Tag Archives: Dante Bichette

For the Rockies, same as it ever was

Nick Groke posted a tweet thread Sunday that reminded me of the Rockies’ bad old days, when their suckage seemed like a permanent state, interrupted occasionally and wistfully by brief confluences of good luck.

In the 16 years from 2001 to 2016, the Rocks had three winning seasons. Back then, some annoyed journalist, blogger or radio talk-show host, sometimes all three, would lash out after another losing season and urge a popular uprising against ownership or management.

A lot of years, it was merited. During its interminable rebuilds, the franchise enjoyed above-average attendance and below-average payrolls, leading to the logical conclusion that ownership cared more about profits than winning.

Groke does a nice job covering the Rockies for The Athletic. He maintains a distance and wit over the long season that offers readers the truth with a little bite, which is not always, or even often, the case with Rockies beat writers.

But this tweet felt more what-have-you-done-for-us-lately than similar calls to action in the past. And it started up an old motor on an old cause, which isn’t really his fault.

So feel free to complain your ass off about the Rockies, if you care. Complaining might help…
— Nick Groke (@nickgroke)

I’m just a fan now, but aside from hindsight, always 20-20, I don’t know what the complaint aimed at ownership or management would be this year. The Rocks were coming off two straight playoff appearances following seasons of 87 and 91 wins. They had the most promising young pitching staff in their history. The payroll was above the league average.

True, the payroll rank is lower than the attendance rank, but it’s higher than the TV market rank, which has at least as much to do with total revenues.

Several pitchers broke down in one way or another and it got ugly. To blame this on ownership or management, you would have to argue they should have anticipated this dramatic decline from roughly the same pitching staff and overhauled a 91-win team going in. I didn’t hear anyone making that case last spring.

Situational hitting varies from year to year, but the offense was about the same from a production standpoint. Last year’s 91-win team scored 4.79 runs per game. This year’s team, currently 65-85, in last place, is averaging 5.19 with 12 games to play.

Scoring is up league-wide this year — from an average of 4.45 runs per team per game last year to 4.85 so far this year — so both the Rocks and the league average are up 0.4 runs per game. They ranked seventh in scoring among all big league clubs last year; this year, they rank ninth.

The pitching was nowhere near the same. The Rocks allowed 4.57 runs per game last year, lower than 10 teams, which is quite an accomplishment when you play half your games at Coors Field. They had a team earned-run average of 4.33.

They’re allowing 5.95 runs a game this year, with an ERA of 5.63, worst in the big leagues in both categories except for the tanking Orioles.

They had 84 quality starts last year. This year they have 44.

Four starters had better-than-average park-adjusted ERAs in 2018. Two do this year.

What happened, from the perspective of an old-timer who’s been watching since Opening Day in 1993, is the same thing that always happens. In their 27-year history, the Rocks have never been able to sustain good pitching. To understand why, you have to acknowledge the fact that pitching a mile high is different, very different, from pitching anywhere else in the major leagues.

This is not a myth, it’s not an excuse, it’s freaking science.

And it’s an enormous structural disadvantage for the Rockies. For most of its history, club officials have done their best to avoid discussing this publicly because they believe acknowledging it gives players a built-in excuse for failure. But the result is a public posture of ignoring or denying science, which is unlikely to be a successful strategy in the long run.

A lot of longtime Rockies fans, and most of the reporters who cover the team, are sick and tired of hearing about this. They would rather blame the players or management architects in each case. Over time, this has created a lengthening list of individual, idiosyncratic self-destructions in the public mind. That doesn’t change the science either.

Robert Adair, the Sterling Professor Emeritus of physics at Yale University, now 95, explained it all in The Physics of Baseball, which he updated to include some discussion of the effects of altitude for the third edition in 2002.

Batted balls travel farther and faster due to less air resistance a mile high, which accounts for the sprawling Coors Field outfield, designed to cut down on home runs but carrying unintended consequences of its own. Adair observed:

The use of a less lively, “high-altitude” ball would reduce the altitude effect, just as special less lively, “high-altitude” balls are used in tennis, though for somewhat different reasons.

As a columnist for the Rocky Mountain News beginning in 2000, I advocated development of a high-altitude ball to bring scoring at Coors Field closer to baseball’s normal parameters. Various officials of the Rockies and other teams told me this would never happen. There was too much suspicion of doctored balls as it was.

Just putting standard balls in a humidified room to keep them from drying out and making a bad situation worse caused some controversy at the time. Would the home team substitute non-humidor balls for humidor balls when it came to bat? Given baseball’s documented history of attempts to get an edge, it seemed like a reasonable question.

Restricted-flight balls are an entirely different matter, with distinctive markings in the sports that use them, so the humidor analogy doesn’t apply. By the time I raised this point, every baseball official I talked to had already waved off the idea as impossible.

In tennis, of course, they have no choice. You can’t play the game a mile above sea level  with regular tennis balls. They bounce into moonshots. Basketballs are inflated to a different pressure at high elevation to achieve the same behavior you get at sea level.

Baseballs are solid, so the necessary adjustments are different, but it’s certainly doable. Softball and golf both have restricted-flight balls. Somehow, both games figured out how to give them distinctive, identifying markings.

As it turns out, the increased speed and distance of batted balls at altitude is not even the biggest problem. The biggest problem is the effect on pitching. Orel Hershiser, the longtime Dodgers star who is now part of their television broadcast team, riffed on it during a visit to Denver in June.

The proximate cause was just another 12-8 Coors Field game featuring 33 hits, including 13 in 5 2/3 innings against Dodgers starter Walker Buehler, who hasn’t surrendered more than nine in any other start this year.

“This is one place that even pitchers are confident they can get a hit,” Hershiser said after Buehler collected his second of the season. “And it’s not a good feeling, cuz you’re like, ‘If I feel like I can get a hit here, I gotta go get nine guys out on the other side.’

“I don’t care how long they put the balls in the humidor and they try and balance that part of it so the ball won’t carry, because of where we are, and the lack of humidity and thin air, the ball won’t break as much. So there’s more solid contact. The popup at sea level is a long fly ball, possible home run, here because the hitter can square up more baseballs because it’s harder to make the ball move as a pitcher.

“The other thing you have to do as a pitcher that helps the offense here is you have to make the ball start breaking sooner. So, as far as late movement? Late movement is harder here. Because the way to get movement here is to help the ball on the pattern it’s going to go on, compared to thinking, ‘I can throw it out flat and it’ll break late.’ So it’s definitely an offensive park no matter what they do to help the flight of the ball be cut down.”

Play-by-play man Joe Davis piped up: “And so you almost have to be two different pitchers depending on what your set of stuff is, two different pitchers when you’re pitching home games versus going on road trips.”

Hershisher: “I really believe that, yeah. I used to come in here, if I was pitching in game one, I would actually go out early during batting practice and play catch three, four hours before the game, just to get an idea of what I’m going to have to aim for when I actually warm up. I didn’t want to just figure it out in the bullpen and come in. I wanted to get a couple different reps and get used to the air.”

Davis: “Did it take a hard lesson to learn to do that?”

Hershiser: “It did. You come in here and you think you can overpower it, like we have most of our life if you make it to the big leagues, but you can’t overpower this environment.”

Davis: “You thought you could have the leg up on Mother Nature, huh?”

Hershisher: “Well, look, you know, you just kinda come through and build an ego of, ‘Oh, I can spin it fast enough to make it break. I can do it.’ Even if you make adjustments, you might tell the media, ‘Nah, it’s no big deal.’”

That last part is important. Pitchers routinely downplay or deny the effects of the elevation in comments to reporters, so as not to be seen as making excuses, and a lot of reporters adopt that view, even though it’s not true.

“This is a place that if you’re a pitcher you can gain a lot of equity and a good reputation in the locker room,” Hershiser said. “If you’re the kind of guy who doesn’t come in here and whine about the environment, doesn’t talk about it, if you have a rough outing you don’t worry about it. You take your beating, if you have to, to save the staff and your teammates. So this is a place that can expose some character.”

Showing character is what they call denying reality in baseball because, from a player’s point of view, there’s nothing to be done about it. It’s similar to complaining about the weather. Both teams have to deal with it, right?

