Five Questions: Colorado Rockies

1. Are the Rockies for real?

After 162 games in 2007, the Rockies were in a three-way tie with the Phillies and Padres for the second best record in the National League behind the Diamondbacks. Blending above average offense and run prevention, they had the best run differential in the league as well. After 163 games, they had that second best record all to themselves, and seven games later, after sweeping the Phillies and Diamondbacks in the NL playoffs, they had the franchise’s first pennant.

Yet due to the near miraculous path it took at the end of the season to get there, and helped along by a flop to the Red Sox in the World Series, the Rockies’ place in the pantheon of NL teams… er, scratch that, maybe pantheon’s not the right word when talking about the NL right now—let’s say the Rockies’ place on the Wall of Fame at the NL’s Bowl-o-rama has frequently been called into question this winter.

Is there any reason to take this club as legitimate, seeing that it was only four games over .500 in the middle of September? Will a letdown in 2008 prove that the 2007 season was just a one-time fluke?

Let’s get these questions out of the way right now. Yes. There could be plenty of reason to take the Rockies seriously in the NL over the next few seasons—and I hope to get to a couple of them in this piece. And no, a simple single season regression in 2008 shouldn’t convince anybody of their flukiness just as the spike in 2007 shouldn’t be taken as a certain sign by us Rockies fans that they’re ready to kick off a dynasty.

If you look at what happens historically to MLB’s great comeback teams the year after they miraculously find themselves in the playoffs, you’ll note an average letdown of about five games. Of course, there’s a letdown for the entire sample the year after playoff appearances, as teams fade from glory back to the median, but five games is a bit steeper than the population at large. This drop makes sense intuitively—to reel off streaks such as the Rockies’ September 2007 run requires a considerable chunk of luck in addition to the team’s talent. That’s true regardless of how talented the team is, and luck, by its nature, can’t be relied on from year to year.

That said, to pull off a winning streak like the Rockies did—be it at the beginning of the season, the middle, or the end—a team almost universally has to be closer to the top of its league in talent and performance than the middle. It’s for this reason that most of baseball’s great single-season comeback teams have their storybook season within a broader multi-season success cycle. The Rockies probably are not going to be an exception, and yet too much discredit is given to the timing of the Rockies’ run to the playoffs last season and not enough credit to the team that was able to accomplish it.

What’s surprising to me is the number of intelligent people who are willing to dismiss the late September run entirely rather than consider the implications it would have in their established view of the NL’s hierarchy. It would be like throwing out the last hundred at bats of a hitter because the results after those ABs didn’t jibe with what you had observed up to that point.

Rather, just absorb all of the Rockies’ 2007—the underachieving beginning, the simmering middle and the scalding hot run to the World Series. Add in even that flop against the Red Sox and a fairly complete picture of a high quality NL team emerges. While it would be pitiful for Rockies fans to believe another miracle’s coming this season, it’s just as presumptuous to assume that the team won’t be in a more favorable spot on Sept. 18, 2008. The NL West will be another dogfight, but the Rockies should be right in the thick of it.

2. So then, how are the Rockies winning at altitude?

I’m not really a baseball thinker. Never will you see me get linked by Baseball Think Factory—I consider that decent proof—but I try to read the work of as many legit baseball thinkers as I can, and usually find myself nodding in agreement. However, I frequently find myself in considerable disagreement with them in the method for building a winning team in Denver. It’s become a common trope among the bright lights of the SABR community that the Rockies’ best hope for having a winning pitching staff is to target strikeout specialists. On the surface this makes sense: Since Coors Field makes merry with balls in play, limiting those would be of obvious benefit to a team at altitude.

There are several problems with putting this logic into practice, however. True strikeout pitchers are targeted by everybody, and are typically the most expensive of pitchers both on the free agent market—domestic and foreign—and in the amateur draft. So you’re starting with a major expense that a lower mid-level media market isn’t likely to maintain.

Add a premium to convince said pitchers that Denver’s schools are top-notch and the costs of fielding such a team skyrocket before you even start considering building a lineup. So this scenario always seemed to me to presuppose that the Gates Foundation decides that purchasing the Rockies and fielding a World Series winner in Denver is a more worthy cause than educating impoverished children. I think we’re better off looking at another avenue.

What’s more, regardless of what type of pitcher is throwing at Coors Field, the park and altitude will always have their effects. Three of those in particular become somewhat problematic with high-K pitchers.

1. At Coors, all pitchers will have more baserunners than their normal. Those who use more pitches per batter—those who walk a lot of batters or strike out a lot—will have more of the 25-30 pitch innings that will exhaust their arms faster.
2. Strikeouts are reduced up to 20 percent at Coors, limiting the benefit of pitchers who rely on them.
3. Lack of oxygen at altitude will see pitchers burn out faster, in games and as the season progresses

What the Rockies have decided to do instead is try for a staff of less fascist, more democratic groundballers, preaching efficiency. Throw strikes, but don’t concentrate on missing bats. Keep the pitches down and let your defenders do the work. Actually, there seems to another unpublicized part to that last phrase:

Let your good defenders do the work.

To make my point, it’s helpful if we make a comparison with another NL team that plays in a hitter-friendly environment, the Cincinnati Reds. Both the Rockies and Reds had solid defensive starting middle infielders in 2007. Both had terrible third basemen and suspect right fielders. The Reds also had a suspect left fielder, while Matt Holliday improved greatly in left for the Rockies. In all, the defenses were not dissimilar, but the Rockies got considerably more benefit from their defense in 2007 than the Reds did. Why? Because Rockies pitchers were much more effective at making sure balls in play went to the playmakers.

