Thursday, June 21, 2007

From Laughability to Respectability: Gen-R, The Luck Factor, and Why These Aren't Your Daddy's Rockies

Well, turns out the blog is good for something after all. It got me invited to write on ArmchairGM, a sports-fan wiki, so I took the offer and signed up over there under my Purple Row handle Silverblood. Naturally, there aren't many Rockies bloggers over there, so, after being thrilled with the Rockies' sweep of the Yankees today, tried to keep my emotions in check and write a rational and analytic overview of their success. If you've read Sparks regularly or are a Rockies fan in general, this may be old hat already, but I thought I'd put it up here so you can see how I did. I'm actually happy-dancing inside, since this is exactly what I wanted the Rockies to do (sweep the Yanks) and never really thought they would, but I put on the studious-statistical hat for now.

Check 'er out. The Rockies will still be under-represented in the media, naturally, and underloved. I'm a homer, but I think they may, maybe, may have found the something they didn't have before.


From Laughability to Respectability: Gen-R, The Luck Factor, and Why These Aren’t Your Daddy’s Rockies

When people think of the Colorado Rockies, a few words come immediately to mind: Coors Field (launching pad) Blake Street Bombers (Bichette, Castilla, Walker no longer manning the premises, but succeeded admirably by Holliday, Atkins, Hawpe) awful pitching staff (Hampton and Neagle, thankfully, gone, and Cook and Francis looking a Mile High better) and chronic doormat-itis (Well, this one’s hard to argue, but not quite as difficult as it used to be. See why in a minute). They’ve been inhabiting the cellar of the NL West with seeming ease ever since their last winning season, an 82-80 showing in 2000. Unlike their brothers in expansion, the Marlins, who are already the possessors of two World Series wins in their scant fourteen years of existence, the Rockies have only dipped their toes in the postseason waters once, a one-and-done affair in 1995. What has followed almost seems to be a primer on how not to run a baseball team.

There was Neifi Perez. There was Tom Goodwin, Charles Jackson, and the entire parade ranging from replacement-level to downright awful, including the Hampton and Neagle fiascos. There was also the four-year shuffle to replace inaugural manager Don Baylor, as the Rockies tried out a succession of pieces – the short-lived Buddy Bell experiment, the brief and fateful Jim Leyland cameo, and then, last and currently, a hitting coach-turned-manager, the amiable but incompetent Clint Hurdle. Nothing has been enough to boost them to mediocrity. Their winning season was the last time they even sniffed .500, as the closest they came was 10 games under (76-86) at the close of 2006. They were the Senior Circuit’s version of the Devil Rays or the Royals, and an inability to have their bullpen convert in close games and a lack of production from key spots looked to have done in the boys in purple and black yet again. Steve Finley and John Mabry, crusty veterans well past their prime, took roster spots from promising young guns Ryan Spilborghs and Sean Barker, and accordingly batted .181 and .118 in late-inning pinch-hit duty. It was going to be a long season in LoDo, and they fell on their faces en route to an 18-27 record on May 21.

The turnaround began the very next day. The Rockies took a 3-1 decision from the Diamondbacks in Phoenix on May 22, and then on May 23, they did something they’d been having difficulty with: they won a series. They rolled into San Francisco and when they ripped off three straight to sweep the Giants in their home park for the first time in franchise history (be it Candlestick, 3Com, SBC, AT&T, or whatever else they’ve called the Phonebooth by the Bay) they arrived home on the coattails of a five-game winning streak, which they pushed to seven by taking the first two games of a four-game set from the floundering World Series champion Cardinals. Lucky number seven would have to be it, as rookie Jason Hirsh was bombarded in the third game, and Rockies fans everywhere (yes, they do exist, and some of them even have Internet connections, as evidenced by this post and the fabulous Purple Row) were sure that it was a return to the same old, same old. When they ended up splitting with the Cardinals, they were sure those fears were justified.

But it turns out they weren’t. The Rockies just kept ripping off series wins, and defying all the gloomy (and usually warranted) predictions for their sudden death. After they chewed through NL Central cellar-dweller Cincinnati in the first few days of June, using a six-run uprising in the late innings to complete a comeback and take the rubber match, they took another series from the Houston Astros and then a third one from the Baltimore Orioles. A June 12-14 set against the Red Sox, in Fenway Park, was hyped as a true test of their mettle – time to see if they really were that good or it was just a brief hot streak. The competition couldn’t have gotten much stiffer – the Sox threw crafty knuckleballer Tim Wakefield, needs-no-introduction Curt Schilling, and undefeated Josh Beckett at the Rox in succession.