Right, except the Rocks deal with it 81 times a year, in 50 percent of their games, and no other team deals with it more than 10, or 6 percent of their games.

It affects the hitters, too, a fact that has escaped most national baseball analysts for 27 years. Each new season, some intrepid investigative reporter discovers that Rockies hitters have ginormous home/road splits. Charlie Blackmon’s .388/.256 batting-average split this season as of this writing is not unusual. Such splits are often used to argue that Rockies hitters are overrated because the road number is real baseball, the home number high-altitude arenaball. Home/road splits have been used against Larry Walker’s case for the Hall of Fame.

It’s true, of course, that the home numbers are inflated by the conditions Hershiser described. But the road numbers are depressed by the same phenomenon.

“These hard hit balls that you’re seeing more often than not is just the pitcher having difficulty getting the movement on the baseball,” Hershiser said. “The movement’s about half as much as you’d normally get it to move. That’s why the Rockie hitters, when they leave here, have such a problem getting hits on the road because they get that same spin and all of a sudden the ball is breaking twice as much.”

Again, this is old news. Dante Bichette famously brought what former general manager Bob Gebhard called a “curveball machine” on the road with him in the Rockies’ early days in an effort to adjust to sharper breaking balls before he got into the batter’s box.

The Rocks make that transition 11 times this season. No other team makes it more than three.

But hope springs eternal and the Rockies, the reporters who cover them, and many of their fans continue to believe the considerable difference between the physics of baseball at elevation and the physics of baseball at sea level can be overcome by mental toughness or something.

The data set over 27 years is growing large enough to suggest the devolutionary pattern of Rockies pitchers is more likely a product of the environment than the talent selection. Plenty of young pitchers have had auspicious starts, only to break down, mentally or physically.

Imported pitchers, accustomed to the luxury of their pitch selection and movement at sea level, have had some spectacular implosions in Colorado, most colorfully Mike Hampton and Jeremy Guthrie. The big contracts given to Hampton and Denny Neagle in 2000 set the Rockies back years. Hampton lasted two years and Neagle three, both putting up the worst numbers of their careers.

Given that history, free-agent pitchers require ridiculous premiums to pitch in Colorado, which leads to outcomes like three years, $52 million for closer Wade Davis, who has the worst earned-run average on this year’s team at 7.87, by far the highest of his career.

So the Rocks emphasize growing their own and have enjoyed some good short-term results: Jason Jennings, Aaron Cook, Jeff Francis, Ubaldo Jimenez, Jhoulys Chacin, Jon Gray, Kyle Freeland, German Marquez (not homegrown, but acquired at 21, before he had appeared in the major leagues).

They are also one of only three franchises never to have a pitcher win 100 games in their uniform. The other two, Miami and Tampa Bay, are in this club because they’re cheap. They develop top-flight pitchers, they just don’t keep them when it’s time to pay them. The best pitchers developed by the Rocks have been unable to sustain their success.

Within the game, the physical breakdowns are often attributed to trying too hard to make the ball move, putting extra strain on the biomechanics of pitching to “overpower” the physics of baseball at altitude.

The mental breakdowns are harder to diagnose because of the macho, no-excuses culture, but the way Hampton and Guthrie struggled to contain their anger and frustration offered a clue about the emotional or psychological issues that may be less obvious in others.

Hershiser is by no means the only pitcher to acknowledge the physical reality. I tried to develop the beginnings of an oral history on this subject when I was still covering the team by discussing it with Matt Belisle, Alex White, John Smoltz, and R.A. Dickey.

Not being on the scene anymore, I don’t know how Rockies GM Jeff Bridich privately diagnoses Freeland’s precipitous fall from 17-7, 2.85 last year, at 25, when he finished fourth in Cy Young voting, to 3-11, 6.98 this year, at 26. As a Denver native, Freeland is pretty much the ideal case for mind over matter. He grew up in these conditions.

In the media, it was all typical stuff. Trying to do too much, poor mechanics, missing his spots, losing his confidence, etc. One media member covering the Rockies said it couldn’t be the altitude because one of Freeland’s worst outings came in Philadelphia. If you’ve talked to pitchers about this challenge, or read the accounts linked above, you know changing release points is a key adjustment, and disruptions to a repeatable delivery from such changes can show up anywhere.

Freeland’s cliff dive is not unique to him. Hampton was 9-2, 2.98 midway through his first season. He finished 14-13, 5.41, then went 7-15, 6.15 in 2002. Mercifully for everyone involved, the Rockies traded him after that season to Florida, which moved him on to Atlanta, where he became a good pitcher again for a couple of years.

Jimenez was 19-9, 2.88 in 2010, finishing third in Cy Young voting. A year later, he was 6-9, 4.46 when he was traded to Cleveland. He never regained the form he showed in Colorado, although he scattered a couple of good years among a bunch of mediocre ones in Cleveland and Baltimore.

This year wasn’t that dramatic a comedown for anyone but Freeland. Marquez devolved a little, but he was still pretty good. Gray quietly put up the best ERA of his career. Antonio Senzatela’s ERA ballooned from 4.38 last year to 6.87 this year, a deterioration that seemed familiar.

Can one or more of these guys avoid the traditional fate of Rockies starters and make a run at Jorge De La Rosa’s career mark of 86 wins in a Colorado uniform? They certainly have the physical ability. At 27, Gray has 43. At 24, Marquez has 38.

Of course, Jimenez, Jennings and Francis all had more than 50 by age 27.

If you feel like blaming ownership or management for this year’s collapse, consider that the solution to the Rocks’ long-term pitching issues, if there is one, is as much a mystery to them as it is to you. Their staff directory does not include a team physicist.

Francis, who started Game 1 of the 2007 World Series, the only time the Rocks have made it that far, actually majored in physics. In 2006, the American Physical Society asked him if that helped.

“As much as it might seem contradictory,” Francis said, “physics knowledge does not help much on the field. So much of playing baseball is ‘feel’ that explaining to someone what makes a ball curve would be almost meaningless. I get asked that a lot, and sometimes I say: ‘I never met him, but I bet Einstein couldn’t throw a curveball.’ ”

Not at altitude, anyway.

The most practical possible solution, the only practical possible solution I know of this side of a climate-controlled geodesic dome, is a restricted-flight ball with raised laces that increase air resistance and help pitchers command movement.

It would take some experimentation to get it right, to make the high-altitude ball behave a mile high the way a standard ball behaves at sea level. But I suspect it would not be the most miraculous technological innovation of our age.

If the alternative is denying science, pretending that will can overcome physics, it still seems, after all these years, like it’s worth a shot.

 


2015 Baseball Hall of Fame ballot, Part 2

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When I left you hanging in the manner of the Hardy Boys at the end of Part 1, you had suffered through a 4,000-word post just to eliminate the flotsam from this year’s Baseball Hall of Fame ballot. I had crossed out 19 of the 34 names, which still left 15 to share the 10 votes I’m allowed. So I’ve provided the shortcut above for those who just want the bottom line and aren’t up for another 5,000 words. If that’s you, there you go, and see you around. For the rest of you, masochists that you are, here we go.

The 15 names that remained after Part 1:

Starting pitcher: Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, Mike Mussina, Curt Schilling.

Hybrid pitcher: John Smoltz.

Relief pitcher: Tom Gordon, Lee Smith.

Catcher: Mike Piazza.

First base: Jeff Bagwell.

Second base: Craig Biggio, Jeff Kent.

Shortstop: Alan Trammell.

Third base: Edgar Martinez. (Right. I know. But that’s how they do it.)

Left fielder: Tim Raines.

Center fielder: None.

Right fielder: Larry Walker.

I began, as I did in Part 1, with Jay Jaffe’s JAWS system to get a feel for what the quants would say. The 15 candidates are listed in order, from best to worst, based on their premium or deficit to the average JAWS score of players at their position already enshrined in the Hall of Fame. As a reminder, JAWS is the average of a player’s career wins above replacement and that player’s “peak” WAR — the total of his best seven seasons.  The theory, and I stress the word theory, is the perfect blend of longevity and awesomeness. Presumably, if you believed the JAWS method delivered on this theory, you would vote for the first 10 names on this list and be done with it, especially because the first 10, conveniently, are above the average of the players at their position already in the Hall, and the next five are below. The idea behind JAWS is to prevent dilution of the quality of players in the Hall by inducting only players equal or superior to the existing residents.

