Monday, March 24, 2008

Around the Horn: Outfield

I have finally gotten new contacts, so in a miracle, I am now able to see. My eyes are not exactly used to them yet, but it's nice to no longer have my crappy glasses, and I definitely noticed the difference when I was playing football catch with my sister. I can also now see the Rockies in high-def better than ever, which always a plus, especially when it entails wins. One such was picked up today over our friends the Brewers, 6-5, but I'm more than a little worried about the state of our starting rotation. Cook got roughed up by the D-backs, Jimenez hasn't found a groove, Frankie's ERA is well over 6, Hirsh is hurt, and Francis can't do it all by himself, as after all he can pitch only once every five days. Wells has been officially relegated to the bullpen, so I guess that means MARK! All-Star! REDMAN gets to take over the fifth spot until Hirsh comes back. Fortunately, fifth starters generally aren't used too much in April, so hopefully we won't dig ourselves in too much of a hole. Ehhhh....

Also, Kip Wells' M.O.: Get demoted to the bullpen because you suck, and then whine that you want to be a starter. He's already annoying me a lot, and that has done nothing to endear him further. Listen, buster, you were 5-17 as a starter last year with an ERA above six (6.27 to be exact). Much as it may pain me to say it, you were ... slightly good as a reliever, 2-0 and 2.31 ERA. If you want to stay in the big leagues, which is a slender surety as it is, maybe you should shut your mouth and try helping the team. I have pretty much unlimited and insane love for each guy on the Rockies. Most of them, that is. You are noticeably exempt. You seem to think you were "entitled" to a starting spot, when you were epically awful as a starter last year and came in knowing it would be a competition. Argh. Please get off my team already.

Luckily, despite all these pitfalls of the pitching, the Rockies still have a stacked lineup to their credit. In some of these starts, they will be needing it. And with the exception of Willy Taveras, two of their chief cannons can be found in the expansive Coors Field outfield. The three starters get previewed today, and Spilly and whoever the fifth outfielder ends up being will be included with the rest of the backup corps in "Bench."

LF Matt Holliday
CF Willy Taveras
RF Brad Hawpe

#5 R/R Matt Holliday: At last, the long-kept secret that is Matt Holliday is starting to get out to the world, mainly thanks to the play last October 1st that will go down as "The Slide." Barreling face-first into home plate and Michael Barrett's foot, hitting his head and dazing himself while bloodying his chin, Matt vaulted the Rockies over the Padres in the one-game playoff for the NL Wild Card and the club's first postseason appearance since 1995. If the Broncos have "The Drive," now the Rockies have "The Slide," as I think I can watch the bottom of that 13th inning over... and over... and over, and never get tired of it. Despite being the actual MVP, Matt was robbed of the award in favor of Jimmy Rollins, the East Coast media darling. Matt had better numbers all around, as this handy little chart shall show you:

Holliday: .340 (NL batting title winner). Home: .376. Away: .301
Rollins: .296 (in Citizens Bank Park, which plays like pre-humidor Coors) Home: .300. Away: .293.

Holliday: 36
Rollins: 30

Holliday: 137 (NL RBI leader)
Rollins: 94

Holliday: .405
Rollins: .344

Holliday: .607
Rollins: .531

Holliday: 1.012
Rollins: .875

Holliday: 50
Rollins: 38

Holliday: 6
Rollins: 20

Holliday: 216/636
Rollins: 212/716 (he couldn't even tie with 80 more ABs)

Outs Made/Plate Appearances:
Holliday: 451/713
Rollins: 527/778 (LED THE MAJORS)

XBH (Extra-Base Hits)
Holliday: 92 (1st in NL)
Rollins: 88 (2nd in NL.... not even all those extra triples could get him by)

RC/G (Runs Created/Game)
Holliday: 9.0
Rollins: 6.9

Holliday: 11
Rollins: 41

So basically, if triples and stolen bases outweigh all the other categories, then yes, Jimmy Rollins was the MVP. And proceeded to hit .182 with 1 HR and 4 RBI in the three-game sweep suffered by the Phil-Phils against Matt's Rockies in the NLDS. Whereas Matt hit .289 in the postseason with 5 HR and 10 RBI. But naturally, since everything in the baseball world happens on the East Coast, it was the "Coors Field effect," regardless of the fact that the Bank is even more extreme of a hitter's park than Coors now that the humidor has been installed. I already wrote a whole treatise as to how Tulo was robbed of the Gold Glove by Rollins and the ROY by Braun, and I wasn't REALLY intending to do so here, but I couldn't resist showing how much the deserving candidate did not get picked. Not that I have a pro-purple bias or anything.

