Every team in baseball is the subject of at least one book that, if one is to call oneself a fan of that team, rates as a must-read. The Oakland Athletics have Moneyball. The St. Louis Cardinals have October, 1964. The Dodgers have The Boys of Summer. For the Colorado Rockies, that book is The Physics of Baseball.
The book first came out in 1994, when the Rockies were an expansion team, and it doesn’t directly deal with the Rockies, really. The book defines the team, though, because it is the seminal work in the field of sorting out how various physical forces—temperature, humidity, wind, drag, gravity, spin, all of it—affect the way baseball itself works. Major League Baseball in Colorado, a mile above sea level, is the ultimate experiment in the reach of those effects at the extremes.
It’s been, more often than not, an ugly and messy experience. The Rockies have fielded 21 teams since their creation, Only seven of them have been above .500. Only three have reached the postseason—in all three cases, as the Wild Card, not a division winner—and only two have won more than 84 games. (The 1995 team won the Wild Card at 77-67, in a season shortened at its start by the strike that wiped out the end of the 1994 season.)
The 2013 Rockies won 74 games, and that was their best finish, by record, since 2010. They’re a franchise that feels, rightly or wrongly, as though it must overcome not only its opponents, but its own home park, and their efforts to do that haven’t panned out of late.
That’s not to say that they haven’t tried, though, nor that they don’t do some things well. Although the inflated offense ensured by playing at such a high elevation tends to lead people to overrate Rockies batters, the team has churned out some genuine superstars over the years. That’s their forte. Right now, in fact, they have two of the more electric players in baseball, in Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez, spearheading their offense.
Colorado might be the most exciting, frustrating, innovative, backward franchise in baseball. Their core—which includes not only Tulowitzki and Gonzalez but Dexter Fowler, the 27-year-old center fielder whom Vin Scully compares to Garry Maddox—is one of baseball’s strongest, but each player, from the top of the roster to the bottom, has some fairly aggravating flaw. They’ve tried some interesting, even wacky, things over the years, but are ultimately hidebound by some prejudices and inclinations (for instance, they’re somewhat notorious for preferring players who express strong Christian faith, even at the expense of talent) that just have no place in the decision-making process of a big-league ballclub.
With the retirement of Todd Helton, an era of Rockies baseball has ended. One could argue it ended three years ago, when Helton’s decline accelerated and his contract became a minor obstacle to roster-building, or this past spring, when Helton was arrested for drunk driving when he went to the gas station in the middle of the night to buy lottery tickets. (Give that a minute. Helton’s career earnings, to lend context: $150 million and change.)
Now, though, it’s over for sure, and the future is fuzzy, even as the Rockies hope it’s starting to take shape. They finished last in the NL West last season, but third in the division in run differential. They scored the second-most runs in the National League, although they also allowed the most, and both of those things are probably functions of their home environment, to a greater or lesser degree. They have some young players on the roster, and some more coming soon, and the fact that they pushed to sign Cuban slugger Jose Abreu to replace Helton shows they’re not looking to blow anything up and rebuild. Here’s a closer look at their roster, and how they can improve upon it.
Wilin Rosario is Not a Catcher
That’s the first thing we need to establish. Rosario is 25, and has been the Rockies’ slugging catcher for two years and change. He’s a fine hitter. He batted .292 and cranked 21 home runs last season. He doesn’t draw walks (like, at all), but hitting for that much average and power (the 21 homers may be inflated by playing in Colorado, but it’s also deflated by the fact that he catches, and so can’t play every day, and also that he missed two weeks late in the season with a calf strain) allows a person to get away with some intemperance at the plate.
It’s behind the plate where Rosario falls flat. He’s built like a catcher, standing under six feet tall and weighing easily 225 pounds, but that’s where the resemblance ends. Rosario threw out just a quarter of those attempting to steal bases against him in 2013. He’s allowed more balls to pass him by, advancing runners, than any other NL backstop, each of the past two years. Most damning, perhaps, is this: He’s worse at receiving pitches than all but one other full-time catcher in the league.