  1. Randy Johnson (+20.2)
  2. Jeff Bagwell (+9.7)
  3. Pedro Martinez (+9.3)
  4. Mike Piazza (+8.1)
  5. Alan Trammell (+2.8)
  6. Curt Schilling (+2.7)
  7. Tim Raines (+2.3)
  8. Mike Mussina (+2.0)
  9. Edgar Martinez (+1.0)
  10. Larry Walker (+0.5)
  11. Craig Biggio (-3.6)
  12. Tom Gordon (-5.1)
  13. John Smoltz (-7.6)
  14. Lee Smith (-9.0)
  15. Jeff Kent (-11.6)

In Part 1, I wrote a bit about the difference between quantitative and qualitative analysis. In this case, I am using JAWS to represent quantitative analysis and my own subjective “eye test” — did the dude look like a Hall of Famer to me — to represent the qualitative. (If you want to know why Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, whose JAWS scores are off the charts, are not on this list, you need to go back and read Part 1, where they are listed under the category “Obvious cheaters,” and this will refer you back to my post on last year’s ballot, where I described at length my thought process on the PED issue as it relates to the Hall of Fame.)

Appraising the quantitatively-derived list with my subjective, qualitative eye, several anomalies jump out.

Anomaly No. 1: Craig Biggio.

Considered by most observers a lock for the Hall since the day he retired, Biggio, according to JAWS, was an inferior player to the average second baseman now in the Hall. He was the top vote-getter in his first year on the ballot, 2013, the year nobody was inducted, receiving 68.2 percent of the vote.  Last year, leapfrogged by first-timers Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Frank Thomas, he received 427 votes from the 571 voters, or 74.8 percent. Had he received two more votes, he would have joined Maddux, Glavine and Thomas in the class of 2014.

Significantly, Biggio’s JAWS score is inferior to that of Lou Whitaker, the under-appreciated longtime Tigers second baseman who failed to receive the minimum 5 percent required to stay on the ballot in his sole appearance in 2001. That, of course, is a crime against nature and baseball, as is the continuing under-appreciation of his teammate and double-play partner, Alan Trammell, on the ballot this year for the 14th time. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

How is it possible that Whitaker, the second-best second baseman in history not to be inducted (Bobby Grich is the first) according to JAWS, would get 2.9 percent of the vote on his first try and Biggio, his inferior by quantitative analysis, would get 68.2? Well, as the old lady in the church says at the end of The Birdcage when asked to identify the mother of the groom, whose parents are Robin Williams and Nathan Lane, “I just don’t know.”

Prone as I am to stirring up trouble, and knowing the howls of outrage this would trigger among veteran members of the Baseball Writers Association of America, I might hypothesize that race had something to do with it — Whitaker is black, Biggio is white — and order up a quantitative analysis of voting on comparable players by race, and a parallel analysis of the racial makeup of the voting population. I don’t know what such a study might find on the first question, although I would note that Tony Gwynn and Frank Thomas sailed in a lot faster than some white comparables, and Jim Rice got in with a JAWS score lower than Minnie Minoso, Lance Berkman and Jose Cruz. On the second, my guess is the racial makeup of the voting population looks something like the racial makeup of Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont, which is why the hypothesis must be considered.

Another hypothesis would be that the absence of a significant sabermetric influence in 2001 revealed an embarrassing blind spot in qualitative analysis. Whitaker’s offensive numbers in the traditional, non-sabermetric categories — .276/.363/.426, 244 homers, 1,084 RBI — while above average for a second baseman, were nowhere near the numbers generally required of hitters who played the corner positions or the outfield. And while he was known as a smooth fielder, few voters were probably aware this would translate into 15.4 defensive WAR.

Given what’s happened to Trammell, who has been treated slightly better but has earned nowhere near the level of support the quantitative analysis would suggest, maybe it’s some strange prejudice against Detroit.

In any case, this is one of the more remarkable divergences between quantitative and qualitative analysis in the history of the Hall, and I admit to being totally on the quants’ side on this one. Whitaker was a wonderful player who belongs in the Hall and with any luck will be installed by some iteration of the veterans committee. But it is not his absence that is outrageous; it is the failure of the BBWAA to consider him even worthy of consideration.

Let’s return for a moment to our discussion in Part 1 of the bias of WAR for longevity. The career stat, as I mentioned, is basically an adding machine. A vastly complicated series of calculations and adjustments reduces everything to a single number per season — let’s say these inscrutable calculations produce four wins above your average replacement player for our guy in a particular season. And let’s say his number is somewhere around there for much of his career. His total WAR will be largely a function of how many years he plays.

JAWS attempts to mitigate the longevity bias by averaging the career WAR total with the seven-year peak WAR total, but the poor standing of Sandy Koufax in the JAWS rankings demonstrates that peak WAR’s mitigation of the longevity bias is insufficient. So let’s try something else. Let’s eliminate longevity as a factor altogether and see what happens. It’s easy enough to do. Take a player’s career WAR total and divide it by the number of years he played, yielding his average single-season WAR. And let’s establish a minimum 10 seasons, since that’s required for consideration for the Hall.

Here are the top 20 second basemen in history based on JAWS, the number in parentheses representing the average of that player’s career WAR and peak WAR:

  1. Rogers Hornsby (100.2)
  2. Eddie Collins (94.1)
  3. Nap Lajoie (83.8)
  4. Joe Morgan (79.7)
  5. Charlie Gehringer (65.6)
  6. Rod Carew (65.4)
  7. Bobby Grich (58.6)
  8. Frankie Frisch (57.4)
  9. Ryne Sandberg (57.2)
  10. Jackie Robinson (56.8)
  11. Lou Whitaker (56.4)
  12. Chase Utley (55.3)
  13. Roberto Alomar (54.8)
  14. Craig Biggio (53.4)
  15. Joe Gordon (51.4)
  16. Willie Randolph (50.8)
  17. Robinson Cano (49.4)
  18. Jeff Kent (45.4)
  19. Billy Herman (45.1)
  20. Bobby Doerr (43.8)

Now let’s see how that list changes if we order the players by annual WAR average:

  1. Jackie Robinson (6.2)
  2. Rogers Hornsby (5.5)
  3. Joe Gordon (5.2)
  4. Robinson Cano (5.2)
  5. Chase Utley (5.1)
  6. Nap Lajoie (5.1)
  7. Eddie Collins (5.0)
  8. Dustin Pedroia (4.8)
  9. Joe Morgan (4.6)
  10. Rod Carew (4.3)
  11. Charlie Gehringer (4.2)
  12. Ryne Sandberg (4.2)
  13. Bobby Grich (4.2)
  14. Lou Whitaker (3.9)
  15. Roberto Alomar (3.9)
  16. Frankie Frisch (3.7)
  17. Bobby Doerr (3.7)
  18. Billy Herman (3.6)
  19. Willie Randolph (3.6)
  20. Tony Lazzeri (3.6)
  21. Craig Biggio (3.3)
  22. Jeff Kent (3.2)

This list is quite different. In effect, we have gone from asking “Who was responsible for the most career wins,” a volume stat, to “Who was responsible for the most wins per year,” a pure performance stat.

Suddenly, all the best second basemen in history didn’t play 100 years ago. Why is that? Well, the guys who played 100 years ago played longer and benefited more from WAR’s longevity bias. Hornsby played 23 seasons; Collins, 25; Lajoie, 21. The principal reason Morgan gets up there with these golden oldies is that he played 22. By failing to adequately mitigate this bias, JAWS reinforces  it.

You will note that Biggio and Kent both benefit from the longevity bias. Their per-year averages drop them from 14th to 20th and 18th to 21st, respectively. Whitaker is a better player than both by both measures.

A key factor here is defense, where both Biggio and Kent are rated below average. That’s a pretty important fact to know about a second baseman. Whitaker’s career defensive WAR, as mentioned, is 15.4. Kent’s is -0.7, Biggio’s -3.9.

