Five Questions: Colorado Rockies

On the one hand, the Rockies are one of the most boring teams in the game. They always seem to finish with 70-79 wins, never truly awful, and never a team anyone has to worry about.

But in many respects this is a fascinating team. First, you have two potential Hall of Famers going out there every day (well, not quite every day in the case of Larry Walker, but you know what I mean…). In addition, the Rox play some of the most exciting games in baseball, because in at least half of their games no lead is safe. They also have a few live young arms that could start making some noise this year.

There are also many interesting aspects to consider as Dan O’Dowd and company attempt to be successful despite the disadvantages playing at altitude entails. Yes, I think there are some definite disadvantages. They have to carry an extra pitcher because of the high levels of offense (more pitches to throw). There is strong evidence that there is a hangover effect (something I hope to tackle in a larger study later this year) when they go on the road.

Back in the early 90s, the Elias Sports Bureau ran a small study that showed that the NBA’s Utah Jazz and Denver Nuggets were demonstrably worse at the beginning of road trips. I don’t think it’s only a lack of talent, and I don’t think Rockies’ management is “whining” about it, as some have suggested.

1) The Rockies have generally had very good bullpens and poor rotations. Is there any way to leverage this?

The Rockies have had strong bullpens almost every year of their existence. Steve Reed, Jose Jimenez, Brian Fuentes, Mike Myers, Gabe White, Jerry DiPoto, Dave Veres, Chuck McElroy, Darren Holmes, Bruce Ruffin and Curtis Leskanic, to name more than a few, have had great success pitching in the thin air.

I’ve heard it postulated that the Rockies might be better off trying the Tony LaRussa idea (see July 1993) – pitch your starters for only a few innings, but pitch them every third day. I think this would be a mistake. Very few established starting pitchers would be willing to sacrifice their statistics by pitching 50 times a year, three innings at a shot. You would need 12 pitchers on the roster as well (nine pitchers rotating three innings per day, three to pick up the guys having bad days). The Rockies usually carry 12 anyway, but I’m not a big fan of that strategy.

I would suggest this modification: Use two starting pitchers (Jason Jennings and Chin-Hui Tsao would work this year), developed in house. In-house pitchers are important, because they’ve come through Colorado Springs and have shown an ability to pitch in thin air. Pitch them every fifth game, which gives you 66 starts – roughly 400 innings.

For the other 96 games and 1,050 innings, you would use Shawn Chacon and eight middle relievers. Middle relievers (who don’t care about earning wins) would start games. You pinch-hit for them the first time they come to the plate, usually in the 2nd or 3rd inning. You could rotate three pitchers in this role. They would each pitch about 32 games, 64 innings as starters. They’d also get work when other pitchers have poor outings or when a setup man is needed.

The Rockies have never had a problem coming up with decent middle relievers – they would just need to focus on this and recruit a few others, either through free agency or their own system. Fuentes, Reed and Javier Lopez would work in the role of “starter.” Two innings of these guys guaranteed every fifth game, and an occasional setup inning in-between should work out very nicely.

After the “starter” is pinch-hit for, you bring in your “horse” relievers. These could be failed starters with live arms, young starters in their first apprenticeships in the majors, and pitchers who haven’t been able to handle a full workload (pitchers who won’t care about being used in a traditional role, who have decent arms and are cheaply acquired). These three pitchers would also pitch 32 games each, and they’d get 3-5 innings per appearance or about 130 innings per year. These pitchers would be eligible for the win. Joe Kennedy, Aaron Cook, Denny Neagle, Denny Stark, Adam Bernero, Jason Young and Scott Elarton could all compete for these spots.

You would also alternate the lefty “starter” with a righty “horse-reliever” whenever possible. This would either force the opposing manager to use his bench, or give you the platoon advantage early or through the middle innings.

The team would need to have a relief ace (not a “closer”), who would be available for any close games from the 7th inning on. This pitcher would generally pitch 55 games and about 110 innings. Shawn Chacon could fill this role – picture the role of Goose Gossage or Dan Quisenberry (Clint Hurdle should remember him) – not the role of Trevor Hoffman.

So far we’ve allocated about 1,100 of our ~1,458 innings (9 IP x 162 G), and we’re using nine pitchers. The remaining 250 innings or so could be spread among the kind of back-end of the staff pitchers the Rockies have been coming up with for years, guys like DiPoto and Veres. Obviously the pitchers who didn’t make it for one of the “horse-reliever” spots would slot in here, where they can adjust to the thin air during garbage innings.

One thing that you wouldn’t be able to do is continuously switch out pitchers twice an inning to try to get the platoon advantage. You’d also have to stick with your pitchers through some rough spots at home; you’ve got to realize that in the park your pitchers will get hit some, and you’ve got to stick it out a little longer than you otherwise would.

But you would have pitchers in defined roles with regular work, something many feel is beneficial. You’d be able to assemble a decent staff relatively cheaply. Contrary to popular belief, decent relief pitching is always available – you just need to know where to look (places like the Rule 5 Draft, for example). By gathering a few extra middle relievers instead of starters, you are getting pitchers who will accept the role, and thrive in it – for a very reasonable price.

