Tag Archives: Mike Hampton

2016 Baseball Hall of Fame ballot

It occurred to me as I was putting this together that I have never given appropriate  credit to the anonymous gnomes of the internet who take pleasure each year in making fun of the no-hopers on the Baseball Hall of Fame ballot. They inspired me to write at least something about every name — 32 this year — on the ballot. So they deserve credit for that.

In fact, it probably turns out I write more about those I’m not voting for than those I am. This is partly because there are more of them and partly because most of my votes are repeats and it’s boring making the same arguments over and over. So, for a block of seven candidates I’m voting for again, I’ll refer you to past posts for particulars, if you’re interested. What follows is a stream of consciousness about some of the people and issues that came up this year. As usual, if you’d prefer to skip the verbiage and just harvest the ballot, you can scroll to the bottom.

For the edification of the gnomes, the screening committee of baseball writers that sets the ballot each year errs purposefully on the side of inclusion, and here’s why:

Of nearly half a million high school baseball players in the U.S. each year, less than 6 percent wind up playing on a college team. Of those, about 10 percent will be drafted by a big league team. Of those, about 10 percent will actually make it to the majors. Of those, according to one voluminous study of 20th century players, about one in five position players will play 10 big league seasons, the minimum to be eligible for the Hall. So, roughly speaking, about 0.01 percent of high school players, or one in 10,000, will achieve eligibility for the Hall of Fame. Considering how many players now come from outside the U.S. feeder system, it’s probably fewer than that. For most of them, appearing on the ballot is the only recognition of this achievement they will receive.

Here are the players who accomplished that feat and were included on the 2016 ballot but have roughly the same percentage chance of being elected as they did as young players of becoming eligible. For our purposes, the cutoff is a deficit of 12 or more in Jay Jaffe’s JAWS metric (average of career wins above replacement and seven best WAR seasons) to the average score of existing Hall of Famers at the player’s position.

No-hopers

Garret Anderson

In Anderson’s rookie season with the Angels, 1995, he batted .321 with 16 home runs and 69 RBI in 400 plate appearances. He was edged out for rookie of the year by Marty Cordova, who would play nine seasons. Andy Pettitte finished third.

Anderson played 17 seasons, all but the last two for the Angels, who drafted him out of high school in 1990. He batted cleanup in all seven games of the 2002 World Series, driving in the winning runs in Game 7 with a third-inning, bases-loaded double off the Giants’ Livan Hernandez. He finished fourth in American League MVP voting that year (behind Miguel Tejada, Alex Rodriguez and Alfonso Soriano) and was a three-time All-Star. His career slash was .293/.324/.461 with 287 homers and 1,365 RBI.

His JAWS score of 24.2 ranks 86th all-time among left fielders and 29.1 points below the average score (53.3) of the 19 left fielders already in the Hall.

Brad Ausmus

Rarer even than Hall-of-Famers are Ivy League graduates active in the major leagues, which Ausmus was throughout his 18-year career after mixing terms at Dartmouth with seasons in the minor leagues and sacrificing his collegiate eligibility in the process. He was a terrific defensive catcher, winning three gold gloves and finishing 10th all-time in fielding percentage. He was an American League All-Star in 1999. His defensive wins above replacement (18.3) were more than double his offensive WAR (8.6).

His JAWS score (15.7) ranks 99th among catchers and 27.4 points below the average (43.1) of the 13 catchers in the Hall.

Luis Castillo

A three-time All-Star, three-time gold glove winner and two-time league stolen base leader, Castillo was the only player on the roster of both Marlins championship teams (1997, 2003) who did not get traded in between, although he did not appear in the ’97 World Series. He finished with a career slash of .290/.368/.351. His 370 stolen bases rank 93rd all-time. He was a key member of the ’03 champions.

His JAWS score (26.4) ranks 69th among second basemen and 30.5 points below the average (56.9) of 20 second basemen in the Hall.

David Eckstein

The 5-foot-6-inch “X factor” joined the Angels as a 26-year-old rookie in 2001, batting .285, stealing 29 bases and finishing fourth in rookie-of-the-year voting. He was a two-time All-Star and one of the few shortstops to win World Series in both leagues, with the Angels in 2002 and Cardinals in 2006. He was named most valuable player of the ’06 Series, batting .364 in the five-game victory over the Tigers.

His JAWS score (19.9) ranks 112th among shortstops and 34.8 points below the average (54.7) of the 21 shortstops in the Hall.

Troy Glaus

When baseball executives do the regression studies that demonstrate their tendency to overpay veteran free agents, Glaus is one of the cautionary tales. The year he turned 24, his third season with the Angels, he led the American league in home runs with 47 and made the first of his four All-Star games. Of his career WAR of 37.9, accumulated over 13 seasons, more than half, 20.4, came in seasons two through five, culminating in his World Series MVP in 2002, when he batted .385 with three home runs in the Angels’ seven-game victory over the Giants. His career slash was .254/.358/.489, with 320 homers and 950 RBI.

His JAWS score (35.3) ranks him 37th among third basemen and 19.7 below the average (55.0) of 13 third basemen in the Hall.

Mark Grudzielanek

A regional Skee ball champion in Texas at age 16, Grudzielanek was unofficially the most misspelled name on television graphics of his generation. Vin Scully turned it lyrical, pronouncing it Grass-a-lonic. An above-average defender on either side of second base, he accumulated offensive WAR of 23.4 and defensive WAR of 8.9 over a 15-season career with five teams. Grudzielanek made his only All-Star appearance in his second season, 1996, when he batted .306 and stole 33 bases for the Expos. He won his only gold glove in 2006, at the age of 36, for the Royals.