The result of this analysis is that I changed my mind about both Biggio and Kent. I voted for Biggio in each of his first two years on the ballot. I wanted to vote for Kent last year, his first, but, like this year, ran into the problem of more worthy candidates than votes, so I didn’t. This year, I won’t be voting for either, which reduces my list of candidates to 13.

That doesn’t mean I won’t go back to voting for them at some point in the future when the ballot backlog clears. This year, having more worthy candidates than votes, I don’t have to reach the ultimate question of whether they belong. I only have to reach the conclusion that there are 10 candidates more deserving of my votes.

Anomaly No. 2: John Smoltz.

With a 7.6 deficit to the average JAWS score of starting pitchers in the Hall of Fame, Smoltz would be eliminated from consideration fairly quickly if you accept this result. So I go back to my litmus test for this tool as it applies to starting pitchers. Koufax has a deficit of 14.3 to the average JAWS score of starting pitchers in the Hall of Fame. This fact by itself is enough to marginalize JAWS for me in the examination of pitchers.

Koufax suffers, of course, from the longevity bias in both WAR and JAWS. He pitched only 12 seasons, and half of those were unremarkable. Kevin Appier, who pitched 16, is 13 places ahead of Koufax in the JAWS rankings. If I had been Jaffe while he was developing this system, I would have looked at this result alone and seen that I was failing to adequately mitigate WAR’s longevity bias. But quantitatively-oriented minds may simply see Koufax as an outlier who cannot be accounted for by any formula.

Even when you eliminate longevity as a factor, the result in Koufax’s case is puzzling. He has a career WAR of 49, which gives him an average for each of his 12 seasons of 4.1. Forget all the categories in the WAR formula, forget all the math, and just ask yourself: If you put Joe Blow average pitcher out there every fourth day in Koufax’s place, he’d win four fewer games over the course of a season? Really?

Well, yes, because Koufax doesn’t begin to assemble WAR of any kind until his career is half over. We forget that he was a quite forgettable young hurler in the late 1950s. Koufax’s peak, among the most brilliant in the history of the game, was only six years long. He was an all-star in all six after never having been one before. He won three Cy Young awards and finished third for a fourth. He received MVP votes after all six campaigns, winning it once and finishing second twice.

Now get this: Koufax loses 4.2 career WAR — or the equivalent of a full season — because he was a lousy hitter. Seriously. But even eliminating that silliness, he accumulated 88 percent of his career WAR over the final six seasons of a 12-year stay in the big leagues. If you calculate his average annual WAR over those six seasons, it’s 7.8, which is more like it, although I’m still not sure the formula is adequately valuing him. In 1963, when he wins both the Cy Young award and the MVP, he’s 25-5 with an ERA of 1.88. His WAR that year is 10.7. So if the Dodgers had sent Joe Blow average pitcher out there in his place that year, Joe Blow wins 14 games? Really? Jim O’Toole and Bob Friend tied for ninth winningest pitcher in the National League that year with 17. Fourteen wins is a pretty good year for Joe Blow.

Anyway, when you take the skepticism for JAWS you have learned from the Koufax case and apply it to Smoltz, you see quite quickly why the formula values him so much lower than it values his former teammates, Maddux and Glavine. Smoltz had a five-year stretch right in the middle of his career in which he started only five games. He missed all of the 2000 season following Tommy John surgery and returned in 2001 as a reliever, although he got all five of his starts between 2000 and 2004 that year. In 2002, he saved a league-leading 55 games and finished third in Cy Young voting and eighth in MVP voting. His WAR that year was 1.2. So presumably Joe Blow saves 54 of those games.

I tell you one thing I’m learning here: I’m grabbing Joe Blow in the Rule 5 draft at the first opportunity.

Because of his unusual double as one of the best starters and one of the best closers of his time, Smoltz really has only one comparable, and that’s Dennis Eckersley. Eck spent about half his career in each role. He was a pretty good starter, getting double-figure wins 10 times and winning 20 once, but not as good as Smoltz. He was a better closer by volume because he did it so much longer, but it’s hard to beat what Smoltz did in those three seasons on a qualitative basis. Eck, who is in the Hall as a closer, trails Smoltz in career WAR, 66.5-62.5. Smoltz is the only player in baseball history to amass at least 200 wins (213) and 150 saves (154). Eckersley fell three wins short of 200. I have not done exhaustive research on this, but so far as I can tell, Smoltz is the only player in history to have led his league in both wins (twice) and saves (once).

For the 11 seasons before his injury, Smoltz averaged 3.95 WAR per year, including 7.3 in 1996, when he won the Cy Young award and went 24-8. So presumably Joe Blow wins 17 that year; I totally want to sign this guy. Smoltz’s annual WAR as one of the best closers around are 1.2, 3.3 and 2.2. If you bump these up to the average he’d established prior to that, he jumps up the JAWS rankings to the Bob Feller, Roy Halladay neighborhood, and now he’s a serious candidate even by JAWS standards, although he still has a deficit to the average JAWS score of pitching Hall-of-Famers. When he returned to starting at the age of 38, he put up consecutive annual WARs of 4.9, 5.9 and 4.6. If you give him that annual average during his three years as a closer — 5.1 — he improves his standing further. At some point, you get lost in this hypothetical math, so I’m going to stop.

Bottom line: In my opinion, WAR and JAWS are inadequate to account for an anomaly like Smoltz. To my subjective eye, he was every bit Glavine’s equal, if not quite Maddux’s, and held his own very nicely in that select company for many years. He was a wonderful starter, a wonderful reliever and a superb postseason competitor (15-4, 2.67). I’m voting for him.

Anomaly No. 3: Larry Walker.

I admit I bring a clear bias to this part of the conversation, but I contend that my bias is largely a reaction to the bias of most baseball writers and analysts not located in the Rocky Mountains — meaning all but about a dozen of them — against performances put up at Coors Field. Everybody knows it is the park that produces the biggest offensive numbers most of the time, therefore those numbers have to be discounted.

Which is where all these advanced metrics come in, right? They do that. They adjust for ballparks. So that should take care of it. According to JAWS, Walker is the 10th best right fielder in baseball history. The nine ahead of him are all in the Hall of Fame. Three of the four immediately behind him are in the Hall. If he were inducted tomorrow, his JAWS score would be slightly above the average of his new peer group. And yet, he’s getting barely cursory consideration from Hall voters. Last year, he finished 19th of 36 candidates. One in 10 voters checked him off.

I’ll be honest: I don’t know how to compensate for the effects of Coors Field. I’m not that into the mathematics of baseball. So I accept the ballpark adjustments the sabermetricians make. I don’t know exactly what they are, but this is what they do, right? They take the above-average offensive output at Coors and they multiply performances there by some factor to normalize them. I assume this is what they do.

So once Walker’s traditional stats have been put through these various wringers to produce his WAR and JAWS numbers, why don’t they count? Why don’t most of the voters take him as seriously as his JAWS score suggests they should?

Having spent quite a bit of time in press boxes during my days as an active BBWAA member, I would say this is because of a sort of sneering, smirking prejudice against Coors Field and Colorado and anything done here — yes, I’m writing from elevation, and no, I can’t seem to throw a breaking ball — on the part of most baseball writers. A lot of them honestly don’t think, even after 22 years, that Denver is a suitable place for big league baseball. The game is too weird here, not real, not legit.

If you cheer for the Rockies, you may feel the same way. Based on that 22-year data set, there are statistical anomalies here that are really discouraging with respect to the home team’s chances of sustained success. Pitchers blow out here, both physically and mentally. No good pitcher in his right mind wants to pitch half his games here. The few pitchers who experience success here can’t sustain it. No pitcher has won 100 games in a Rockies uniform. No pitcher has won 80. So elevation is a big issue in terms of the team’s ability to compete.