Holliday is one of the hardest workers in the game. After an uninspiring minor league career (he never hit higher than .276 or 16 HR in a full season) he dropped close to 20 pounds, changed his diet, and works out every day with religious fervor (true story: Holliday was in Panama to play for Team USA, and refused to miss a workout despite the fact of his hotel lacking a gym -- he just used his luggage for curls and bench presses). He has a Tulowitzki-like will to continue to improve, and he believes that he'll be disgusted with himself if he's not still an elite player at age 35 or so. Born in Stillwater, Oklahoma, Matt was an All-American quarterback prospect coming out of Stillwater High, one of the highest-rated recruits in the nation, and the Kansas City Chiefs GM sent him a letter begging him to choose football over baseball. He dropped all the way to the seventh round of the 1998 draft since teams weren't sure which sport he was going to choose, and the Rockies were able to sign him in July of that year. Nobody knew it yet, but they were sitting on a gold mine -- nine years later, he wouldn't be a two-sport promising youngster but instead one of the best players in baseball, leading a previously moribund franchise to their first NL Pennant and their emergence from MLB's cellar.

This past offseason, Holliday received a 2-year, $23 million extension that will take him to his age-30 season and the end of his arbitration, and Rockies fans everywhere are adamant that he be re-signed, but his agent is the evil Scott Boras who will demand nothing less than top dollar. If Helton's contract expires around this time, there may be enough lucre to retain Holliday, who by then will be established as hands-down the best left fielder in baseball (and he was chosen as that already). A premier offensive talent and no slouch on the field (3 errors with 296 putouts, 7 assists) and 306 total chances for a .990 fielding percentage) Holliday is a fearsome middle-of-the-order bat who will be hitting cleanup this year and given plenty of chances to send runners in a homeward direction. He incorporates a signature high leg-kick and isn't the most patient hitter, as he'll be swinging on the first pitch almost all the time, but usually manages to hit it a Mile High anyway. Matt has increased his AVG, HR, RBI, OBP, and SLG every year that he's been in the majors, leading to the question of just how much higher he can go. Just repeating 2007 would be legendary. Going even higher? Well, the big man can do it. Here's something interesting for you: In 2007, Matt hit .338 off fastballs, .373 off curveballs, .331 off sliders, and .429 off changeups, and his RC/27 was 9.04, so nine Matts in the lineup would put you up about 9 or so runs a game. His BABIP (batting average on balls in play) was .380, so basically if he puts wood on it, you're generally screwed. Good luck finding a weakness, pitchers of the NL. I'd anticipate seeing Holliday in New York for his third All-Star game this summer.

2007 Line: .340 AVG, 36 HR, 137 RBI, .405 OBP, .607 SLG, 1.012 OPS
2008 Proj: .335 AVG, 38 HR, 135 RBI, .415 OBP, .620 SLG, 1.035 OPS

#3 R/R Willy Taveras: Willy T, as he's known, is a speed merchant that adds the fleetfoot element to Colorado's lineup of mashers. Willy T will never be mistaken for Holliday, as he's a slender, speedy, punch-and-judy hitter with a grand total of 6 career homers, but he does have 101 career stolen bases. With Kaz's departure, Tulo and Jayson Nix will both be running more, but Willy T remains the primary speed option -- assuming he's healthy, as nagging quad injuries limited him to only 97 games last year. He led the majors in bunt hits last year, but had to overcome a slow start and is looking a little anemic in spring thus far this year. He can use his speed to discomfit opposing pitchers, and with Tulo hitting in the #2 hole, it can limit the number of offspeed pitches he sees if the catcher needs to worry about Willy T stealing. Since Tulo murders fastballs, this is only to the better, and as long as Willy T doesn't come up gimpy, he'll likely be running wild on the basepaths. The problem is, that's really the only dimension to his offensive game, and he has trouble getting on base consistently -- last year's .367 OBP was by far the highest of his career, and he walked only 21 times to 55 K's. He doesn't have much power for extra bases, with 2 HR, 13 doubles, and 2 triples, but if he ever does get the ball into the green, he can push outfielders into making mistakes and take the extra base simply because he can outrace a speeding baseball. (No word on his ability to leap tall buildings with a single bound).

Defensively, Willy T had 223 total chances, 212 putouts, 7 assists, and 4 errors for a .982 fielding percentage, and he might have made the play of the year in NLCS Game 2 against the Diamondbacks. With two runners on, two outs, and the Rockies nursing a one-run lead in the bottom of the seventh, Tony Clark hit a laser into no-man's-land between right and center. It looked like extra bases, a Diamondbacks lead, and a win in that game for Arizona could have changed the entire complexion of the series -- but Willy T charged across what looked like a mile of Chase Field grass, extended his glove, and dove fully extended to come up with the ball and end the inning. Clint Hurdle, who had been heavily criticized for daring to put Willy T back into the lineup after the Rockies had already won 17 of 18, suddenly looked like a genius again, but Willy T didn't provide any offensive pop, hitting only .167 for the NLCS with 1 stolen base, 2 walks, and 5 strikeouts. Still, he's projected to be the starting center fielder, and if he gets injured or is too ineffective, either Ryan Spilborghs, Cory Sullivan, or Scott Podsednik (depending on whether Pods or Sully wins the fifth outfield spot) may spell him. 162 games is a long season, after all (as the players themselves like to remind us in their interviews) and Willy T barely got to 100 of them last year. And his speed isn't much of an asset if he can't get on base, but if he can a) replicate his moderate success on this front and b) avoid messing with his legs, which constitute basically his entire value as a player, he can provide the effective catalyst at the top of the lineup.