His JAWS score (23.4) ranks 76th among second basemen and 33.5 below the average (56.9) of the 20 second basemen in the Hall.

Mike Hampton

No one will ever know if Hampton’s career trajectory would have changed materially had he not succumbed to the Rockies’ seduction in 2001, signing an eight-year, $121 million contract to pitch half his games at Coors Field. After dominating the National League with his power sinker in 1999 for the Astros, going 22-4 and finishing second to Randy Johnson in Cy Young balloting, Hampton was traded, enjoyed a good year for the Mets (15-10, 3.14), and then became the centerpiece (with Denny Neagle) of Colorado’s attempt to prove it was not a pitcher’s graveyard.

On June 10, 2001, after the Rockies beat the Cardinals 12-3 at Coors Field, Hampton’s record was 9-2, his ERA 2.98. From there, the experiment unraveled in a hurry. By the end of the season, those numbers were 14-13, 5.41. The next season, his last there, they were 7-15, 6.15. He got back on track with a couple of solid seasons in Atlanta before injuries derailed his career. There is no way to know what if any contribution those two years at elevation made, but the tendency of Rockies pitchers to break down — physically, mentally or both — is what led to some of the club’s odder experiments later on.

Hampton called it quits after 16 years with a record of 148-115 and an ERA of 4.06.  Remove the two years in Colorado and those numbers are 127-87, 3.72. He was one of the best-hitting pitchers of his era, winning five silver slugger awards. He took full advantage of his time in Colorado in this respect, winning silver sluggers both years and putting up a career-best seven home runs in 2001. His career batting average was .246 with 16 home runs — 10 in his two years with the Rockies — and 79 RBI.

His JAWS score (27.3) ranks 301st all-time among starting pitchers and 33.5 points below the average (62.1) of 62 starting pitchers in the Hall.

Mike Lowell

On one level, there are few awards in baseball as prestigious as World Series MVP. If your definition of greatness includes rising to the occasion when it matters most, this is the award that attempts to capture that quality. Unfortunately, because it rewards performance in such a small window, the result often seems random. Lowell won it in 2007 when his nice, round .400 batting average made him the selection after Boston’s four-game sweep of the overmatched Rockies, a series in which an MVP wasn’t really required.

Overall, Lowell was a .252 postseason hitter for Florida and Boston and a .279 career hitter overall. His power numbers were OK — 223 career homers, 952 RBI, 108 OPS+ — but not extraordinary. The same could be said of his defense at third base. He became a fan favorite in Boston, but his career didn’t last long enough to take advantage of the WAR career adding machine. He was a four-time All-Star whose best year was ’07, when he batted .324 with 21 homers and 120 RBI, finishing fifth in regular-season MVP voting.

His JAWS score (24.1) ranks 84th among third basemen and 30.9 points below the average (55.0) of 13 third basemen in the Hall.

Mike Sweeney

A three-time player of the year for the Royals, Sweeney was a natural hitter who batted over .300 five times and barely missed it as a career average (.297). He started as a catcher, where he struggled defensively, moved to first base, and ultimately to designated hitter. In the five seasons from 1999 through 2003, he accumulated 18.6 wins above replacement, more than three-quarters of his career total. He appeared in the postseason only once, getting a single at-bat for the Phillies in 2010 at age 36. He singled.

His JAWS score (23.2) ranks 102nd among first basemen and 31.0 points below the average (54.2) of the 19 first basemen in the Hall.

Randy Winn

An impressive athlete who could hit from both sides of the plate, run and play defense, Winn was drafted in the third round by Florida in 1995. While he had a nice 13-year career, playing for five teams, he never quite lived up to the athletic promise. He was named to just one All-Star Game, in 2002, for Tampa Bay. Statistically, he was roughly average, both offensively and defensively, with a career OPS+ of 99. His career slash was .284/.343/.416.

His JAWS score (26.1) ranks 95th among center fielders and 31.1 points below the average (57.2) of the 18 center fielders in the Hall.

***

These exclusions pare the original ballot from 32 to 22 names. Here they are, listed in order of their JAWS rankings relative to the average of players at their positions already in the Hall:

  • Barry Bonds +64.3
  • Roger Clemens +41.2
  • Ken Griffey Jr. +11.6
  • Jeff Bagwell +9.7
  • Mike Piazza +8.1
  • Alan Trammell +2.8
  • Curt Schilling +2.4
  • Tim Raines +2.3
  • Mike Mussina +1.7
  • Edgar Martinez +1.0
  • Larry Walker +0.5
  • Mark McGwire -2.3
  • Jim Edmonds -5.8
  • Sammy Sosa -7.1
  • Jason Kendall -7.2
  • Gary Sheffield -9.0
  • Lee Smith -9.0
  • Fred McGriff -10.1
  • Trevor Hoffman -10.4
  • Billy Wagner -10.4
  • Nomar Garciaparra -11.1
  • Jeff Kent -11.5

***

Obvious cheaters

This category remains controversial, and will, no doubt, for the foreseeable future. I explained my rationale at some length two years ago and you should refer to that post if you want a more verbose explanation than I provide here. With something like 100 honorary voters coming off the rolls as a result of this year’s change in voting qualifications, it will be interesting to see the effect on the percentages these players receive. I would expect them to rise on the assumption that the older voters bumped from the rolls were more likely to penalize them for using performance-enhancing drugs than the younger voters who now make up a larger proportion of the total.