But if the math can adjust for the outsized numbers put up here, why should a player of Walker’s quality be penalized for playing much of his career in a place the snobs of baseball don’t take seriously? Here’s something the discounters don’t pay enough attention to know: Rockies hitters traditionally struggle when they head out on the road after a homestand because they have to readjust to the sharper bite of breaking balls and sinkers again. So while it is true that their offensive output at home is exaggerated by the Coors Field effect, their offensive output on the road is also depressed by it; hence the dramatic home/road splits that critics attribute entirely to the magnification at home. The road numbers are the “real” numbers, they say. They consistently fail to acknowledge the established phenomenon of the destructive effect each and every time hitters return to sea level. Back in the day, Dante Bichette brought a “curve ball machine” on the road with him in an attempt to reacclimate. An inventor in Greeley, Colorado has proposed a pressurized batting cage in which the Rocks could work against pitching in normal (read: sea level) atmospheric conditions in preparation for each road trip. There is no adjustment for this phenomenon in the advanced metrics that I know of. Walker’s numbers at Dodger Stadium would be adjusted for the park in the same way as everybody else’s, even if he’s coming from a mile-high elevation and experiencing a phenomenon that only his teammates face.

Walker got MVP votes after eight seasons, winning the award in 1997. He batted .384 at Coors that year, but he also batted .346 on the road. He hit 29 of his 49 homers on the road. In “late and close” situations, baseball’s measurement for clutch, he hit .352. Heck, he batted .322 in 1994 playing his home games in Montreal’s ghastly Olympic Stadium. He was a marvelous outfielder with a terrific arm and one of the best baserunners of his generation. He played an all-out style that produced various injuries that hurt his volume numbers, but he still overcomes the longevity bias of both WAR and JAWS. He and Harry Heilmann played the fewest seasons (17) of anyone in JAWS’s top 10 right fielders. His JAWS score is better than that of Hall-of-Famers Paul Waner, Sam Crawford, Tony Gwynn, Dave Winfield and a bunch of old-timers you may not have heard of. Gwynn, you may recall, was elected to the Hall on his first try, with 97.6 percent of the vote.

According to the eye test, Walker was an obvious Hall-of-Famer when healthy, a five-tool player who simply played the game at a higher level than everybody else. But there was always that sneaking suspicion about the enhancing effect of Coors Field on his numbers, that those three batting championships, that incredible run of six seasons — .366, .363, .379, .309, .350, .338 — was some sort of mirage. I voted for him his first two years on the ballot based on my subjective view of his talent, but I left him off my ballot last year when there were so many deserving candidates.

I’m grateful for the sabermetrics here because I didn’t know how to adjust for the Coors Field factor and they do, or at least they think they do. The quantitative analysis says Walker was one of the best right fielders ever to play the game. And here’s the important point: The quant analysis says he is the best right fielder in history who is not in the Hall of Fame.

The privilege of watching him every day produced the same conclusion from the eye test. In this case, it seems to me, the quantitative analysis finds a great player and the qualitative analysis of most writers is buried in prejudice and ignorance about Colorado and Coors Field. With my subjective view reinforced by the quants, I will not only vote for Walker this year, I will reserve one of my votes for him for as long as he is on the ballot and I have the privilege of voting.

These are the most interesting and/or difficult issues I wrestled with this year. According to JAWS, neither Tom Gordon nor Lee Smith meets the standard of an average Hall of Fame relief pitcher, and subjectively, I agree. As we’ve seen in Smoltz’s case, advanced metrics have difficulty valuing closers. It’s ridiculous, in my opinion, to suggest that a top closer means only one or two wins a year over an average closer, but I sympathize with the difficulty of the task. It’s such a specialty, it’s a little like a kicker in football, and those guys don’t generally make the Hall of Fame, either.

Eliminating Biggio, Kent, Gordon and Smith gets me down to 11, and there I’m stuck. I would vote for all remaining 11 if I could. And who knows, if I had more votes I might vote for Biggio, Kent and Gary Sheffield, too. As I mentioned earlier, I never reached that point because I knew I didn’t have enough votes.

Because of the logjam when Maddux, Glavine and Thomas hit the ballot last year, I didn’t vote for either Curt Schilling or Mike Mussina, having voted for Schilling the year before. But after studying their numbers, both advanced and basic, my subjective view that they are qualified was confirmed, Schilling, frankly, more so than Mussina because of the unbelievable postseason record. But, in examining my eye test on these guys, I had to admit to a personal bias against Mussina because he left the Orioles as a mercenary and signed with the Yankees. I hate players who do that within a division because it makes the smaller market team look like part of a feeder system to the bigger market team and undermines the illusion of competitive balance.

Mussina went for the money and the improved chances of a championship on a team willing to field the best players money could buy. Do you believe in karma? The Yankees won a championship the year before he arrived, in 2000, and the year after he retired, in 2009. But not during the eight years he was there. As Mel Allen used to say, how ’bout that. Still, he gave the O’s 10 good years and they had losing records his last three seasons there. I still don’t forgive him for the treachery of signing with the Yankees. He could have gone anywhere else without seeming to throw over his girlfriend to go date the richest girl in school. I still haven’t forgiven Reggie Jackson, either, and he spent only one season with the Birds, biding his time until free agency. If anyone was ever meant to play in New York, it was Jackson, but I still have the SI cover with him in an Orioles uniform. He looked good. But I digress. I will vote for Mussina and his 270 wins and 3.68 ERA and JAWS score slightly above average for Hall of Fame pitchers.

Schilling, of course, was obtained by the Orioles in a great trade — from the Red Sox, who drafted him, along with Brady Anderson, for Mike Boddicker — and then shipped out in one of the worst trades of all time — with Steve Finley and Pete Harnisch, for Glenn Davis. This is not relevant to the discussion in any way; just thought I’d mention it. Davis played 185 games over the next three seasons and retired. Schilling, Finley and Harnisch all went on to have long, productive careers. JAWS says Schilling is better than the average pitcher now in the Hall, and I know he was better in the postseason, when he went 11-2 with a 2.23 ERA. In the World Series, he was 4-1, 2.06.

Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez are no-brainers I won’t dwell on. Johnson is one of 24 pitchers in history to win at least 300 games (303). He led the league in strikeouts nine times, won five Cy Young awards and finished second for three more. He had records like 18-2 in 1995 and 20-4 in 1997 for the Mariners, 21-6 in 2001 and 24-5 in 2002 for the Diamondbacks. At 6-10, the Big Unit and his unwinding windup were unique.

Martinez won three Cy Young awards, finished second for two more and won five ERA titles with these numbers: 1.90 (Montreal, 1997), 2.07 (Boston, 1999), 1.74 (Boston, 2000), 2.26 (Boston, 2002) and 2.22 (Boston, 2003). That year in between titles in Boston? He sagged to 2.39. From 1997 to 2000, there was nobody better, not even Johnson.

I’m voting for Piazza and Bagwell on the same basis I voted for them last year — their numbers obviously qualify them and I don’t have enough evidence of cheating, despite the rumors that followed them, to disqualify them on that basis. Piazza is the fifth-best catcher in history, according to JAWS, better than Yogi Berra and Bill Dickey and Mickey Cochrane. The only catchers who score better are Johnny Bench, Gary Carter, Ivan Rodriguez and Carlton Fisk. Bagwell is the sixth-best first baseman of all time, JAWS says, better than Frank Thomas, elected on his first try last year, Eddie Murray and Willie McCovey, Hall-of-Famers all.

I’m voting for Raines and Trammell, as I have consistently, in declining hope that advanced metrics will make more voters wake up to how good these guys were. The persistent and determined undervaluation of Trammell and Whitaker remains a mystery to me. Maybe it’s a Detroit thing. Been a while since Al Kaline and Sparky Anderson. Trammell has a better JAWS score than Derek Freaking Jeter, who will be serenaded into the Hall on a bed of rose petals at the first opportunity. Trammell was not as good an offensive player, although a lifetime average of .285 with 185 homers ain’t too shabby for a shortstop, but he was a much better defensive player at arguably the most difficult defensive position in the game. Trammell’s career defensive WAR is +22. Jeter’s is -9.7.

Raines’s JAWS score justifies his election, too. He’s the eighth-best left fielder in history, according to JAWS, and the only ones above him not in the Hall are Bonds and Pete Rose. He was also the best base-stealer I ever saw. He finished fifth all time with 808, but the amazing part was his percentage. He was successful 85.7 percent of the time. Only Carlos Beltran, who tried less than half as often, has a better rate. As with Trammell, I am encouraged that advanced metrics bolster Raines’s case, but doubtful that my colleagues in the BBWAA will see the light in time. The new rule allowing candidates to remain on the ballot only 10 years instead of 15 will hurt Raines more than anyone else. He has three years left instead of eight, in the midst of the current wave of superstars becoming eligible. Trammell was grandfathered into the 15-year stay, but has only two of them remaining. The both deserve inclusion, as the advanced metrics confirm, but they will have to rely on the kindness of the veterans committee.