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By using a regular pinch-hitter the first time through the order, you’d have an offensive advantage earlier in the game as well. If the PH hits 100 points higher than the pitcher, you’d have 16 extra games a year where your 2nd or 3rd inning rally gets extended and earns you an extra run or two. With a 14 hitter/11 pitcher roster construction, you’ll still have five players on the bench for later in the game.

The other thing that isn’t a requirement, but would really help to make this work is to have a Brooks Kieschnick/Rick Ankiel type on the roster – a “slash” player who can hit and pitch. He wouldn’t have to be a great pitcher, just someone who can absorb innings in blowouts, pick up for a pitcher that doesn’t have it that day, etc.. Colorado had Kieschnick at one time, I don’t think it’d be overly expensive (in terms of a trade) if they ever wanted to bring him back. Every year, many draftees are converted one way or the other, the Rockies would need to take one of them and encourage him to develop both skill sets.

The Rockies have shown a willingness to try different ideas. They have had many successful relief pitchers. I think they’d be better off if they embraced this and went after it full scale – and if it works, you’ve built such a cheap staff that you can spend a boatload on guys that can hit and field.

Of course, it was by accident, and not by design, but look at the Rockies’ one playoff season. In 1995, the staff had an ERA of 4.97, which was the worst in the league. However, when adjusting for the park, an average staff would have had a 5.36 ERA, so their pitching was actually quite good.

Kevin Ritz led the team with 173.1 IP (it was a short season, the equivalent of 195 IP). The #2 guy on the staff, Billy Swift, pitched 105.2 innings. The bullpen was amazing, Holmes (3.24 ERA), Leskanic (3.40), Reed (2.14) and Ruffin (2.12) were lights out. Short of developing the next Roger Clemens and Greg Maddux, I think the staff utilization that I’m describing is something the Rockies would be wise to try and implement. What do they have to lose?

2) Is there any reason to think this won’t end up being the same old Rockies? What’ll be different in 2004?

Some of the faces are new (Kennedy, Aaron Miles, Royce Clayton, Jeromy Burnitz) and one is recycled (Vinny Castilla), but there is no reason to think this team will be any different in terms of the bottom line – wins and losses – than it’s been in the past. That is, a team with a few stars and some major holes that will finish under .500, but not be awful.

It’s nice to see a 27-year-old with 849 minor league games under his belt finally get a shot. Miles hit .304/.351/.445 in Charlotte last year and is better than at least 1/3 of the regular 2B in the major leagues. I hope he gets hot early, so he gets a real chance to show what he can do. At 5′ 8″ and 170 lbs. he’s every bit the sparkplug and really is just as good as everyone thinks Bo Hart is. Hopefully Miles can parlay a career and a pension out of this opportunity. Who knows if Juan Uribe will ever get it together, I can’t fault O’Dowd on this trade at all. In fact, I think it was a great move. While I don’t think Miles is as good a player as Ronnie Belliard, he should be better than Belliard was last year and he will save about $700K.

Royce Clayton – wow. If there’s a more useless player out there, I can’t think of him. I know it’s just a minor league deal, but it looks like he’s going to be the starter. You can’t afford to beat the two years/$2.2 million the Royals gave Tony Graffanino or something? The Royals didn’t even need Graffanino, you’d have to think he’d have jumped at a chance to start in the thin air.

Quick: 84, 73, 64 – what do you think the next number will be? Those are Royce Clayton’s OPS+ numbers over the last three seasons, pretty much the standard progression for a 31-33-year-old SS. His defense is still decent, but at 34 it’s probably not going to be for long.

This is the typical gaping hole in the Colorado lineup that keeps them from getting over the hump despite having legitimate stars like Walker, Todd Helton and, to a lesser extent, Preston Wilson. Bill James mentioned this back in the 80s when discussing why the Expos couldn’t get over the hump, despite having a core of three potential Hall of Famers. He said that for everything Tim Raines does to build an offense, Doug Flynn does something to destroy it. Clayton hasn’t been that bad, but at age 34 I wouldn’t put it past him this time around.

Take a guess as to why they didn’t have the money for a Graffanino (actually, I don’t even know that they considered him)? They gave Vinny Castilla $2.1 million ($500K now and $1.6 million deferred). I realize it’s a cheap deal and who knows who’ll be around in 2029 (I’ll be 57, wow!) when the last payment is made, but why not simply let Garrett Atkins, who hit .319/.382/.481 at Colorado Springs, have at it?

I realize they think Atkins’ defense is awful and you need good defensive players in Coors. He won’t be anything special, but his offense is basically the same as Castilla’s and you’re probably not going to be very good anyway. So why bring in the 36-year-old Castilla? I just think that if you’re going to be bad, you may as well be bad with young players – at least they have a chance to surprise you. A rebuilding team signing Royce Clayton and Vinny Castilla just baffles me.