The willingness to shrug off obvious cheating with the usual rationales — everybody was doing it; who knows who was doing it; modern chemistry is a part of sports, like it or not — still baffles me. Some of it comes from veteran baseball writers protective of former commissioner Bud Selig, who botched the steroid era quite spectacularly but treated beat writers well and was rewarded with their loyalty. Minimizing the cheating minimizes his mistake. Some of it comes from a moral relativism that derives from a devotion to sabermetrics — the numbers are really all that matter; the numbers would have been good enough without the cheating. And some of it comes from a related dependence on quantifiable certitude — the view that if we can’t know with certainty who did and who didn’t, we shouldn’t attempt to make any distinctions at all. As a lifelong journalist and the son of a historian, this seems to me either hopelessly naive or purposefully impossible. We are always doing the best we can with the knowledge we have. That’s life.

For those attached to one or more of these rationalizations, or to another rationale entirely, I urge a viewing of the 2014 documentary Stop at Nothing: The Lance Armstrong Story, currently playing on Showtime. Is there any good reason Armstrong should be vilified and lose everything in his sport while baseball players who did exactly the same thing stand for election to be glorified and immortalized in theirs, other than the fact that baseball, like cycling, was asleep at the switch at the time but, unlike cycling, had no outside entity like the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency to clean up afterward?

One recent development is also worth mentioning in light of claims that the “morals clause” in Hall of Fame voting represents the antiquated remains of a bygone era and should properly be excised if anybody ever gets around to modernizing the rules. The Hall of Fame has quite noticeably taken charge of this process over the past couple of years. It has taken the voting logistics from the Baseball Writers Association of America and given them to an accounting firm. It has reduced the time a player may remain on the ballot. It has reduced the time a voter may continue participating after he or she stops covering the game. Amid all these reforms, it has not changed this language in our instructions at all:

Voting shall be based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.

The Hall knows what this means in 2016 and it has elected to leave it in. If you have heard players already in the Hall talk about this, you know why.

My imperfect standard remains the same. Where there is evidence of cheating I find convincing, I’m not voting for the guy. Where there is mainly suspicion and rumor, I am, if he’s qualified. On that basis, I disqualify these players from consideration this year, as I have in the past:

Barry Bonds

Roger Clemens

Mark McGwire

Sammy Sosa

***

This leaves me with 18:

  • Ken Griffey Jr. +11.6
  • Jeff Bagwell +9.7
  • Mike Piazza +8.1
  • Alan Trammell +2.8
  • Curt Schilling +2.4
  • Tim Raines +2.3
  • Mike Mussina +1.7
  • Edgar Martinez +1.0
  • Larry Walker +0.5
  • Jim Edmonds -5.8
  • Jason Kendall -7.2
  • Gary Sheffield -9.0
  • Lee Smith -9.0
  • Fred McGriff -10.1
  • Trevor Hoffman -10.4
  • Billy Wagner -10.4
  • Nomar Garciaparra -11.1
  • Jeff Kent -11.5

***

To this point, the process has been reasonably straightforward. I rely on Jaffe’s quantitative sorting metric unless and until I disagree based on my own qualitative judgment — the “eye test.”

Now it gets less straightforward. I like Jaffe’s formulation that players added to the Hall of Fame should be at least as good as those already there — the impulse not to dilute the quality of the place. Still, the effort to compare performances across many generations, during which the game has changed so much, is approximate at best. For example, in 1970 the Veterans Committee elected a Cardinals pitcher from the 1920s and ’30s by the name of Jesse Haines. He won 20 three times, 210 overall, career ERA of 3.64. His JAWS score (27.3) is exactly the same as Mike Hampton’s.

So when these quantitative assessments reach the relatively small differences among our 18 remaining candidates, the decisions get more subjective.

Unfortunately, both qualitative and quantitative measures struggle mightily in the same area  — the specialist, baseball’s closer. It is an issue this year because three of our 18 — Lee Smith, Trevor Hoffman and Billy Wagner — are closers.

For most of baseball history, relief pitchers were the guys who weren’t good enough to be starters. By definition, they were not good enough to be in the Hall of Fame. That is still true of most relief pitchers — all but the ones designated to finish games. Of 310 elected members of the Hall, only five were elected as relief pitchers.

Based on Jaffe’s attempt to quantify this judgment, two of the five — Bruce Sutter and Rollie Fingers — don’t belong. Their JAWS scores are well below those of the other three — Dennis Eckersley, Hoyt Wilhelm and Goose Gossage. In fact, the Relief Pitchers JAWS Leaders page over at baseballreference.com is a mess. It makes Greg Swindell and Turk Farrell two of the top 12 relievers of all time, ahead of Smith, Sutter, Wagner, Hoffman, Dan Quisenberry and so on.

Why? Well, because they were once starters and earned a bunch of WAR in that role, then hauled them over to the relievers’ page. The best reliever never to have started a major league game, according to Jaffe’s model, is Sutter, who ranks 17th. So if the closer has a value anywhere near what the modern general manager is willing to pay for one, JAWS has yet to illuminate it.

What would be the key metrics? Being old school, or maybe just old, I start with earned-run average. If the idea is to hold a lead, you want to give up as few runs as possible.

  • Billy Wagner: 2.31
  • Hoyt Wilhelm: 2.52
  • Bruce Sutter: 2.83
  • Trevor Hoffman: 2.87
  • Rollie Fingers: 2.90
  • Goose Gossage: 3.01
  • Lee Smith: 3.03
  • Dennis Eckersely: 3.50

Or maybe ERA+, which adjusts for ballparks and makes the league average 100:

  • Billy Wagner: 187
  • Hoyt Wilhelm: 147
  • Trevor Hoffman: 141
  • Bruce Sutter: 136
  • Lee Smith: 132
  • Goose Gossage: 126
  • Rollie Fingers: 120
  • Dennis Eckersley: 116

How about saves? There is something arbitrary about this volume number, depending as it does on the quality of your team — how often it is ahead late — and, in days of yore, before it became automatic, your manager’s inclination to bring you into such situations.