So that leaves Edgar Martinez as the odd man out. I wish I could vote for him. I voted for him last year. He was a lifetime .312 hitter, a two-time batting champion, one of those guys who was born to hit a baseball. Unfortunately, there is also a major weakness to his game, which is defense. He was a sub-par defender when he played third for the Mariners and then he played no defense at all in 68 percent of his games, which is not an insult but a fact. He became a designated hitter. That didn’t keep me from voting for him last year, and it won’t in the future when the logjam clears, but it’s the distinguishing factor among worthies that takes him off my ballot this year.

In the end, even with the criticisms I’ve expressed about JAWS, I end up with only one change from the JAWS top 10 of this year’s class of eligibles after my exclusions for obvious cheating. I remove Edgar Martinez and add John Smoltz.

My 2015 ballot:

1B Jeff Bagwell

P   Randy Johnson

P   Pedro Martinez

P   Mike Mussina

C   Mike Piazza

LF Tim Raines

P   Curt Schilling

P   John Smoltz

SS Alan Trammell

RF Larry Walker

Happy new year.


Treading water

Center fielder Charlie Blackmon has been an early bright spot for the Rocks, sharing the National League batting lead with an average of .406 through the first 20 games.

Center fielder Charlie Blackmon has been an early bright spot for the Rocks, sharing the National League batting lead with an average of .406 through the first 20 games.

It was one of those Colorado days Sunday at the ballyard. Bright blue sky, big crowd, lots of hits, lots of runs, no discernible sign of professional pitching.

This was in marked contrast to the Rockies’ three previous games — the finale of the last road trip in San Diego and the first two home games against the Phillies — in which they got shockingly good pitching, putting together their first three-game winning streak of the season by scores of 3-1, 12-1 and 3-1.

This is really the only question that matters about the 2014 edition of the Rocks. If they pitch like that even half the time, they will be pretty good. If they don’t, they won’t.

“Yeah, the game tends to fall into place when you get starting pitching,” manager Walt Weiss said before Sunday’s game when I asked him about that three-game stretch.

“That’s the key to this game. I don’t care what level you’re playing at. You get good starting pitching, you’re usually in good shape. We’ve had some guys step up. We’re talking about missing three of the top guys in our rotation to start the season. I think if you did that to any rotation in baseball, it’d be a challenge. So the fact that we’ve had guys step up and respond to the call has been really encouraging to me. And one of those guys is the guy that threw (Saturday) night, Jordan Lyles. He’s really been giving us a shot in the arm.”

Through 20 games, or 13 percent of the season, the Rocks are 10-10, and their team stats are pretty much what we’ve come to expect. At home, in the most hitter-friendly ballpark in baseball, they’re a sensational offensive team, batting .354. Their OPS of .978 is 160 points higher than the next best home team.

On the road, they’re a mediocre to poor offense, their team OPS of .662 ranking 20th among the 30 big league clubs.

Troy Tulowitzki is batting .667 at home with two homers and 10 runs batted in. He’s batting .229 on the road with no homers and two RBI.

Carlos Gonzalez is batting .375 at home, .205 on the road. Charlie Blackmon’s splits are .486 and .313; Michael Cuddyer’s .417 and .250.

As anyone who has followed the Rockies for any appreciable amount of time knows, numbers such as these are an occupational hazard of playing here. The home numbers are inflated by the Coors Field factor and the road numbers are depressed by the increased movement of pitches at or near sea level and the constant adjustment Rockies hitters must make as they switch elevations throughout the season.

You might expect the reverse effect on their pitching numbers, and over large sample sizes and multiple years, you get it. But so far this year, they’re actually pitching better at Coors Field than on the road with a home earned-run average of 3.78 and road ERA of 4.55. For individual pitchers, of course, the sample size so far is ridiculously small.

The most encouraging single development, by far, has been the work of Lyles, as Weiss noted. He would not even be in the rotation if it weren’t for a sore hamstring that kept Tyler Chatwood from making his first couple of starts. Unaffected by Coors Field and its reputation for driving pitchers insane, Lyles has thrown his power sinker and big breaking curve ball at elevation with considerable early success, giving up one earned run in 13 2/3 innings for a home ERA of 0.66. He and Chatwood have been the Rockies’ only reliable starters so far.

As Weiss noted, the pitching staff remains a work in progress due to injury. Jhoulys Chacin, a 14-game winner last year, has yet to make his first start as he works his way back from shoulder stiffness in the spring. Brett Anderson, acquired from Oakland during the offseason along with a history of being prone to injury, broke a finger hitting a ground ball and is out at least a month after making just three starts. De La Rosa, a 16-game winner a year ago, has yet to find his groove, although his most recent start, his fourth of the season, was his best. Juan Nicasio and Franklin Morales have been predictably unpredictable.

The bullpen has been very good for stretches and very bad for stretches. Sunday, with a chance to sweep a series for the first time this season, it gave up five runs to the Phillies in four innings of work. Matt Belisle took the loss, but Boone Logan had the worst day, surrendering three runs, two earned, and retiring just one batter, as the Rocks fell 10-9.

Despite what looks like a sensational defensive team on paper, they are in the middle of the pack with 12 errors in 20 games, three of them at the catcher position, and that doesn’t include two run-scoring passed balls by backup Jordan Pacheco in just five games wearing the gear. It’s nice to have guys who can hit behind the plate, but so far the poor defense has more than made up for the offensive contributions of Pacheco and Wilin Rosario.

The much-maligned Dexter Fowler trade is working out pretty well so far. It produced their best starter to date in Lyles, and it freed up the money to sign free agent Justin Morneau, who looks like a classic Coors Field reclamation project in the tradition of Andres Galarraga and Dante Bichette. Morneau is batting .364 and leads the club in RBI with 15 in the early going. He’s also avoided the dramatic splits, batting .367 at Coors and .324 elsewhere.

The fragility of their star players was a big factor in last season’s long, slow-motion collapse, and it’s already been an issue this year. Tulowitzki, Gonzalez and Cuddyer have already missed time with leg issues, a troublesome sign. It might be time to bring in a yoga instructor.

It’s early, of course. April numbers are overly examined because they’re the only numbers we have when everybody is still excited about the possibilities. Last year the Rocks went 16-11 in April and finished 74-88.

When I asked Weiss if he liked where his team is through 20 games, this is what he said:

“I like our club. I like the mentality of our club. I think our guys will fight through the tough stuff and I think that’s the X factor in this league. And I think we have that. So, yeah, I like where we’re at.”

So far, the Rocks are who we thought they were — a big-time offense at home, a small-time offense on the road and mediocre on the mound pretty much everywhere, except for that promising stretch of three games at the end of last week. If Chacin returns soon, De La Rosa finds his form and Lyles and Chatwood continue what they’ve started, the pitching could be better than mediocre. If the hitting stars can stay on the field and learn to play more situational ball on the road, the offense could be more consistently productive.

That’s a lot of ifs. The promise is there, but that’s still all it is.


Ruminations on putting the band back together

Recapturing the good old days is a wistful preoccupation, caught somewhere between tradition and nostalgia. But it’s not always as desperate and hopeless as cynics suggest, particularly in the world of sports, where tradition still matters.

The Broncos brought back John Elway, to promising results so far, and Joe Sakic is in training for a similar second act with the Avalanche. So the Rockies’ reach back into their own brief history for a new manager and hitting coach seems less like desperation than finally staking a claim to an organizational identity.

They may not have Hall of Fame legends like Elway and Sakic to call on, but the Rocks do have a cheerful band of brothers that remembers when big league baseball was new in Colorado and everybody was too thrilled to complain about its . . . uh . . . idiosyncrasies.

When I asked Dante Bichette, the old Blake Street Bomber and new hitting coach, if it felt like they were getting the band back together, he laughed.

“Absolutely, man!” he said. “Bring ’em on back. Every organization has their guys. The Rockies don’t have a long history. We don’t have Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays, but this is what we’ve got and we understand what it was like in the beginning, how special these fans are. So absolutely, I want to perform for fans there because they were so good to me. That’s a little motivation there.”

