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Trouble in Rockieville

Posted By Paul Swydan On May 27, 2011 @ 4:00 pm In Daily Graphings,Rockies | 37 Comments

Since starting the season 11-2, the Colorado Rockies are just 13-23. They are a Major League worst 7-17 in May, and haven’t won more than two in a row since the 11-2 start. In 21 of those past 36 games, they have scored three runs or less. Last night’s loss dropped the team below .500 for the first time since they were 0-1. The team has responded with a series of personnel and lineup changes that show more than a hint of panic, even though at this stage, that is still not warranted.

In the past week, the Rockies have banished Franklin Morales, Felipe Paulino and Jose Lopez. Of the group, Paulino’s ouster was the most surprising. He was nothing short of jerked around during his Rockies tenure. During Spring Training, he was shifted from a starter’s role to a relief role, something he had not done full-time since 2005. He was then yo-yo’ed between mop-up man and set-up man. He was definitely not terrific, but he wasn’t as bad as a 7.36 ERA would imply. Paulino endured some awful home run luck, coughing up three gopher balls in his first 14 1/3 innings, for a 1.84 HR/9. Not only was this out of line with his career average, but ZiPS (R) also forecasted a severe decline from that mark. His perfectly acceptable 3.36 xFIP also demonstrates that his performance wasn’t all bad. That he was given the axe for allowing a home run to Prince Fielder on a night when the team’s supposed two best relievers — Rafael Betancourt and Huston Street — also blew leads by allowing home runs, and to lesser hitters to boot, was both an injustice and an overreaction. If given more time to settle into his role as reliever, he no doubt would have performed better. What’s even more puzzling about the move is the success the team had with a similar case in 2009 with Matt Belisle. Like Paulino, Belisle was transitioning from starter back to reliever, and like Paulino, posted a +7 ERA in his first handful of appearances with the Rockies. But Belisle was given an opportunity to go down to Colorado Springs and straighten himself out. Paulino was traded to Kansas City.

If the Rockies treatment of Paulino was mystifying, than their treatment of Ian Stewart is even more so. Stewart was and perhaps still is (depending on how you feel about Chris Nelson) the best option the Rockies have at third base. Since his demotion, Ty Wigginton and Jose Lopez did nothing to disprove that notion. The pair hit 18-for-58 (.310) in Stewart’s absence, but as their combined -0.729 WPA in those 15 starts demonstrates, their net offensively was a negative. And that’s not even taking into account the duo’s defense, which was lamentable at best. It’s not just missed plays — and each missed plays crucial plays — it’s the seeming lack of fundamentals. Wigginton confusing wiffleball rules for baseball rules and drilling Chris Young in the back during a rundown was simply the latest example. Lopez is of course now history, but this could have all been avoided by just leaving Stewart in the lineup. Even given how poorly he hit in his first 52 plate appearances, his glove would have made him more valuable than either Wigginton or Lopez.

But if getting rid of three players in a week isn’t enough show of panic, there are other signs as well. Dexter Fowler frustrated the team during the first month of the season with his strike outs, but at the time, Tracy stood by him. On May 1, he said:

“The strikeout total is high, absolutely, for a leadoff hitter. But somewhere along the line as we continue to go forward, there will be a leveling off period, and I think we’ll end up having ourselves a very consistent leadoff hitter.”

Just as Tracy predicted, the leveling off has begun. In April, he struck out in 35% of his at-bats. That number has shrunk to 25% in May. Yet, with the team not playing well, Tracy is still nitpicking. Now Fowler has to cut down his strikeouts from the left side of the plate. In order to do that, he has been dropped to the bottom of the order, where he will have fewer game opportunities to improve his swing.

The real problem of course has been Troy Tulowitzki. After jumping out to a hot start, he has regressed backwards just as sharply. But a lot of his poor play has simply been bad luck — Tulowitzki batted ball rates are just about identical in both months, but his BABIP for May is a lowly .165. Tulowitzki has been less patient this month, but he will turn it around soon enough.

It’s not all bad of course. Carlos Gonzalez has stopped pounding every pitch into the ground, and is seeing more balls deposited in the cheap seats as a result. Todd Helton is having yet another rebound season, Seth Smith has played extremely well in right field, and Chris Iannetta is finally seeing more balls fall for hits (.304 BABIP in May). And while losing Jorge de la Rosa hurts, the team’s pitching has been good, and will get even better if Ubaldo Jimenez keeps improving.

In short, now is not the time to panic. The team has talked about heightened expectations, but a lot of the changes that Tracy is making amounts to shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic. Eric Young Jr. is not going to be part of any positive solution, and Greg Reynolds probably won’t be either. It’s not just the player moves, but also the changes to the batting order that have been futile. Tracy admitted as much last Sunday, when he told MLB.com, “It’s taking a shot, that’s what I’m doing…Just trying something different.” He went on to say that he didn’t feel it was a panic move, but that’s certainly how it looks, especially when the batting order had a different leadoff hitter in each of the subsequent four contests. Tracy is pressing all of the wrong buttons, and the team certainly can’t continue to vanquish three players per week, not if they want to maintain any level of trust with the players. Just two nights ago while assessing the mood in the clubhouse, Thomas Harding of MLB.com wrote that “there is something to be said for remaining confident that players will perform to expected levels.” It’s a statement that sums up the situation perfectly.

The Rockies are better than they have played recently, and the division is still quite winnable, especially given Buster Posey’s injury. The Rockies are 7-17 in May, but they have only been outscored by nine runs for the month, a figure that suggests they have endured a hard luck month and that things should turn around soon. So now is not the time to panic. But while Tracy is preaching patience to his players and to the media, his actions suggest panic. At some point, he will need to practice what he preaches.


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