  • Trevor Hoffman: 601
  • Lee Smith: 478
  • Billy Wagner: 422
  • Dennis Eckersley: 390
  • Rollie Fingers: 341
  • Goose Gossage: 310
  • Bruce Sutter: 300
  • Hoyt Wilhelm: 228

The more modern the player, the more likely that player is to pile up saves because the degree of specialization has increased over time. One would expect to find an inverse correlation between saves and innings pitched per appearance. Eckersley spent half his career as a starter; older relievers pitched more innings per appearance. Moe Drabowsky famously replaced Dave McNally in the third inning of Game 1 of the 1966 World Series and pitched the rest of the game. What, exactly, is the value of the modern specialist who comes in only at the very end, to pitch one-ninth or less of a game, usually when his team is ahead?

The sabermetricians appear to have decided that a team leading late will go on to win so much of the time randomly that even elite closers deserve credit for only a handful, or fewer, of their saves each year. I discussed this at some length last year with respect to John Smoltz, whose career WAR suffered noticeably — and made him a sub-par HOF candidate as a starting pitcher, according to JAWS — because of his years as an elite closer. The fact the Braves chose to use him in that role during those years demonstrates that they estimated the value of the position quite differently from the way the WAR numbers do. To make matters worse, the average JAWS score of the five relievers already in the Hall — which becomes the standard for aspiring candidates — is inflated by Eckersley’s WAR numbers, the majority of which — 45.6 of 62.5 — he earned as a starter.

Over the course of his 18-year career, Hoffman accumulated a total of 28 wins above replacement, according to baseballreference.com, or an average of 1.6 per season. Simple subtraction tells us that according to this metric, which Jaffe uses to determine Hall of Fame worthiness, an average replacement relief pitcher would have piled up 573 saves in the circumstances in which Hoffman accumulated 601. Assuming this average replacement player had Hoffman’s durability, he would finish his career with the second-most saves in history, same as Hoffman.

Does anybody believe this? If so, why do the people entrusted with running big league teams pay closers what they pay them these days?

So WAR and JAWS don’t help much, if at all, when it comes to relievers, except possibly as a relative measurement among them, since it might be wrong about all of them in the same ways.

For example, JAWS gives Hoffman and Wagner exactly the same score (24.0). Hoffman has a slightly better career WAR; Wagner a slightly better prime WAR. They even out. So, when Hoffman partisans start quoting his stats, they often insert a minimum requirement of 1,000 innings pitched. That leaves him first in baserunners allowed (1.058 WHIP), an impressive marker. As it happens, Wagner’s number is better (0.998), which might explain why Hoffman partisans put in the innings minimum. Were it not for the round number, the difference between Hoffman’s 1,089 innings and Wagner’s 903 wouldn’t matter much. After all, Smith pitched 1,289, and that hasn’t helped him in 13 years on the ballot.

Complicating all this is the general consensus that Mariano Rivera will be elected to the Hall as soon as he becomes eligible. So there is a certain level of dominance that bypasses the positional problem. Even JAWS approves of Rivera, although he still trails Eckersley. There are Hoffman partisans who believe he should hold the same trump card Rivera holds. But unlike Rivera, Hoffman never got a chance to shine on the big stage. He made only one World Series appearance, giving up two earned runs in two innings. His career postseason ERA is 3.46.

In a way, closers in baseball are like kickers in football. They play a crucial role at certain critical moments, but for the vast majority of the time, they watch from the sidelines or the bullpen, as the case may be. The small cohort of voters for the Pro Football Hall of Fame has similar difficulty comparing them favorably to the guys on the field most of the time. Only three have made it — George Blanda, Lou Groza and Jan Stenerud — and two of those played other positions as well.

Not to bring Ray Guy into the conversation, but I’m punting. The traffic jam of worthy candidates allows me to take more time to think about this and wait for the ballot to open up enough that devoting a spot to a specialist doesn’t require taking one from a deserving everyday player. I’ve got 11 non-relievers I’d like to vote for this year, and when I ask myself whether I would take one of the closers over one of them if I were building a team, the answer is no.

Which gets me down to 15:

  • Ken Griffey Jr. +11.6
  • Jeff Bagwell +9.7
  • Mike Piazza +8.1
  • Alan Trammell +2.8
  • Curt Schilling +2.4
  • Tim Raines +2.3
  • Mike Mussina +1.7
  • Edgar Martinez +1.0
  • Larry Walker +0.5
  • Jim Edmonds -5.8
  • Jason Kendall -7.2
  • Gary Sheffield -9.0
  • Fred McGriff -10.1
  • Nomar Garciaparra -11.1
  • Jeff Kent -11.5

***

Ken Griffey Jr.

Let’s get the easy one out of the way. Early on, Junior’s long, picturesque swing from the left side earned him “The Natural” nickname, in memory of the Bernard Malamud character. Steeped in baseball as a kid in the clubhouse of the Big Red Machine — his father played right field — he was ready to roll almost from the moment the Mariners made him the first overall pick of the 1987 draft at age 17.

Two years later, he was a big league starter. Three years later, at 20, he was an All-Star, the first of 11 consecutive selections and 13 overall. He received MVP votes after 10 seasons, winning the award in 1997, when he led the American League with 56 homers, 147 RBI, 125 runs scored, 393 total bases, 23 intentional walks and a slugging percentage of .646.