Bringing back Bichette and Walt Weiss, the Rocks’ new manager, is about more than connecting with a happier time. After all, the art of pitching, the most inscrutable and important of baseball’s secrets, was at least as mysterious then as it is now, particularly here, a mile above sea level, where breaking balls betray their name and fly balls, like field goals, fly a little bit farther.

No, it’s also about putting today’s club in the hands of people familiar with the issues unique to Colorado, people unafraid to confront them.

“I believe you’ve got to be tougher and you’ve got to be smarter to play here than just about anyplace else,” Weiss said last week as he became the Rocks’ sixth manager and their first former player to take the job.

“That could be a badge of honor, but we’ve got to be smart, too, about the grind of the game here — recovery here and all those things that there’s been a lot of research on, particularly lately. Those are all factors about how you run a club. But you’ve got to be tougher, and more than anything, mentally tougher, and smarter than most. That’s something we should take pride in and we should embrace.”

Weiss thus becomes the Rockies’ first manager to acknowledge and confront on Day One the unique challenges of playing 81 games a season at Coors Field. For most of their history, Rocks managers have believed that ignoring these issues, or at least not talking about them, was the best approach.

The theory went something like this: If you acknowledge publicly the challenges that no one inside the sport denies, you’ve given your players a ready excuse when they fail. This theory was propounded in the organization’s early days, before data piled up to confirm the message that intuition and observation had already delivered. So, in a reflexive nod to the macho culture of athletics, the Rocks’ message to their players was simple: Ignore it, be mentally tough, overcome it. Heck, maybe it will go away.

The last two seasons, and particularly this last one, the worst in franchise history, changed all that. For one thing, a management team that has been around for more than half the club’s history was as surprised as anyone by their charming ballpark’s sudden nostalgia for horror movies of the past. Mike Hampton was back, but his name was Jeremy Guthrie. Thankfully, the lesson he repeated — some pitchers just can’t handle it here — came at a much cheaper cost.

In the face of a debilitating drought across the western United States, with forest fires raging, the ball flew as it hadn’t since the humidor was installed at Coors Field in 2002. The Rocks had their own little version of climate change, quite a challenge for sports executives whose analytical skills had previously been focused principally on bullpens and batting cages.

The players, of course, have been dealing with all this stuff for years. They just didn’t talk much about it because that was against club policy. It made you weak.

Even aside from the screamingly obvious — the great Greg Maddux became thoroughly ordinary at Coors Field, as if the green seats were made of kryptonite — the symptoms were largely ignored. An ESPN blogger wrote recently that Rockies outfielder Carlos Gonzalez is clearly not a superstar because he hits only at Coors Field, citing his .234 batting average on the road last season.

Of course, if you’ve followed the Rocks for more than about five minutes, you know this has been a pattern for 20 years. Home/road splits of more than 100 points, unheard of elsewhere, are routine here. Bichette was working on this before anybody. Back in the 1990s, he took a pitching machine on the road with him — general manager Bob Gebhard called it a curveball machine — trying to acclimate to sea-level breaking balls so his performance wouldn’t fall off a cliff each time the Rocks hit the road.

“I don’t want to give all my secrets away, but the breaking ball . . . you see ’em on the road,” he said this week. “You go on the road and they throw breaking balls. And then at home, it doesn’t quite break. There’s where the problem lies. I don’t think it’s from the light air as far as the ball traveling, it’s more in the breaking balls that are hanging up and they get hit harder. The home/road, I don’t care who you bring in there, they struggle a little bit on the road. So there’s something there and I’ve just tried to figure that out. The curveball machine’s a good idea. I’ve got some other ideas that hopefully we can get them to understand that.”

Weiss’ plan is pretty much the opposite of the organization’s approach in the past. Rather than ignore or downplay the difficulties of playing at Coors, he wants to recognize them and emphasize them in the minds of visitors — sort of the way the Nuggets remind visitors of the thin air with elevation signs before running them into exhaustion.

“I think we’ve got to understand the vulnerability of the opposing pitcher,” Weiss said. “They’re more vulnerable here than they are anywhere else. I don’t care what they say; that’s a fact. I played here as an opposing player with some of the best that have ever stepped on the mound and I know what their mindset is. So that’s got to be our mentality, that we need to exploit that.”

He was referring to the great Braves staffs that included Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz, who welcomed most challenges but dreaded pitching at Coors Field. Of course, the Rocks can take advantage of opposing pitchers only if their own are far better equipped to deal than they were last season.

“That’s going to be part of this process,” Weiss said. “With some arms getting healthy, that’s going to help us. We’ve got some young arms. No doubt they’re going to have to grow up at the major league level quickly, but we’ve got some young power arms . . . .

“Learning how to pitch here, that’s something that we’ll spend a lot of time on so that we have a plan, a better plan than the opposing team is going to have, when they take the mound. Again, we’ve got to look at it as an advantage for us. That’s how we’ve got to approach all the aspects of playing here. The challenges are unique here, but so are the advantages, and that’s what we’ve got to focus on.”

Frankly, I don’t know if that’s true, but it’s clearly the attitude the club needs to take. Only a much larger swath of history will tell us if the challenges Weiss referred to can be overcome with any consistency. It was only three years ago that the Rocks had the best starting rotation in the National League when measured by advanced metrics that take into account ballpark factors. Five pitchers — Ubaldo Jimenez, Jason Marquis, Jorge De La Rosa, Jason Hammel and Aaron Cook — started all but seven of the team’s 162 games in 2009, and the Rocks went to the playoffs. Within two years, all five had either broken down physically or regressed dramatically.

Why? Twenty years of data suggested two things to Rockies management. First, pitchers generally put more strain on their shoulders and elbows here trying to make pitches bite and cut the way they do at sea level. That doesn’t have any long-term effect on visitors who pitch here only occasionally, but over time, for pitchers making half their starts here, it leads to more injuries. Second, the frustration so obvious in Hampton and Guthrie manifests itself more subtly in other psyches, producing more nibbling, more fear of throwing strikes.

So last year the front office came up with the much-maligned four-man, paired pitching rotation in which the starter was limited to roughly 75 pitches and a second pitcher was designated to replace him and carry the game to the point where the bullpen would normally take over. The pitch limit was designed to encourage strike throwing and discourage fatigue-related injuries. This was an approach that had been discussed as far back as a decade ago, when the concerns were still mostly intuitive. Bob McClure, then the pitching coach at Triple-A Colorado Springs and later pitching coach for the Royals and Red Sox, was one of the first members of the Rockies organization to think about new approaches to pitching here.

Unfortunately, the Rocks implemented the plan during a season in which they had lost virtually their entire starting rotation to injury. The kids they put in their place weren’t ready, and no system was going to compensate for starting pitching that finished with a league-worst earned-run average of 5.81.

The organization also got pushback from its own clubhouse, including manager Jim Tracy, prompting it to give assistant general manager Bill Geivett a new title — director of major league operations — along with a desk in the clubhouse. There were going to be more experiments to deal with the challenges at Coors, and GM Dan O’Dowd thought the club needed better communication and coordination between uniformed and non-uniformed personnel.

Tracy resigned at season’s end rather than honor the final year of his contract under these circumstances. The new arrangement was considered something of an overhang on the search for his replacement. As a novice, Weiss isn’t worried about it.

“To be honest, it’s not a great concern of mine,” he said. “Geivo I look at as a great resource for me. He knows the game well, he’s got a sharp mind, he knows our club really well, he’s a guy I can lean on. There’s going to be a bit of a learning curve for me. Regardless of how much time I’ve spent around the game and 21 years at the big league level, still I’ve never sat in the manager’s seat. I’m not afraid to say that. He’s a guy that I’ll lean on as well as other guys on our staff until I find a rhythm of certain aspects of the job. It’s not an issue for me; it’s not a concern.”

On the offensive side, the Rocks have bounced from one extreme to the other over the past few years. Don Baylor, their original manager, was replaced as hitting coach two years ago because he was considered too laid back. Carney Lansford was replaced this fall because he was considered too Type A, too pushy.