After losing the first game 2-1, the Rockies rebounded to blow out the Red Sox on consecutive nights, hanging back-to-back six-spots on Schilling and Beckett. The Red Sox were dropped by a score of 12-2 in the middle game and by a score of 7-1 in the last one. A Monster-conquering grand slam by Garrett Atkins, a hot solo shot by Matt Holliday, and a stunning three-run blow by Brad Hawpe helped in the latter two games, as the Rockies outscored and out-hit the home team, 21-5 and 30-28, for the series. They also outpitched the Sox, as they even enjoyed a fine effort (7.1 IP, 7 H, 2 R/ER, 2 BB, 4 K from Aaron Cook) on the night they lost.

The Rockies came home to Coors Field to face the Devil Rays and promptly dinged another pitcher’s perfect record, serving up another 12-2 blowout to 6-0 James Shields. With a win in the middle game of the series, they secured a franchise-record sixth straight series win, and eighth straight undefeated series. Then the Yankees came calling.

When the preliminary schedule for 2007 was drawn up, the Blake Street Bombers were not scheduled to face off against their Bronx counterparts. Rockies owners Charlie and Dick Monfort lobbied Commissioner Selig to move the Yankees’ Western road trip to Denver from San Diego, and were eventually successful, a move that resulted in a media and advertising blitzkrieg. Every preseason ticket sale package included the word “Yankees” somewhere, and even if they knew nothing else against the Rockies’ 2007 slate, the casual fans knew that baseball’s most storied franchise was coming to Denver for the first time since 2002, when the two teams racked up a record 70 runs and 97 hits. (This was in the pre-humidor era, another topic that shall be addressed in a moment). And then at last, hold the phone, the Yankees arrived for their just-concluded June 19-21 joust with the Rockies. They arrived as one of the hottest teams in baseball, recovering from an early-season swoon to win 11 of 12 and climb to three games above .500. It was a series that, at the beginning of the season and on paper, looked like a colossal mismatch.

Did the Rockies win one of three? No. Did they win two of three? No. They won three of three, taking ‘em all from the Yankees in front of a near-record crowd of 150,000 over the series. The house was packed and rocking, heralding back to the early days when Coors was a sellout every night and getting a ticket on game days was impossible, and although the Yankees fans were loud, the Rockies fans were louder and raucously supportive, lending a playoff-like vibe to a stadium that’s long been lacking it. Josh Fogg debuted with seven stellar one-run innings, Jeff Francis matched him the next night, and Rodrigo Lopez worked 5.2 innings, permitting two runs, in the final contest, concluding a string of sterling pitching – the Yankees scored five runs total, matching half their output from the first 2002 game. Meanwhile, the offense got just enough off Mike Mussina (3 runs) more than enough off Andy Pettitte (6 runs) and plenty off Roger Clemens (4 runs in 4.1 innings, although the final score was 4-3). Just like that, the Yankees were back at .500 and the Rockies leapfrogged ahead, opening up a three-game cushion between themselves and the break-even mark in time for a ten-game road trip versus Toronto, Chicago, and Houston. In previous years, they’ve floundered away from Coors, but this year are 17-16 and have gone 5-1 and 4-2 on their last two trips. All of this has added up to a Major League-best 20-7 since May 22.

What has fueled this meteoric turnaround? Is it just a case of a team getting hot for the summer and fading for fall? (The Rockies looked promising at the outset for a while in ’06 too). Is it an actual sign of legitimacy, a talented young ballclub finally coming into their own? Is it a fluke, and A) why doesn’t Coors Field resemble Cape Canaveral any more? B) Why is Matt Holliday (leading the major leagues in hits and the NL in batting average and total bases – also, third in RBI, tied for first in extra-base hits, and second in slugging percentage) a distant seventh in All-Star outfield voting? Has the extensive “rebuilding” program both supported and ridiculed (sometimes simultaneously) finally yielded results?