He won nine gold gloves along the way, all of them before age 30. The vast majority of his career WAR also came in his 20s. His JAWS score (68.8) makes him the only center fielder not (yet) in the Hall of Fame with a better score than the average of the 18 center fielders already there. He trails only Willie Mays, Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker and Mickey Mantle. He leads Joe DiMaggio and Duke Snider.

***

Here is the group of seven candidates I voted for last year that I am voting for again, and for the same reasons. Check last year’s post to explain my votes for Jeff Bagwell, Mike Piazza, Alan Trammell, Curt Schilling, Tim Raines, Mike Mussina and Larry Walker. You will find a particularly long-winded rant on behalf of Walker, which I am likely to repeat at some point before his eligibility (not to mention mine) expires, because quantitative analysis suggests his modest HOF vote totals are the result of irrational prejudice.

I refer you to the same post to explain my vote this year for Edgar Martinez. I wanted to vote for him last year, as I wrote at the time, but he was No. 11 on my list. Luckily, three of the guys I voted for won, so a spot opened up. I would only mention here a mesmerizing career OPS of .933 and OPS+ of 147. The man could hit.

***

A word or two about Trammell, on the ballot for the last time this year, and Raines, who gets one more shot after this one if he needs it.

On the JAWS list at shortstop, Trammell sits just ahead of Derek Jeter, who will be elected in his first year of eligibility and serenaded to Cooperstown by the New York Philharmonic, and Barry Larkin, who was elected in 2012 with 86.4 percent of the vote. Meanwhile, Trammell is about to fall off the ballot after 15 years, never having achieved 40 percent of the vote.

About the only logical explanation is that voters don’t put much value on defense at arguably the most important defensive position, which doesn’t say much for voters. Trammell has the best defensive WAR of the three, but his offensive numbers were also excellent for a middle infielder. Put them together and they surpass the work of his more popular fellow shortstops, according to the quants, but it doesn’t matter. His partner in that long-lived Tigers double-play combination, Lou Whitaker, received even less respect from the national voters. Who knows, maybe Trammell is paying for the unfortunate accident of playing shortstop in the American League in the era of Cal Ripken.

Whatever the explanation, it’s hard to reconcile an educated voting body giving such disparate treatment to players whose skills and achievements were so comparable.

Raines was caught by the Hall’s reduction in player eligibility from 15 to 10 years. Now in his ninth year on the ballot, he suddenly has one more instead of the six he would have had under the old rules. At the rate he was building support, it could matter. Starting at 24.3 percent of the vote in 2008, he rose to 55.0 percent last year. Here’s hoping logic and urgency turbocharge his push to 75.

Quantitatively, he should be a shoo-in. JAWS makes him the eighth-best left fielder of all time, ahead of Manny Ramirez, Billy Williams, Willie Stargell and many others. His 55.6 JAWS score is 2.3 points better than the average of 19 left fielders already in the Hall.

His 808 stolen bases are fifth all time and the four above him — Rickey Henderson, Lou Brock, Billy Hamilton and Ty Cobb — are in the Hall already. His success rate when he took off — 85 percent — was higher than any of the four above him on the volume list. He was an OBP guy before OBP was cool in front offices, putting up a career .385, contributing to an .810 OPS for a player who never hit 20 homers in a season. If Trammell suffered by comparison to Ripken, perhaps Raines suffered by comparison to Henderson. Advanced metrics make it clear both of these guys belong.

***

Having settled on Griffey, Martinez and the seven unsuccessful candidates I voted for last year, I had one vote remaining and two more candidates I wanted to vote for. Because the JAWS numbers relative to their positions are similar for the remaining six, I began with the eye test.

Nomar Garciaparra sure looked like a Hall of Famer through his 20s, but injuries sabotaged the remainder of his career so thoroughly that the volume offensive numbers he seemed certain to produce never materialized. His rookie-of-the-year award and seven top-13 MVP finishes show how good he was when young and healthy, but except for one year his 30s were a wasteland and never allowed WAR’s longevity bias to work for him. Troy Tulowitzki’s career WAR should pass Nomar’s next year, and Tulo is not exactly an ironman either.

Jim Edmonds did not strike me as a Hall of Famer while I was watching him play. He was a very good player, and his numbers reflect it. Maybe I’m spoiled. I did see Mays and Mantle live as a kid. So Griffey qualifies and Edmonds doesn’t. Good batting averages, but not great. Good power numbers, but not great. Terrific fielder; eight gold gloves.

His similarity scores on baseballreference.com go to guys like Lance Berkman and Ellis  Burks, Dale Murphy and Fred Lynn. He never started an All-Star Game while playing for the Angels because Griffey or Kenny Lofton always did. In the National League, he alternated with guys like Berkman and Andruw Jones. He ended up with four All-Star appearances, which seems a bit low for a player with his numbers and suggests how many other outfielders were putting up numbers like that, too.

Jason Kendall was a nice hitter, particularly early in his career, when he batted .300 or better in four of his first five seasons. He did it twice in his remaining 10. He was an All-Star in three of his first five seasons, and then never again. He never won a gold glove. During his years with the Pirates they were going to Charles Johnson, Ausmus and Mike Matheny, and Mike Lieberthal one year.

He had unusual speed for a catcher, but he never had much power, which is pretty much a requirement for a catcher who wants to be in the Hall of Fame. Johnny Bench, Gary Carter, Ivan Rodriguez, Carlton Fisk, Mike Piazza, Yogi Berra — the top six JAWS scores at the position — each had more than 300 career homers. Kendall had 75. Early in his career, his similarity scores go to Mickey Cochrane, who had the fewest homers (119) of catchers above the JAWS average for Hall of Famers at the position. By the end, his closest comparable was Dick Bartell, a journeyman infielder of the 1930s and ’40s.