Bichette, the Rocks hope, will be just right. For veterans who know what they’re doing, he said, he may do little more than organize batting practice. With younger players who need instruction, he plans to be more active. One of Bichette’s greatest strengths as a player was hitting with two strikes, a skill he believes might improve the Rocks’ clutch hitting generally.

“You’ve got to let the ball get a little deeper with two strikes,” he said. “To me, two-strike hitting and hitting in the clutch go hand in hand because when you’re sitting with two strikes, that pitcher’s trying to punch you out. He’s throwing his nastiest pitch on the corner, trying to get you to chase. And it’s very similar when you get guys in scoring position. Pitchers aren’t coming to you. They’re trying to get you to chase. So those things I kind of felt like I figured out a little bit, and hopefully I can relay that to some of the younger players.”

There’s no substitute for experience. That’s a cliche because it’s true. Weiss and Bichette have no experience in their new jobs at the major league level. On the other hand, they are the first generation of leaders in uniform that also wore Rockies pinstripes as players. They have experience doing what they will now ask others to do.

Whether it actually helps remains to be seen. It is just one of the experiments the Rocks are likely to try in the coming year. But it is more than a feel-good exercise. It is more than looking back wistfully at a happier time. It is an attempt to recognize the unique challenges this club faces and to put it in the hands of men who know from personal experience exactly what they are.


The lamest home opener in Rockies history

Throughout their twenty-year history, the Rockies have been an above-average entertainment value in home openers.

There was the unforgettable first one, for example. Everyone remembers Eric Young hitting a leadoff home run in the bottom of the first, as if christening big league baseball in Colorado by smashing a bottle of champagne on the hull. Not everyone remembers Charlie Hayes hitting a two-run shot later that same inning on the way to a raucous 11-4 win over the Expos before an astonishing crowd of 80,227 at Mile High Stadium

Two years later, in another christening, they opened their new ballpark, Coors Field, with a four-hour, 49-minute, fourteen-inning marathon against the Mets. Down 9-8 in the bottom of the 14th, Dante Bichette hit a walk-off three-run homer that sent the most loyal among the sellout crowd of 47,228 — those who had not found an excuse to retreat from the cold — deliriously into the night.

In 2001, Mike Hampton pitched 8 1/3 innings of shutout ball to lead an 8-0 shutout of the Cardinals, providing temporary (and false, as it turned out) hope about the results of the team’s most expensive free agent signing of all time.

Four years after that, the Rocks delivered another walk-off in their opening act, a two-out, two-run homer by Clint Barmes in the bottom of the ninth to beat the Padres 12-10.

The next year, 2006, brought yet another walk-off win when Brad Hawpe drove in Matt Holliday in the bottom of the 11th to earn a 3-2 win over the Diamondbacks.

And two years ago, they cruised to an Opening Day 7-0 shutout over the Padres behind Jorge De La Rosa.

In all, the Rocks were 11-8 in home openers going into Monday’s 20th edition, and 8-4 since 2000.

So, all things considered, the twentieth curtain-raising was their lamest ever. For one thing, they had never failed to score in a home opener before the Giants’ 7-0 whitewash.

On a gorgeous Colorado spring afternoon, before a full house ready to rock Coors Field, the Rocks looked curiously unprepared to play, as if informed a game had been scheduled just minutes before it began. They made Giants starter Barry Zito look worthy of his seven-year, $126 million contract, which is otherwise considered one of the ten worst contracts in baseball history. At an altitude where breaking balls come to die, Zito’s curve ball completely baffled the Rocks. In fact, this was Zito’s first shutout in nine years and his first in the National League.

“Obviously, he pitched a good game,” Rockies first baseman Todd Helton said. “He got a lot of weak pop flies, kept us off balance. But we’ve got to put together better at-bats, and I think we will. I think nerves were a little involved. Hopefully the next game we’ll come out relaxed and swing the bats better.”

It wasn’t just the bats, although, admittedly, it’s hard to win when you don’t score. It was, as Mike Shanahan used to say, all three phases.

“We didn’t pitch well early in the game, we weren’t able to do a whole lot offensively and we had a miscue that helped lead to a three-run fifth inning,” manager Jim Tracy said, summing up the general incompetence succinctly. “I think tone to a game and tempo to a game is obviously very, very important, and the tempo that we set in the early part of the game was not good. Jhoulys (Chacin) struggled with his command throughout the time that he was out there.”

The Rockies’ winningest pitcher a year ago (11-14), Chacin threw 90 pitches in four innings, barely more than half of them (47) strikes. After leaving a pitch over the middle of the plate in the first and watching Pablo Sandoval airmail it into the right field stands for a two-run homer, he seemed to want nothing to do with the plate. He walked three batters in a row in the third, which turned the inning’s only hit, a single to right by catcher Hector Sanchez, into two more runs.

“The first two innings I feel pretty good,” Chacin said. “The third inning I just lost my focus and I was rushing all the pitches, my breaking ball and my fastball especially. I couldn’t get the ball to the plate and I walked a lot of guys in that inning . . . It’s a good thing I’ve got 30, 31 starts to go. I’m not going togive it up after one start.”

Meanwhile, the Rockies were batting as if hypnotized by Zito’s breaking balls. They lunged, they dove, they popped the ball in the air. The eight position players went down in order in the first three innings. The first of their four hits was a mighty twelve-foot nubber down the third-base line by Chacin himself. Marco Scutaro followed with a two-out single to center. This, it turned out, was their big rally of the day. Dexter Fowler fanned to end it.

The Rocks have now scored ten runs in four games. When I asked Tracy about this, he urged patience.

“I think it’s four games into the season and I think rather than push any kind of panic button or anything like that, we’re probably not the only club in baseball that right now is trying to find its way a little bit offensively,” he said. “I think the cure for that is to keep allowing a bunch of professional hitters to go up there and take at-bats and at some point in time, I guarantee you, we’ll get that squared away. There’s too many good hitters in this lineup for it to continue, in my opinion, for an extended period of time.”

For the sake of the paying customers, he’d better be right. Even prognosticators who didn’t think much of the Rockies’ chances this season thought they’d hit. Through four games, third baseman Chris Nelson is 0-for-10. Fowler is 1-for-11. Helton is 1-for-12. The team’s stars, left fielder Carlos Gonzalez and shortstop Troy Tulowitzki are batting .176 (3-for-17) and .214 (3-for-14), respectively.

“I actually felt good today,” said Helton, who went 0-for-4. “I know it didn’t show. Third at-bat it was tough to see. The shadows came into play. Fourth at-bat you could see. Put a couple good swings on the ball, but, you know, get ’em tomorrow.”

To complete Shanahan’s trifecta, the Rockies didn’t field well, either. The cherry on the Giants’ sundae was a three-run fifth against reliever Matt Reynolds that was built on a pair of errors — a dropped pop fly to short left by CarGo and a throw in the dirt to second from the hole between short and third by Tulo.

That’s six errors in four games, which is not a good ratio. Last year, they committed 98 in 162 and ranked ninth in the National League.

So, yes, it was only one game, but it was the sort of debut that can close a Broadway show in its first week. The sellout crowd of 49,282 booed the home team early and often.

The Rockies’ hardest-hit ball of the day was a foul line drive off the bat of Michael Cuddyer that hit Judith Reese, a woman celebrating her 69th birthday in the stands down the third-base line, in the head. The game was stopped so Reese could be removed on a cart normally reserved for injured players. Thankfully, she was treated for a concussion and released later in the day from Denver Health.

“I want to thank the fans, the paramedics and the community for their instant support,” she said, according to a news release by the hospital.

All in all, the opener was not exactly what the team marketing officer was going for.

“Yeah, it is disappointing,” Helton said. “Obviously, you want to go out and have a good showing Opening Day, and we didn’t do that. But in the end it is one game. We get a day off (Tuesday). It’ll be tough to sleep tonight, but after that you’ve just got to wash it off. It’s just one game. But yeah, with the excitement, the fans in the stands, it’d be nice to put together a better game.”

They’ll come back with Jeremy Guthrie against Giants ace Tim Lincecum on Wednesday. The early results don’t mean much for the outcome of the long season — the Rocks started 11-2 last year and finished 16 games below .500 — but a few signs of life would be nice.