On a dreary Friday afternoon in Queens, two Rockies pitchers sat across from each other playing cards at a table in Citi Field’s visiting clubhouse.
Rookies Kyle Freeland and Jeff Hoffman sat silently as players, reporters and clubhouse officials shuffled past, instead using nods and smiles as signs of acknowledgment. With rain hampering pregame work on the field, they sat together to pass the time before a scheduled pitchers’ stretch.
These two, along with fellow rookies Antonio Senzatela and German Marquez, have formed a unique bond as mainstays in the rotation of one of 2017’s most surprising contenders.
This wasn’t the plan when the team ended spring training. Freeland and Senzatela broke camp in the rotation, but Hoffman was assigned to Triple-A, and Marquez was placed in the bullpen before getting sent to Triple-A.
Injuries to Jon Gray and Tyler Anderson necessitated promotions for both, and now the four rookies are partly to thank for the Rockies’ 52-41 record after the first two games of a three-game series against the Mets.
“It’s something we all get to go through together, which is nice because we can talk to each other about it,” said Freeland, a 24-year-old lefthander who had a no-hitter broken up with one out in the ninth inning of a win against the White Sox last Sunday. “We get to learn different perspectives from one another, but we’ve each learned how to have success at this level.”
Freeland’s near no-no came after allowing at least four earned runs in three straight starts, and though growing pains are expected with rookie pitchers, the Rockies’ youngsters have managed to limit letdowns and have the team on track for its first playoff berth since 2009.
According to ESPN, the 2006 Marlins hold the expansion-era record for most wins by rookie starters in a season with 43. The 2012 Athletics earned 40, the most for a playoff team.
Freeland (nine wins), Senzatela (nine), Marquez (six) and Hoffman (five) sit at 29 victories, and if all goes according to plan, Hoffman thinks the Marlins’ mark will fall with a similarly strong second half.
“No doubt in my mind that we’ll get there,” said Hoffman, who made eight appearances in 2016 but still qualifies as a rookie. “Hearing that number is like, ‘OK, how high are we going to set that bar?’ ”
First-year Rockies manager Bud Black, who pitched 15 years in the big leagues, was the Angels’ pitching coach from 2000-06 and Padres manager from 2007-15, has been praised by his rookies for helping them adjust.
Keeping the ball on the ground, especially at hitter-friendly Coors Field, has also been a key to their rise.
Freeland ranked sixth among qualified starters entering Saturday with a 55 percent ground-ball rate. Senzatela’s mark of 48.3 percent is also above the league average of 44.3, according to FanGraphs.
Inducing ground balls with Gold Glove winners Nolan Arenado and DJ LeMahieu in the infield has been a wise strategy. The Rockies had turned 77.3 percent of ground balls into outs entering Saturday, according to Baseball Prospectus, tied for fifth in baseball.
“It’s a huge weight off our shoulders, knowing that if it comes to it, we can pitch full bore to contact and not really worry about striking anybody out because we have such great fielders behind us,” Hoffman said.
A continued effort to keep the ball low could produce further success. Hoffman gets his first start of the second half Sunday, and Marquez is scheduled to start Monday against the Padres.
Senzatela, who was sent down to Triple-A before the break, will factor into the rotation soon, Black said Friday.
Though the focus with young starters is often on inning limits, Black said he doesn’t have a “hard number” in mind. Instead, he’ll look to preserve them in other ways.
“We’re going to keep an eye on them, in a lot of areas,” he said. “We feel good about where they are physically. You notice that we took a little break with Senzatela . . . Don’t be surprised if you see that with a couple more guys.
“We’ll probably monitor a little bit of their work in between starts, which I think is a wise thing to do as far as the throwing aspect.”
With Gray back from injury and Tyler Chatwood taken out of Saturday’s game in the first inning by the trainer, the Rockies might not line up their four rookies in an upcoming five-game stretch.
Still, it could be those rookies who make the difference in the playoff chase.
“We’re here to make the team win,” Marquez said.
Thanks to those young guns, a playoff appearance could be in the cards.
HOW ’BOUT THAT?
+ The Rockies are the first team to have four rookies each win at least five games before the All-Star break, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
+ Through Saturday, rookie pitchers had started 56 (or 60.2 percent) of the team’s 93 games.
+ German Marquez (second), Jeff Hoffman (third), Kyle Freeland (fourth) and Antonio Senzatela (eighth) all rank in Fangraphs’ top 10 for WAR (wins above replacement) among qualified rookie starting pitchers$item.text.value