Like Edmonds, Fred McGriff put up big numbers for much of his career and yet did not consistently rise above his contemporaries. From 1988-90, he received MVP votes every year as a member of the Blue Jays, but the first basemen making the American League All-Star team were guys like Mark McGwire, George Brett, Don Mattingly and Cecil Fielder.

He was traded to the Padres following the 1990 season (with Tony Fernandez, for Roberto Alomar and Joe Carter) and found himself in an All-Star mix with Will Clark, John Kruk, Gregg Jefferies and the emerging Bagwell. Three years later, he was traded again, this time for Melvin Nieves and Donnie Elliott. He continued to crank out the home runs, but after Atlanta he was a journeyman, going from the Rays to the Cubs to the Dodgers back to the Rays. He had five All-Star appearances in 19 seasons.

McGriff is a close call. His offensive numbers are very good, and so are his comparables (David Ortiz, Willie McCovey, Willie Stargell, Paul Konerko). But there are guys above him on the JAWS list at first base who have gotten less consideration. He did not dominate the competition at his position in either league. I thought of him as a very good player, but not a great one.

I want to vote for Jeff Kent. To my mind, JAWS underestimates the value of his power and production from a defensive position that so seldom provides them at anything like his level. His 377 career homers rank first all-time among second basemen, ahead of Rogers Hornsby, Craig Biggio, Joe Morgan and all the rest. His 1,518 RBI rank third, behind Hornsby and Nap Lajoie, who played in a different era and considerably longer. Granted, Kent played in an offensive era, but his numbers were still impressive, especially in 2000, the year he won the National League MVP award by batting .334 with 33 homers and 125 RBI. You know how many second basemen have won that award in the last 50 years? Three: Morgan, Ryne Sandberg and Kent.

Like McGriff, he was a five-time All-Star. Unlike McGriff, he was often beaten out by a Hall-of-Famer in Biggio. In 1997 and ’98, he was in the top 10 of National League MVP voting and Biggio was the All-Star. The closest McGriff came to an MVP award was a fourth-place finish in 1993.

My final vote came down to a battle between Kent and Gary Sheffield. Knowing Sheffield would not make my final cut in last year’s traffic jam, I eliminated him early. But I kept thinking about it afterward because as a fan who was usually rooting against the teams he played for, he scared the hell out of me — that menacing bat-wave, the explosive pop when he crushed the ball. It flew off his bat like a missile. The relentless danger he posed at the plate reminded me a little of an old favorite, Eddie Murray, a Hall of Famer often overshadowed by a more celebrated teammate and yet a fearsome competitor and consistent producer. Our brains make the connections they make, so, just for grins, I put their numbers side by side.

The main difference is durability. Murray played 3,026 games in 21 seasons; Sheffield, 2,576 in 22. Still, in 15 percent fewer games, Sheffield managed, like Murray, to exceed 500 home runs, and slightly exceed Murray’s All-Star appearances (nine to eight). When it comes to overall offensive production adjusted for ballparks, Sheffield’s career OPS+ was 140, compared to Murray’s 129. Playing different positions, both ended up with negative defensive WARs, although Sheffield’s was worse. Still, as with Kent, watching the guy play it seemed obvious that his defensive deficiencies were a small price to pay for that bat.

Both passed my eye test. By a whisker, I gave my final vote to Sheffield.

So here’s my 2016 ballot:

  • Jeff Bagwell
  • Ken Griffey Jr.
  • Edgar Martinez
  • Mike Mussina
  • Mike Piazza
  • Tim Raines
  • Curt Schilling
  • Gary Sheffield
  • Alan Trammell
  • Larry Walker

Happy new year.

 


Dick Monfort rejected Dan O’Dowd’s proposal to fire Dan O’Dowd

In the midst of the most disappointing season in Rockies history, general manager Dan O’Dowd offered owner Dick Monfort the solution many fans desire: Fire the GM.

“I sat with Dick and said, ‘Hey, listen, it would make it easier on you, just throw me under the bus here. In some ways, I’ll be better off for it, too,'” O’Dowd told me after the club announced its latest organizational shakeup this week.

“But he won’t do that and I can’t leave him because no one knows more about this place than I do. You bring another GM here and it will take him years just to get up to speed on the issues we have here, how different it is. I don’t have all the answers, but the only way you find answers is you’ve got to try different things. You can’t think traditionally.”

This is the crux of the difference in perception inside and outside the organization. Many fans believe playing at altitude is a minor or negligible issue, just another variable like the short porch at Yankee Stadium or the wind at Wrigley Field. Even mentioning it is just an excuse for poor performance, they believe.

Within the organization, it is considered the central challenge of operating the ball club. O’Dowd calls it the Rockies’ “Goliath.” The reason they don’t talk about it more publicly is it’s already next to impossible to get free agent pitchers to come to Colorado. Emphasizing the difficulty of succeeding here as a pitcher will only make that situation worse.

But the challenge of pitching at altitude has never been clearer than this year, when O’Dowd acquired four starters from other teams — Jeremy Guthrie, Guillermo Moscoso, Josh Outman and Tyler Chatwood — and not one of them proved able to survive at Coors Field.

We have nearly 20 years worth of major league data now, and the numbers are revealing.

Try this exercise: Imagine an average major league ballclub. Over a 20-year span, how many starting pitchers on this team would put up at least three seasons of 100 or more innings pitched with an earned-run average below 4.75? Pretty low bar, right? There should be plenty.

Over the past 20 years, the average National League club has had eight such pitchers. The average club in the NL West, the Rockies’ division, has had 10.

In their entire history, the Rocks have had two: Aaron Cook and Ubaldo Jimenez.

