Silver linings are tough to find during a Rockies season clouded by mounting losses.
But last Tuesday night, in an 8-5 loss to Arizona at Coors Field, four highlight-reel moments captured the talents of rookie outfielders Brenton Doyle and Nolan Jones. The quartet of plays also served as a reminder that speedy, athletic players are essential to a Rockies rebuild.
Think of them as Colorado’s guardian angels in the outfield.
• In the first inning, Christian Walker smashed a ball 413 feet to center field only to see Doyle make the catch before he collided with the wall. Walker shook his head as he headed back to the dugout.
• In the fifth, the baseball rocketed off Tommy Pham’s bat at 104 mph and headed toward the gap in left-center field. It looked like a double, for sure, and possibly a triple.
But Jones, reading the ball perfectly off the bat, sprinted 123 feet from his spot in left field and robbed Pham of extra bases. Jones crashed chin-first into the wall. He was shaken up for a moment.
Then he broke into a wide grin, prompted by a dig from Doyle.
“Hey, you finally got one,” Doyle kidded as the duo jogged back to the dugout.
• In the seventh inning, Jones scooped up catcher Elias Diaz’s wild throw on a pickoff attempt at third base and erased Ketel Marte at the plate with a 98 mph throw from the left-field corner to the plate. The ball arrived on the fly.
“How about that throw? All the way in the air,” manager Bud Back said. “That was a Bo Jackson throw.”
• In the eighth, Doyle raced in from his spot in deep center field and made a diving catch on Gabriel Moreno’s dying liner into shallow right-center.
“They have been tremendous all year,” starting pitcher Ty Blach said. “Doyle running down that ball in the first, against the wall? Nolan Jones crashing into the wall? That was huge for me. I think I used about every square inch of the outfield tonight.”
That’s a lot of square inches. According to one study, Coors Field is baseball’s most spacious ballpark and the playing surface covers 2.66 acres — 0.18 acres more than the average MLB park (2.49 acres). That is one-third of an acre larger than Fenway Park, or about 14,400 square feet.
“When you look at covering that land mass in the outfield at Coors, you realize how crucial it is to have a player like Brenton Doyle in center,” said Cory Sullivan, the former Rockies outfielder who now analyzes games for AT&T SportsNet. “Run prevention is so important at Coors and those guys are saving runs.
“You have to remember that big innings at Coors Field usually aren’t built on home runs, they’re built on singles, doubles and triples. That’s why Doyle is so valuable, because of his ability to go get the baseball. It’s paramount to have a guy who can cover the gaps or play shallow when he needs to. If Doyle can take away one hit, he can sometimes prevent a big inning.”
Sullivan estimates it’s 10-15% more difficult to play the outfield at Coors.
“It’s not about breathing (thinner air) at altitude,” Sullivan said. “It’s about the distance of all of that running, over a long season. I imagine that on Sept. 15, if you ask Brenton, he’ll tell you he’s a lot more worn out than he thought he’d be.”
Fortunately, Doyle is only 25 and blessed with speed and keen baseball instincts. He ranks ninth in the majors in sprint speed, averaging 30 feet per second. His average time from home to first base has been clocked at 4.24 seconds, according to Baseball Savant.
“You can’t really take any route too lightly, so you really have to bust your butt to get to the ball,” he said. “The ball tends to take off a little bit more here, so you have to be ready. Or hits drop in front of you.”
Doyle, who was selected out of Division II Shepherd University (W.Va.) in the fourth round of the 2019 draft, also has an excellent arm. He’s ranked eighth among big-league outfielders with an average throw of 95.6 mph, according to Baseball Savant. His top velocity is 102.4 mph.
He’s learned how to customize his tools at Coors. His 10 defensive runs saved are tied for third-most among all major league center fielders.
“It’s a great combination — range and an arm,” Black said. “He’s gifted. We’ve got a very good defensive center fielder.”
Jones, who grew up as an infielder, is still learning how to play left and right field, but he’s made big strides this season.
“He’s learning and he’s a hard worker, with good work capacity, so he can work a long time,” Black said. “He’s doing great and he’s going to get better.”
Jones, 25, was drafted by Cleveland in the second round in 2016 out of Holy Ghost Prep near Philadelphia. The Rockies acquired the hard-hitting slugger in a trade last November with designs of converting him from a third baseman into an outfielder.
While Jones doesn’t have Doyle’s raw speed — his sprint speed is 28.5 feet per second, 103rd in the majors — Jones has a cannon for a right arm. He averages 98.4 mph on throws from the outfield, the best in the majors. He also has a top throw measured at 102.4 mph, third-best in the majors this season behind only by Atlanta’s Ronald Acuna Jr. (104.1 mph) and the Cubs’ Cody Bellinger (102.5 mph).
Jones entered the weekend with 10 outfield assists, the most among all big-league rookies, tied for second-most in the National League, and tied with Brad Hawpe (2005) for the most by a rookie outfielder in franchise history.
“It’s a tool that I have and I want to use it to help the team win,” Jones said. “To be able to throw somebody out in a close game is huge. It’s something I take pride in. And it’s something we practice every day.”
While both Jones and Doyle have brought fans to their feet with their defense, their offense is a work in progress. As a hitter, Jones is certainly the more accomplished of the two, entering the weekend with a .275 average, 12 homers and an .858 OPS. Doyle was hitting .196 with eight homers and a .581 OPS.
Strikeouts have been an issue for both. Doyle’s strikeout rate is 36.6%, and his whiff rate — swings and misses within the strike zone — is 25.7%. Jones’ strikeout rate is 34.2% and his whiff rate is 29.3%. The major league average is 22.7% and 17.8%, respectively, according to Statcast.
“I’ve been susceptible to fastballs at the top of the zone — it’s something I’ve been working on for a little while now,” Jones said. “It’s not going to happen overnight, but the thought in the back of my mind is to cover that pitch.”
As for Doyle, the Rockies remain confident that he can boost his production at the plate. Sullivan agrees.
“First and foremost, the offensive play should improve because he’s got talent,” Sullivan said. “How much he improves remains to be seen. But what he’s giving the Rockies in the outfield is invaluable.”
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