To give that last statement credibility, I should explain it a bit. A few years ago, Mike Fast of Baseball Prospectus did some landmark research, demonstrating that the value of a good catcher—guys who know how to hold their glove, keep their head still and position their body so as to get some balls called strikes by the home-plate umpire—is quite large, maybe as much as 30 runs or so a year over an average guy. Turning balls into strikes, and making sure strikes don’t turn into balls, turns the count in the pitcher’s favor, and universally, pitchers get the edge when they get ahead in the count.
Rosario is the second-worst regular catcher in baseball when it comes to framing pitches, per this report from StatCorner.com. It’s an inexact science, but the numbers in that table suggest Rosario’s bad receiving put 20 runs on the board for Rockies opponents over the course of the season. This is a skill nearly every catcher gets better at as they age, so perhaps Rosario would only cost the Rockies 15 runs behind the plate in 2014, but given the other things he does just as poorly, it’s probably not worth finding out.
I think the solution is probably to trade Rosario to whomever the front office can convince that he is, in fact, a viable catcher. If Colorado is the only team foolish enough to buy into that, they might be stuck with a very flawed player and no good place to put him. Rosario doesn’t have so good a bat as to really fit at first base, where his lack of height and mobility also make him a poor defender. He doesn’t have the range to play third very well, although he’s at least dabbled there in years past. Ultimately, while he gets lumped in with Tulowitzki, Gonzalez and Fowler as part of the positional core, the fact is that he doesn’t fit his own profile, and that his shortcomings likely outweigh his assets.
Solving First Base
With Helton gone and no top-end free-agent first baseman to pursue, the Rockies will need to be creative in filling that hole. They already have the guy for the job in-house, in Michael Cuddyer. Cuddyer, who will turn 35 next spring, is a terrible defensive right fielder. He’s terrible. At the plate, though, he’s not nearly so lost. He hit .331 last season, which is not his norm and which he can’t repeat, but he also has (more real) power and draws enough walks to be productive. He wouldn’t be a star first baseman, but he wouldn’t kill them there, either.
Moreover, moving Cuddyer in from right field would guarantee a defensive upgrade, basically. The team could fill that hole from within, with any of a few fringy minor-league options, or they could go out and make a more impactful move. Curtis Granderson could be one option, since the Rockies are one of just 10 teams who could sign him without giving up their first-round pick in next year’s draft, and since Granderson hits a lot of fly balls and has great range for a corner outfielder. He could be very expensive, though, and perhaps even unattainable for Colorado.
Chris Young, erstwhile Diamondbacks center fielder and A’s outfield rotation guy, is a free agent. I like the fit with him better. Young is an even more extreme fly-ball hitter than Granderson—in fact, since 2010, only two players in all of baseball have lifted a higher percentage of the balls they hit than Young did. He’s also younger than Granderson, and a better defender. He might even bump Fowler, upon whom defensive stats have tended to frown, to right field. He would certainly insure the team against another injury to Fowler, at the very least.
Young played 2013 near sea level, in Oakland, playing part-time and struggling because the O.co Coliseum swallowed so many of his flies. Colorado could disproportionately boost his value, and he won’t cost much because of the ugly stats he posted in that tough environment.
The Infield, The Defense and Keeping Guys Healthy
The Rockies had baseball’s worst park-adjusted Defensive Efficiency in 2013, according to Baseball Prospectus. I’m not sure whether that rings true. The elevation’s effect on even ground balls, and on flies that don’t leave the park, is hard to measure, and I’m not sure any of the current defensive statistical models do it well. On the other hand, one system rates Nolan Arenado (the rookie third baseman who was better known for his bat in the minors) and D.J. LeMahieu (a spare infielder, really, pressed into duty when their primary second basemen flopped) as something like 20 runs apiece better than an average fielder, and I’m not ready to accept that at face value, either.
The numbers tell conflicting stories about Gonzalez as a left fielder, and about Fowler in center, too. The general impression is this: The Rockies are a pretty poor defensive team, but building one that would look good in the massive expanse of Coors Field’s outfield (misguided architects thought they could mute the effects of playing mountainside baseball by creating a park with deep fences, but the real result has been a lot of doubles and triples, because the outfielders have so much ground to cover) is probably impossible. Tulowitzki, along with Arenado and LeMahieu, is enough to make sure that other things determine the success or failure of the team.