NL percentage of Balls In Zone at second and short among all assigned BIZ 2007:

1. Colorado Rockies 38.3%
2. Atlanta 36.7%
3. Los Angeles 36.3%

14. Milwaukee 31.8%
15. Florida 31.7%
16. Cincinnati Reds 31.3%

I could understand why the Marlins would want to keep plays out of the concrete hands of Dan Uggla and the near stationary Hanley Ramirez, but why would the Reds want to keep them away from Brandon Phillips and Alex Gonzalez?

Over the course of around 2,500 assigned BIZ that the Rockies and Reds have during a season, that seven percent difference between the teams amounts to about 175 possible plays that are going to Troy Tulowitski and his fellow middle infielders with Colorado, but are instead heading to the likes of Edwin Encarnacion, Scott Hatteberg and Adam Dunn with Cincinnati. This results in more hits allowed, but adds even more damage: Plays missed by outfielders and corner infielders are far more likely to result in extra bases. As fans, we’re quick to realize when our teams handicap themselves by placing low OBP hitters at the top of the lineup, but maybe we should also start paying more attention to the way our defensive personnel get used.

3. Who’ll be the next Rockie to get extended?

The Rockies once again virtually ignored the free agent pool this winter. Their biggest moves in that realm were two-year deals for the familiar Yorvit Torrealba and the exiled New Yorker Luis Vizcaino. That didn’t mean they weren’t busy with handing out contracts; the following all got multi-year deals from the team that at least potentially extend into their free agent years:

Aaron Cook, three years, $30 million, plus 2011 mutual option
Tulowitzki, six years, $31 million, plus 2014 club option
Manuel Corpas, four years, $8.025 million, 2012 and 2013 club options
Brad Hawpe, three years, $17.425 million, plus 2011 club option

When added to the deal Jeff Francis signed in late 2006 and Todd Helton’s suddenly more bearable contract, the team has a good chunk of its most important cast members locked in through at least 2010 with options for 2011. Still looming, however, is a move with the team’s biggest star, Holliday, who becomes a free agent after 2009. While much worry is made in the Denver media over this “imminent” departure, it makes sense to me not to rush a move with Matt for several reasons.

A. He’s coming off a career season.
B. He’s not going anywhere for two seasons.
C. A lot can happen in those two seasons that would make a contract extension more affordable to the team, and not much can happen that will make it less affordable.
D. Unlike the above extensions for relatively small sums of money, a Holliday contract will carry considerable impairment risk, meaning it’s likely to prevent the team from being able to make other moves.

I would rather the team follow the precedent set by the Cubs with Carlos Zambrano and the Mariners with Ichiro last season: Both waited to sign their stars until a couple of months before the trade deadline prior to their impending free agency.

Garrett Atkins seems to be in a different boat. After he turned down an extension from the Rockies after Francis signed his deal in 2006, the Rockies seem less eager to give him a second opportunity at the moment. The team is still waiting for Ian Stewart to seize the position, but that’s a proposition that’s running out of time. The Rockies, with another glut of quality middle infielders figuring to arrive just as Atkins reaches free agency, still have further options should Stewart not materialize.

4. What’s going on at second base and at the bottom of the rotation?

The Rockies’ major departures during the winter were by Josh Fogg and Kazuo Matsui. Replacing those two would not seem to be particularly difficult, but as the defending NL champs, the Rockies seem to be expected to act like a playoff contender in all their transactions and actively seek the best players even whispered to be available. For the two positions in question, that would have involved getting into prospect bidding wars for one of the All-Star caliber starters traded this winter (Dan Haren, Johan Santana or Erik Bedard) or for the one All-Star caliber second baseman still rumored to be available (Brian Roberts).

Armchair GMs get seemingly easy vindication since the Rockies chose instead to hold open casting calls between middling in-house (plus Marcus Giles) infielders and called on some of MLB’s most notorious losing pitchers (Kip Wells, Josh Towers, Mark Redman) to compete with young and unproven Franklin Morales and Jason Hirsh for the last two rotation slots.

This isn’t a particularly insightful strategy, but more of a blunt instrument approach to filling the vacancies and adding depth, in the same way that your odds of winning the lottery go up only marginally by buying more tickets. If your other option was using the cash to buy Ho-Hos, the extra scratchers obviously carry more upside, yet if you have long-term goals that these incremental small expenditures sap from—say investing in the draft in this analogy—then maybe you should start to question your use of discretionary money.

The issue the Rockies encountered this winter was that long-term investments would have had to be sacrificed to fill short-term needs. The team opted to hold long and weather 2008 with the stop-gaps that were on hand or readily available.

I’m in the minority, even among Rockies fans, in thinking that Jayson Nix will be better than what’s expected, but that’s largely because what’s expected offensively is so miserable that the pleasant-surprise bar has been set so low. Defensively, he’s going to add some significant value. I’m less sanguine about those last two slots in the rotation, at least for the start of the season, but I was less thrilled with the starters at the beginning of last season.

5. Did Holliday touch home plate?

This question might seem more for Padres fans, but its relevance to Rockies fans is incredibly significant. Not the answer, just that the question itself gets asked.

There are singular legendary moments that can have immeasurable impact to sports franchises’ branding if they happen on a large enough stage. Denver sports fans are no stranger to this phenomenon: “The Drive” continues to have relevance as part of the Broncos’ image. Holliday’s slide instantly qualifies.

Quantifying its value to the Rockies brand isn’t easy, but we can know that it adds immense value to the narrative that all baseball teams need to establish the kind of multi-generational loyalty you see with long-established franchises. Whether it was Holliday that touched the plate or the same “Hand of God” that allowed Argentina and Diego Maradona to defeat England in the World Cup so many years ago is moot. The result of the legend will be the same either way.

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