LOS ANGELES — Kyle Freeland sat alone Friday with one leg draped off a dugout railing at Dodger Stadium, watching with some intent the batting practice of Clayton Kershaw. The best and most sturdy pitcher of this era is worth emulating, even his swings. Freeland wanted only the sun.
“I just came outside to get warm,” Freeland said. “The clubhouse was a little cold.”
In the snap of back-to-back blowout losses last week, the Rockies turned a luxury of youthful pitching depth into a shouted reminder of the ledge they are navigating with rookies. No other team in the majors is pitching more rookies over more games than the Rockies. And no other team in at least a decade has done it so well.
But a chill has overcome the Rockies’ progress. Not because of the losses, exactly, but the potential for weariness. Are we seeing the warning signs of fatigue in pitchers playing their first big-league season? How deep, the worry?
“The only thing, we have young pitchers — it’s not a concern, because they’re hungry and they compete — but I don’t want them to get tired,” said Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado. “These are big games. For some of them, it’s their first time. They’re all rookies. I hope they continue to compete and work hard and that’s what they’re doing.”
The rookies — Freeland, 24; Antonio Senzatela, 22; German Marquez, 22; and Jeff Hoffman, 24 — have combined to pitch 65 percent of the starting staff’s innings and 62 percent of the starts. They are carrying the load of an upstart team that rocketed into first place in the National League West and held the spot well into June.
The recent history of teams swerving toward a rookie-heavy starting rotation elaborates on the difficulty of relying on young arms. The Cincinnati Reds of 2015 used eight rookies to pitch 66 percent of starts, including a major league-record 64 games in a row to finish the season. But that rookie movement was part of an intentional tear-down. The Reds had traded Johnny Cueto and finished 64-98, last in their division.
In 2009, more rookie pitchers made starts than in any other season in baseball history since 1900. They accounted for 5 percent fewer victories and a collective ERA about 60 points higher. The Oakland Athletics used seven rookies to pitch about 71 percent of the season. The A’s finished 75-87 and in fourth place in their division.
“Look at the 150 starters who started this season in rotations,” said Colorado manager Bud Black. “How many Kershaws are there? Look at it that way. Guys who you truly don’t worry about. Of 150, there are maybe 30 to 50 you don’t worry about it. And we’re no different than that.
“Because of our four young guys, we’re probably playing closer attention to those fellas.”
Colorado’s young core, though, is thriving. For now. The four rookies are 26-12 with a 4.16 ERA, a mark that would land sixth overall in the National League. Tyler Chatwood, a Rockies veteran at just 27, was 6-7 with a 4.08 ERA before his start Saturday night against the Dodgers.
“We have Chatty and the four rookies right now,” reliever Adam Ottavino said. “They’re doing a great job. They’re the reason we’re where we’re at. But no matter what, they have a lot to learn. There will be ups and downs, different situations.”
Changes are already afoot. Tyler Anderson, a 27-year-old lefty just past his rookie season in 2016, will return Sunday from left knee inflammation. Black bumped Marquez to Monday to give him an extra day of rest.
And that is the concern: The physical toll on arms not accustomed to six-month seasons at the highest level, let alone the possibility of pitching in the postseason. Senzatela, for example, pitched only 34 2/3 innings last year, and only at Double-A, before a rib muscle injury ended his season.
“It’s hard to tell,” Freeland said. “I’ll answer that question when we get to August or September and I’m floating around 200 innings. You have to keep grinding, listen to your body, take care of what you need to and last as long as you can.”
The solution for Black and Colorado’s front office is not as clear as a hard cap on innings or pitches thrown. The rookies will speak with their performances, Black said. Exhaustion often spawns a wildness to windups and command. And when the concern rises, Black said he will take advantage of several options to extend their season.
The Rockies can flip a young pitcher to the 10-day disabled list and, if a day off falls favorably, the pitcher could miss only one start. Also, the Rockies could send an arm to Triple-A without pitching for five or 10 days — not for a tuneup, but for rest. Another alternative is a bullpen assignment, with a shortened outing or two in relief, to preserve innings pitched.
“We will try to finesse the queen through the king in a bridge game, to get the trick,” Black said. “That’s an old bridge term. Finesse it through. A lot of it is common sense, just practical reasoning. In general, we will do everything we can do to make sure they stay sharp physically.”
Colorado’s pitching plan unfolds while looking forward two or three weeks at a time, Black said. But even after losing a third game in a row Friday night, the Rockies still had the third-best record in the National League. October is calling.
And while more experienced teams rely on fewer, more seasoned pitchers — the St. Louis Cardinals have used only five pitchers for all but one start this season — the Rockies plan to go eight deep in their rotation, including Jon Gray, who likely will return this week, and Chad Bettis, who is working back from cancer.
“You can’t really come in as a group of rookies and just expect to know how to pitch at this level,” Hoffman said. “We’ve never done it before. When you have guys like Bettis and Gray and Chatwood, who had success last year, there’s knowledge coming down. And Buddy (a former big-league pitcher) helps because he’s been there too. All that, combined with the talent we have, is monumental when you look at how good we can be.”