“We worked as hard as anybody trying to find pitchers,” said Bob Gebhard, the Rocks’ general manager from 1993-99. “Our first pick in the expansion draft was David Nied, who did a nice job for us but unfortunately he got hurt. So you do the best you can in trying to add pitchers but it was extremely difficult to convince free agent pitchers to come to Denver and pitch.”

“I’ll put it this way,” said Clint Hurdle, the Rockies’ longest-serving manager, from 2002 to 2009. “This is the most challenging venue to coach, manage, perform at in major league baseball. 5280 (feet above sea level) 81 times a year, there’s nothing like it anywhere else. There are dramatic changes you’ve got to make to things.”

Hence the latest attempt to think outside the box in seeking a solution to the high-altitude riddle. Six weeks ago, O’Dowd implemented a four-man starting rotation with pitch limits on those starters, an attempt to address the Rockies’ 20-year history of injury and/or rapid deterioration among their pitchers. This week it was installing a front office executive — Bill Geivett, O’Dowd’s right-hand man — in the clubhouse, in part because the first experiment got such a lukewarm response there.

“I understand how some people are going to look at this,” O’Dowd said. “But you tell me how you look at anything traditionally in this place. What may work anywhere else is just not going to work here. If anybody knows that, I do. So I’ve got two choices. Hell, I could resign and move on. I’ll get another job. But I’ve got an owner that embraces change. He loves to look and try to do things differently. He’s not a traditional thinker.”

Many fans point to anecdotal evidence that altitude really isn’t such a big deal. C.J. Wilson comes in and throws eight innings of five-hit ball for the Angels. Cole Hamels throws eight innings of six-hit ball for the Phillies. Everybody’s pitching in the same conditions, right? Why can’t Rockies starters do that?

Of course, some of them have. That’s the problem relying on anecdotal evidence. You notice what you want to notice and ignore what you want to ignore.

Few remember that Mike Hampton was terrific in his first half-season in Colorado, going 9-2 with a 2.98 ERA through his first 13 starts in 2001. He was never the same pitcher after that. Ubaldo Jimenez was 15-1 with a 2.20 ERA through 18 starts in 2010. He’s not been the same since.

“It’s a lot different coming here and starting one time per season or two times per season or even three times per season, which is the max someone will have, than starting 16, 17, or 18 times per season,” O’Dowd said.

Fans don’t tend to notice when opposing pitchers blow up. In fact, hard as it may be to believe given the current staff’s woes, the Rocks have a better ERA at Coors Field than visiting teams since 2006.

The Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw, the reigning National League Cy Young Award winner, has a career ERA of 2.89. His ERA at Coors Field is 5.91. Greg Maddux had a Coors Field ERA of 5.19. Curt Schilling’s was 5.51.

The Rocks have had one year in which they were able to deploy a consistent, traditional five-man rotation all season: 2009, the last time they went to the playoffs. Jimenez and Jason Marquis each started 33 times; Jorge De La Rosa, 32; Jason Hammel, 30; Cook, 27. With the exception of Hammel, each has suffered a major injury or a massive deterioration in performance since then.

“The purpose of limiting the pitch counts is that through the studies I’ve done with our trainers, Steadman-Hawkins and all of our medical people, we believe that injuries happen with load,” O’Dowd said. “When you pile on load and you are throwing pitches at the point of fatigue, that’s when the muscle tears and the tendons begin to get stretched, and that’s what causes injuries.

“This was a lost year. I wasn’t trying to develop a model to save this season. I’m trying to develop a model that has a chance to work here long after I’m gone. Because the environmental parts of this aren’t going to change.”

But experimenting with baseball orthodoxy requires an experimental mindset that baseball players, coaches and managers don’t often have. Playing every day for six months, baseball is a game of routine, of doing the same thing over and over and over again.

“My conclusion is we have to do it differently,” O’Dowd said. “We can’t do it traditionally the same way. That doesn’t mean we don’t get back to that at some point in time, but right now where we’re at, with the inexperience we have,  we are going to have to pitch differently. We are going to have to have a different concept and it’s going to have to be an ever-changing one.

“This is a ballpark about adaptability. I did not anticipate the ballpark was going to play the way it did this year because it hadn’t for the last four years. Why it is? Hell, I don’t know. There are other things that come up in this ballpark that I’ll never be able to truly understand but we’re going to have to be able to adapt to it a hell of a lot quicker than we did this year without fighting so many battles to be able to try something different and unique.

“We have to have a thought process of adaptability. We cannot think traditionally if we’re ever going to have any kind of sustained success here. If we do nothing, every ten years we’ll win twice, guarantee you. Every ten years, everything will fall into place and we’ll win twice. I’d like to have something that stands for a little more than that.”

They call the NFL a copycat league but no sport worships conformity more than baseball. In the early 1970s, most teams used four-man starting rotations. When the conversion to five-man rotations began, every single team fell rapidly in line. So when O’Dowd began tinkering with accepted norms, beginning with the four-man rotation and pitch limits, he found resistance not only among the chattering class, but also in his own clubhouse. That’s why Geivett is now taking up residence there — to help sell the experimental approaches the Rocks expect to try.

O’Dowd recognized that he needed a diplomat in this role. He also recognized that diplomacy is not his forte.

“The bottom line is we have to come up with a different model,” he said. “The altitude’s not going to change. Do you realize that even if we dome this place, we could not create enough barometric pressure to come close to normalizing the environment indoors? You couldn’t pump enough air in here to make that happen. You could bring it down some, but we’re at 5,183 feet above sea level. The next closest club is the Diamondbacks at 1,040 feet. Do you see how well we play every spring (in Arizona)?”

