whopping 16 times; only the Royals have more such games, 20. As a testament to the lineup and the bullpen, the Rockies have managed to win five of those games, three of those were one-run losses, one loss was by two and another was by three.

The club's roster offers a logical explanation. The lineup is experienced, and primary setup man Matt Belisle and closer Rafael Betancourt have strong track records. But 32 of the team's 56 games have been started by pitchers 25 or fewer career big league starts.

Experience is scant in the current rotation. The Rockies' best pitcher has been lefty callup Christian Friedrich (4-1 in six starts). Righty Alex White (2-3) began the year alongside Friedrich in Colorado Springs' rotation. Lefty Josh Outman (0-2), whose previous experience was 25 starts and 33 total games with the Athletics, is in the early stages of being converted from a relief specialist.

Add to that the fact veteran Jeremy Guthrie (3-4) hasn't been the dependable innings-eater the Rockies envisioned when they acquired him from Baltimore, and 49-year-old Jamie Moyer has been released, it's no wonder the club is working on bringing back lefty Jeff Francis -- their ace in 2007, before injuries derailed him -- to offer some stability.

Injuries don't help, either. Juan Nicasio (2-3), who entered the year with 13 starts, began decently but hit a rough stretch, then went to the disabled list with a left knee strain. Righty Jhoulys Chacin, whom the Rockies hoped would move toward being an ace, backslid to 0-3 with a 7.30 ERA before going on the DL with a chest muscle injury. Also, lefty Drew Pomeranz and righty Tyler Chatwood, considered big parts of the Rockies' future, have been sent to Colorado Springs, and the team vows to keep them there until their development is completed.

Still, the expectation of winning has caused fans and media to point at Apodaca, who was hired by former manager Clint Hurdle 10 seasons ago and has alternately been derided and praised throughout his time. It doesn't stop with Apodaca; fan dissatisfaction also has been pointed at manager Jim Tracy and general manager Dan O'Dowd.

But there is no indication the Rockies are listening to the clamor from the outside for change. The Rockies have faith that the youth of the staff will be pillars of a winning future, and they haven't given up on fighting back into contention this year.

"We have the belief that they can," Apodaca said. "They're all athletic. They have aptitude. It's not going to come from a lack of effort on their part. They're all very, very receptive.

"They're in the heavyweight division here in the Major Leagues. They're going to take some punches. It's getting up off that canvas and clearing their heads, and time between rounds, it's honest self-evaluation: 'What do I need to get better?'"

The faith in Apodaca as the corner man is based on his history of working with pitchers through their tough early days in the Majors. Shawn Chacon, Aaron Cook and Ubaldo Jimenez battled through early inconsistencies before eventually earning All-Star Game invitations, and pitching helped Colorado to the World Series in 2007 and the playoffs in '09.

Tracy was sold on Apodaca because of his work with left-hander Jorge De La Rosa, who had turned into one of the game's best left-handers before undergoing elbow surgery last year.

"I watched this guy fail in two other places when I was managing another club -- miserably fail, no command, zero," Tracy said. "Mop-up pitcher. It's unfair to assume that it can happen overnight with any of these kids. [Apodaca has] that type of patience, or De La Rosa would have failed here, too."

Apodaca insists he is not bothered by the notion that pitchers are holding the team back so he must go.

"I don't even read it," he said. "I know it's there. It comes with the territory. But if you're true to what you really believe, and I'm blessed that the ownership and all of the people that make the decisions.

"It isn't transferring onto the field as far as starting pitchers pitching deeper into the game -- not yet, but it will. So that's where the growing pains come in."

Areas of needed growth are many.

Nicasio's strength is his fastball, but his secondary pitches haven't developed. Before the injury, he made trouble for himself by trying to force more action on the fastball. White is overcoming a habit of letting his fingers slip to the side of his fastball, but he still isn't consistently on top of his slider. Friedrich has the downward movement that is necessary at Coors Field; keeping the ball in the strike zone early in the counts is his challenge.

"[Apodaca] explains it to us in our own personal way," Friedrich said. "The way he says it to 'Whitey' [White] isn't the way he says it to me. He's really good at communicating with all of us."

All this needs to be done while pitching at Coors Field, a hitter-oriented park.

"Would we like to see them all pop at the same time? Sure," Apodaca said. "We're not nuts. But we realize this is a very difficult game at this level. Maybe we're asking them to do it a little sooner than the big plan that we had coming into the season. Now that they're here, we have to continue to develop them as if they were still in the Minor Leagues."

Apodaca has found himself lessening the emphasis on the scouting report with the pitchers. Instead, he gives the meat of the information to catcher Wilin Rosario -- a rookie himself, but a quick learner. That way, Apodaca works on fundamentals with the pitcher, and tells the pitcher to just follow Rosario's lead in attacking hitters.

White likes how the plan manifests itself.

"Our emphasis lately is to pitch to our strengths, go after hitters, do what we do best," White said. "I throw a good fastball. I can't get away from that. We don't necessarily forget the weaknesses of the hitter but put them second to our strengths."

The learning has been frustratingly uneven, but Apodaca and the Rockies insist they expect that of young pitchers. Still, the Rockies hold hope that growth can occur rapidly enough to become relevant in 2012.

"The answer to the question is, 'Yes,'" Tracy said. "But will it play itself out that way? I don't know. How many big steps do they take backward before they take the next big one forward. That's an unknown. I don't want to do anything but manage meaningful games in the month of September."

Apodaca hopes for that as well. But if an item on his list is missed, or another is added, he's willing to work longer at crossing it off.

"People can say, 'Geez, how many times do they have to experience it?'" Apodaca said. "You know what? Unless you've had to do it at this level and compete and try to win, it is a tough, tough chore.

"Different foods take a little longer to cook. Somebody's going to pop before another guy. It's the patience that is absolutely required."

Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.