There’s one more issue worthy of discussion when it comes to Rockies position players: health. Rather, it’s worth discussing the lack of health. No Rockies position player took the field more than 133 times, and only three Rockies qualified for the batting title, by batting at least 502 times. It’s awfully hard to win that way, and yet, that’s kind of how things go for the Rockies. No Colorado player has appeared in 150 games since 2009.
Why is that? It’s no one thing, of course. The recent Rockies have been bad, and being bad engenders turnover within the season, be it in search of solutions at a problematic position or in trade, when contending teams come calling for players who won’t be around much longer, anyway. The team happens to have some injury-prone stars, in Tulowitzki, Gonzalez and Fowler, guys they can’t afford not to keep depending upon, but who inevitably miss a month or so each season.
Playing at elevation can take its toll, too. That’s the most interesting notion. It might be more than usually important to the Rockies to have depth, use platoons and generally be able to rest players in the thin air without giving away games. I can’t prove that theory, but the last few seasons indicate a sytematic problem with keeping players fresh and healthy. Their specific situation could certainly be feeding it.
Pitching is Not the Problem
Baseball Prospectus’s WARP (Wins Above Replacement Player, a holistic stat for valuing players) had the Rockies as the third-best pitching staff in baseball last season. It’s not impossible to see why. They did have four solid starters, by mid-season, and despite a very low team strikeout rate (because it’s harder to create big movement on breaking pitches, and because the thin air speeds up swings slightly more than it speeds up fastballs, there’s a significant drop in strikeout rate at high elevations), they certainly held their own. They also had four stud relief pitchers, all of whom will return.
The Rockies’ rotation is interesting, in a way that might jump out at you just in reading the list of names:
- Jhoulys Chacin
- Jorge De La Rosa
- Juan Nicasio
- Tyler Chatwood
- Jeff Francis
Those first three names are, of course, Spanish. Their owners are Latino. The Rockies are one of just two teams in baseball who regularly started three Latinos in 2013, and that’s even though they’ve bid farewell to Ubaldo Jimenez and Esmil Rogers over the past two years. They’re unusually able, or perhaps just unusually eager, to develop Latin American starters. Many pitchers in these molds get shuffled to the bullpen. It’s something Jorge Arangure, an astute baseball writer and analyst who pays special attention to these dynamics, has mentioned often.
I have three theories on this phenomenon:
- Coaches who speak too little Spanish, or who simply don’t make the effort to bridge the culture gap between themselves and their Latino pupils, aren’t able to impart the finer points necessary for a pitcher to survive when facing the opposing batting order multiple times.
- Roster rules, which require players to be placed on the 40-man roster within a certain amount of time, and that then limit the amount of time for which they can be stashed in the minors while on the 40-man roster, don’t always allow enough time for pitchers who enter the organization as 16-year-olds with insufficient nutrition and no substantial training to catch up to their American counterparts, most of whom enter the organization with multiple years of (if not professional) organized instruction at their backs, and in better, more developed physical condition. That forces teams to give up slightly sooner on the development of some pitchers, and move them to the bullpen with the tools they already have.
- Racism. It shouldn’t be a secret, although it should be a source of shame, that some baseball people—from front offices down to the field staff, and perhaps especially the players—still think there are things white men do better than others, and while it sounds conpiratorial and silly, it’s true: White starters are usually seen as craftier, having better command, better able to outsmart opposing hitters. That probably leads to a fistful of bad white starters getting jobs that should go to Latinos, every year.
Whichever of these is correct, or if all three are, the fact is that the Rockies are (uncharacteristically) progressive on this score, and are reaping the benefits of that fact. They were quietly good on the mound, and this is a major reason for that.
The top two prospects in their farm system are also starting pitchers, although white ones. Eddie Butler broke out as he pitched his way up the ladder last season, and Jonathan Gray, their top pick from last year’s draft, already has people drooling with his combination of a fastball that blows people away, and a slider that shears them in half. Colorado has plenty of arms on the team, and on the way, and their challenge will be to keep their position players healthy enough to make that matter. They need to make at least minor additions, too, in order to cover some of their holes. If they get aggressive, though, they could compete in the NL West as soon as next season.Next post: MLB Free Agency: Curtis Granderson Might Be a Bargain, Thanks to Recency Bias
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