2007 Line: .320 AVG, 2 HR, 24 RBI, .367 OBP, .382 SLG, .749 OPS, 33 SB, 9 CS
2008 Proj.: .312 AVG, 2 HR, 27 RBI, .359 OBP, .377 SLG, .736 OPS, 37 SB, 8 CS

#11 L/L Brad Hawpe: Brad, as long as you play him against righties, is an unholy terror at the plate. He hit .315/24/94 off righties, but a meek .214/5/22 against southpaws, and it's been his issues with lefties that have kept him from developing into one of the premier corner outfielders in baseball. (LET IT BE NOTED, however: Brad hit a 14th-inning, go-ahead and game-winning home run against the Padres on September 21, in the middle of the streak in which the Rockies literally had to win every game. This homer came off Joe Thatcher, one of the tougher lefty pen-men in the NL, AND in San Diego at night, in one of the hardest parks to hit it out of. He also hit a two-run blast off the Dodgers' Jonathan Broxton, another tough setup man, for a 5-4 Rockies victory on September 19). Brad hit .316 in September and October with 26 RBI, so he showed up when he was most needed, and hit .438 in the Rockies' vital last 12 regular season games. A patient but streaky hitter, Brad can go through stretches in which he'll absolutely crush anything near the plate and then stretches where he strikes out like Adam Dunn. (At one point last year, he went 26 straight games with at least one K). Still, a final line of .291/29/116 isn't at all shabby, and Brad was rewarded for his performance with a three-year, $17.25 million contract that buys out his arbitration years and his first year of free agency. If he can get over his lefty issues, it's not good news for the rest of the NL, but it IS good news for Rockies fans, who can enjoy watching Hawpe put that sweet swing on the other half of opposing pitchers as well.

Brad has firmly established himself as a fearsome run-producer, but in a lineup with Holliday, Helton, and Tulowitzki, he (and Atkins) tend to get overlooked. With a 2-6 that's among the best in the game (Tulowitzki-Helton-Holliday-Atkins-Hawpe) you can appreciate exactly how talented the Rockies are when they have a 29 HR/116 RBI man hitting in the sixth hole, Jayson Nix (.292/11/58 in AAA last year) hitting seventh, and, well, Yorvit hitting eighth, but still. Brad ranked sixth in RBIs in the entire NL last year, is a cleanup hitter on many clubs, and is on the tail end of Colorado's Murderer's Row -- that's food for thought about how strong the offensive cannonade here is. (They're going to need it as well....) Defensively, Brad can struggle when he has to go back on balls and doesn't have the greatest range, but what he does have is a cannon arm reminiscent of the days when Larry Walker was cutting down runners from the right-field corner. The pitchers know that Hawpe's arm will keep opposing batters from getting too cheeky on the basepaths, so as long as he can get to balls quickly, he'll keep them honest and only to second instead of constantly going first-to-third on balls hit to right field.

Coors Field helps, of course, but it should be noted in any disparate split of home and road average, that curveballs and breaking pitches act very different in Denver, humidor or otherwise, than they do elsewhere, and so every hitter has to recalibrate how he sees them on the road. Brad hit a perfectly serviceable .273/10/49 on the road, and to be honest, I get really tired of talking about the "Coors Effect" when discussing Rockies stats. If they signed elsewhere (God forbid, I love them too much to ever lose them) they'd adjust how they saw pitches and be just as good there. Good hitting mechanics are good hitting mechanics, and although Brad's swing is still a little long, it wouldn't be a great handicap elsewhere. Brad was responsible for 7.5 runs created on average in a game, and his RC/27 was 7.57, which means that nine Brads playing 27 outs (your standard nine-inning baseball game) would score about 7 runs. In his first taste of postseason action, Brad hit .282 overall, with 1 HR, 4 RBI, and a team-leading 8 walks, and since he's excited to be a Rockie and to play with this group of guys, all of whom are like family to him and the rest of the Rockies' close and dynamic clubhouse, I'm sure he'll have a chance to improve on those numbers soon.

2007 Line: .291 AVG, 29 HR, 116 RBI, .387 OBP, .539 SLG, .926 OPS
2008 Proj.: .295 AVG, 27 HR, 112 RBI, .390 OBP, .525 SLG, .915 OPS

That concludes our extra-thpecial preview on the Rockies' outfield. The bench will be covered next, and despite my generally, um, interesting approach to scheduling, that will be the whole team before the season starts. YAY! I can't wait. Then I can get back to all my various fascinating ideas.

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