3) Is making Shawn Chacon the closer a good idea?

The typical Leverage Index (LI) of a closer is about 1.7 – meaning a closer inning is worth about 1.7 times that of a typical pitcher. So a closer pitching 80 innings is worth roughly the same as a starting pitcher throwing 136 innings of the same quality. Including the minor leagues, Chacon has pitched 184, 140 and 140 innings the last three years. It’s not unreasonable to say that the Rockies have determined that there is a durability issue here that causes Chacon to break down with a full workload. If that’s truly the case, they aren’t going to lose anything in terms of value with the switch.

But I still think it’s a mistake if they use Chacon as a typical protect-the-3-run-lead-in-the-9th closer (although this is the only place where a 3-run save is legit). They say that it’s difficult to throw a curveball effectively at altitude, but Chacon is a native Coloradian and hasn’t had any issues with using the hook in the thin air. He also throws in the low-to-mid 90s, and he has a good changeup. His K rate has been good when he’s healthy, his control has improved and he gave up far fewer dingers last year than in years past. For some reason he gives up very few unearned runs (just 17 in 416 career innings), so his ERA understates his value somewhat.

The Rockies desperately need starting pitching – they’ve always had good bullpens. Short of what I propose in question one – making Chacon a 110 IP relief ace – I would try to lighten the load…give him an extra day off whenever possible, and get him out of there early when he’s ineffective. But he could be incredibly valuable to this team as a starting pitcher (if they stay traditional in terms of staff usage) and I wouldn’t chuck that possibility just yet. This team can pull relievers out of thin air (no pun intended), when they develop a successful starter they need to do everything they can to leverage that.

4) How much is Coors Field and how much is Todd Helton? Is he the best player in baseball after Bonds and ARod?

It’s more Helton than Coors. If you adjust Helton to a normal park, he’s hit .303/.404/.584 the past three years (which doesn’t include his brilliant 2000 campaign). For his career he’s a .294/.385/.523 hitter on the road. With the Hangover Effect it’s hard to come up with good park factors for players in Denver, but this is a reasonable guess. The Hangover Effect does tend to be weaker for star hitters.

If you consider Al Pujols a LF/3B, Todd Helton is the best 1B in the game today. Since Pujols is moving to 1B, Helton would be second, but it’s a lot closer than most think. Using a 3-2-1 weighting for Pujols and a 4-3-2-1 weighting for Helton, over the last few years, Pujols OPS+ is 173, Helton’s 158. Neither is much of a base-stealer and both hit into a decent number of DP. Carlos Delgado is close, but I’d take Helton, who is two years younger and a much better defensive player.

Win Shares adjusts for ballpark and in 2003 only Pujols, Bonds and Gary Sheffield had more offensive WS than Helton (Delgado was virtually tied with Helton). Helton is on the short list after Bonds and Rodriguez when discussing the best players in the game – he could win the MVP Award this year.

5) Where does Larry Walker fit in historically? Is he a Hall of Famer?

The most similar player to Larry Walker, when taking into account league/park context, is Chuck Klein. Klein hammered the horsehide around the Baker Bowl (and Wrigley Field) throughout the 30s. Prior to 1993 there’s a strong argument for the Baker Bowl as the best hitter’s park of the 20th Century. Let’s look at how they stack up relative to their park-adjusted league averages:

                        AVG       OBP       SLG
Larry Walker          +.030     +.040     +.123
Chuck Klein           +.027     +.026     +.125

Each player exceeded a 150 OPS+ five times, Walker topping out at 177 in 1997 and Klein at 175 in 1933. The similarities don’t end there. Both not only played in great hitter’s parks, but in great hitter’s eras. Both had outstanding arms – Klein recorded 44 baserunner kills in 1930. Walker’s career OPS+ is 140, Klein’s was 137. Neither was very durable, though Klein would have an edge there.

So basically we can say Walker is the modern day Chuck Klein offensively, and he’s a 7-time Gold Glove winner. Anything Walker does now pushes him past Klein with the lumber, as their careers are currently of a similar length. Most of you probably don’t think of Walker as a Hall of Famer (well, I didn’t anyway), but as the memories decay, the stats take on more weight.

Walker will be tough to ignore 25-30 years from now (even after you adjust for the park) by whatever the Veteran’s Committee is at that time. 36 years after his retirement, Klein finally achieved immortality and Walker will probably have to follow this same path. I can’t see the writers voting for him unless he lasts a lot longer than I think he will.

Walker is already past the “grey area” of the Hall of Fame Monitor with 143 points (Klein racked up 193.5 points). If Walker can stay in the lineup two more years he’ll likely annex the 400 HR plateau and he’ll be over 2,300 career hits. He’s not entirely a Coors Creation either, as 37% of his career was in Montreal. I’m not sure that Klein was a good Hall of Fame selection, but Walker is clearly better, and still going, so I think he’s moved into the “reasonable candidate” class.

Walker has been one helluva player, though sometimes it’s easy to write it off because of where he plays. I’m curious to see how history will treat him.

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