There are a few easy answers. A) The Rockies store their balls in the much-ballyhooed humidor, a climate-controlled cabinet that counteracts the effects of Denver’s notoriously thin air, and also, their young pitching staff is starting to yield crops. Lefty starter Jeff Francis is on a 6-1, 1.93 roll, and the team is 7-1 in newly acquired Rodrigo Lopez’ eight starts (he missed significant time early on due to injury). Setup man Manny Corpas and closer Brian Fuentes give the Rockies a “rock”-steady back end of the pen for the first time since Jose Jimenez’s long-past prime, posting ERAs of 2.50 and 1.93 respectively; Fuentes has converted 20 of 22 save chances. These are no longer the days of pick-your-poison ‘penners, and although the bullpen lived up (and then some) to its doleful billing in the early going (it possessed the worst relief ERA in the NL) some of the cracks seem to be patched. LaTroy Hawkins has allowed only one run in eleven appearances since his return from the disabled list. Marlins problem child Jorge Julio, acquired in a trade for Rockies problem child Byung-Hyun Kim, has flourished in Denver, lowering his ERA by more than half. Even perpetual piƱata Tom Martin has found some success, eating innings when the team is trailing.

As for the answer to B), the media market is trying to sell Carlos Beltran (.268/9/39) Alfonso Soriano, and Barry Bonds as better alternatives to Holliday, who, you know, plays for the Rockies. These Rockies, however, are worth checking out, and the answer for some of their success is clearly obvious if you take a look at some of the unsung young players on the roster. Holliday’s corner outfield counterpart, Brad Hawpe, has also blossomed into a star in the making, nearly matching Holliday with a .293/12/47/.381/.506/.905 line. Even Todd Helton, a glorified singles hitter though he may have become, is hitting .329/6/37/.447/.488/.935. After a miserable May, third baseman Garrett Atkins is hitting .317 with five homers, 16 RBI, and a 1.058 OPS in June, and rookie shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, aside from possessing a cannon of an arm, is hitting .278. He also possesses an uncanny and timely flair for the dramatic, enjoying the best clutch rating in baseball (1.73) and doing his best hitting in high-leverage situations (.429 with the bases loaded, .382 in late-inning pressure, .444 in late-inning pressure with runners on). Drafted in 2005 out of Long Beach State with the Rockies’ first round pick, Tulowitzki made his major league debut a scant 14 months later in August ’06, and won the starting job from Clint Barmes coming out of ’07 Spring Training. He remains a strong candidate for NL Rookie of the Year, and has committed just five errors at his position. About the aforementioned cannon, it’s real – Tulowitzki has been clocked as high as 94 mph from shortstop to first, and he, along with Hawpe, is the likeliest position player to pitch if the Rockies ever run short of relievers.

The team dumped deadweights Mabry and Finley, and brought up 27-year-old outfielder Ryan Spilborghs, who provided an instant spark – he rang up more RBIs in his first half-dozen games than either Mabry and Finley had all year. They platooned veteran Yorvit Torrealba and youngster Chris Iannetta in the catching spot, got a promising pitching twosome – Jason Hirsh and Taylor Buchholz from the Astros in exchange for Jason Jennings, and worked on keeping the ball down (Aaron Cook, whose heavy sinker is his best pitch and, when on, can induce groundball outs like a machine). Pitching never has, and never will be, the Rockies’ forte; they rank fifteenth in the majors with a 4.35 team ERA and the staff has yielded 63 homers, 217 walks, and 397 strikeouts. Still, this is much improved from the days when Coors routinely saw four or five homers fly over its green fences, and it’s a sign that the humidor is helping approximate the effects of more oxygen-rich air.

What else about these Rockies? We already know that they hit, but they play stellar defense, ranking first in the major leagues with a team-wide .991 fielding percentage. Third baseman Atkins, after a rough defensive start to the season, has only six errors overall. Second baseman Kazuo Matsui, another success story (hitting .316 with an .830 OPS, and leading the majors in batting average with runners on and two outs) has yet to make one. Center fielder and speedy leadoff man Willy Taveras (hitting .313 and leading the majors in infield hits) has two. Holliday, once regarded as an all-hit, no-glove proposition, still is prone to the occasional misplay in left field (he’s a converted third baseman) but has improved his defense dramatically, to the point where a Gold Glove is not out of the question.

Perhaps it’s luck, and a period of playing over their heads to match the hot Denver weather (93 degrees at game time today). But then again, perhaps it was luck, and hot streaks at the right time, that fueled the 83-79 Cardinals to their tenth World Championship title in 2006. The Rockies have historically had no-name pitchers, a so-so offense, a rocket pad of a ballpark, and almost militantly bad luck. They have none of the four this year, and their fortunes may change. Now, I’m not predicting an upstart NL West title out from under the watches of the Dodgers or Padres, or even a playoff berth. I’m only saying that the winds of change are blowing in Denver, and this is a young and hungry team that has the ability to keep it rolling.

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