Strange but true: The elevations of other NL stadiums are minuscule compared to Coors Field, but the Rocks persistently play better at the stadiums that are relatively higher and worse at those comparatively lower. While most of the focus is on their pitching, their hitters consistently struggle with the transition from altitude to sea level at the end of each home stand, adjusting each time to the greater break of the pitches they face.

“We were certainly aware of the splits in the averages,” Gebhard said of the Rockies’ early days. “The great hitters, the Larry Walkers and the Andres Galarragas, at times would have as much as a 100-point spread between home and away.

“Dante Bichette, way back when, had his own little pitching machine. It was a curve ball machine that he would take with him on the road trip and get into a batting tunnel at the stadium and have it throw nothing but curve balls.

“That was a very true issue because playing at Coors Field, you’d see a curve ball and it would be a spinner and it might be good one time and not so good the next time. And all of a sudden the next day you’re playing in Chicago or you’re playing in Atlanta and that same curve ball is a quality pitch. We struggled with that. I can’t say that we came up with a sound solution but we were well aware of that and hitters were frustrated because they would go on the road and the first couple days we didn’t hit very good.”

Many outsiders, clearly, don’t buy any of it. In some cases, this is because they haven’t studied it. Nobody in the game thinks it is an insignificant factor. They just don’t have any idea what to do about it. Most of them are glad to play here only occasionally.

“We’ve only got to be here three days and we’re getting out of town,” Hurdle said with a laugh when he visited Coors last month with his current team, the Pirates. “We don’t have to worry about it.”

If he can find the right candidate, O’Dowd plans to create another new position in the organization when the season is over: director of pitching operations. He wants someone to supervise the way the Rocks develop pitchers throughout their system rather than having a different pitching coach doing his own thing at every level.

He knows that all of this will be seen as an excuse or worse by many who don’t walk in his shoes.

“Hey, listen: At 52, turning 53, I realize I’m on the back end of my career. I’m just at a point in time where I want to do what I think is right and I’m not all that concerned what people say about me.

“I know I’m throwing myself under the bus from a perception standpoint. I know what I’m doing. But I also think it’s the right thing to do. So what do you do? You talk the talk or you walk the walk. Whatever everybody’s going to say, they’re going to say. The only thing that matters is if we find something here that works better than what’s working right now, and has ever worked.

“A market our size, and our payroll, you win more than you lose every 2.7 years. The goal of this thing for me is not winning defined that way. The goal for me is to find something that has a chance to have sustainable success so the peaks aren’t so high and the valleys aren’t so low. That has nothing to do with our personnel model. That has everything to do with the Goliath we face every single day.”


The latest Coors Field casualty

If you happened to be among the 35,151 people who paid (or managed a ticket from someone who had) to see the Rockies play the Phillies on Saturday night, you saw the most recent version of the species of baseball player known as the Coors Field casualty.

Jeremy Guthrie has joined a small but distinguished group of pitchers (and one manager) who were driven to distraction and ultimately defeated by Coors Field, or by the altitude at which it sits. Each retreated into his own defensive bubble, refusing to acknowledge the elephant in the ballpark because they couldn’t accept their inability to overcome it.

Keep in mind Guthrie was acquired over the offseason to be the veteran leader of the pitching staff. Looking over his previous three seasons, Rockies management saw a horse who never missed a start, threw 200 or more innings every year, pitched for lousy teams in Baltimore and never complained. What they got was the opposite — a head case who can’t show leadership to the Rocks’ young pitchers because he can’t get out of his own way.

One sarcastic gesture — tipping his cap to the crowd as one of his early exits was accompanied by a symphony of boos — offered all the insight necessary into the psychological shield he has raised to protect himself from what no doubt seem like the slings and arrows of some strange and foreign planet.

Following his ninth loss in 12 decisions Saturday night, when he gave up four runs, all in the first inning, and came out in the fifth, this was Guthrie’s post-game session with the inquiring minds:

Q: So what’s your diagnosis? What happened in the first inning?

A: Just a, you know, got behind to (Carlos) Ruiz and he took a good hack and, you know, a three-run homer.

Q: That’s it? What about the hits that led up to that?

A: You know, the fastball away, 1-0 count, off the plate a little bit, (Chase Utley) did a nice job to punch in (Shane) Victorino. Victorino was a fastball up in the zone, 0-2, tried to elevate it, got it at his letters but he did a nice job and hit it into the gap. I walked (Ryan) Howard, I think it was on five pitches, got behind him. I think that’s all the hits. I think that’s all the results of the first inning.

Q: Especially after the first inning, you were able to keep it under control after that, do you feel like you have a pretty good pattern, at least here at home?

A: I think so. I mean, I’ve got the longest scoreless streak of my career at Coors, so there’s a lot of positives to build on. It’s a career low in runs allowed in a start as well. So there’s positives to build on and you’ve got to take what you can and go for it.

Q: At this point is it trying to just build on something like that, considering how it’s gone so far?

A: Yeah. You always find the positives and try to build on ’em. That’s what I try to do. That’s the kind of person I am and if it works out I’m pleased; if it doesn’t, I’ll keep that same attitude in baseball and in life.

Q: Jeremy, was it self-evident to you from the first inning what you needed to adjust or did anybody have a chat with you between the first and second?

A: No, no chat. It came down to one pitch, really. Three-one. The Utley pitch wasn’t a mistake. It was where I was trying to go. The Victorino pitch was where I was trying to throw it. The walk is not what I was trying to do. I look at it every at-bat, every pitch. You look at four runs and you just think the world’s coming to an end, but it really came down to one big pitch, to Ruiz, to one of the best hitters in the league right now.

When the brief group session was over, I asked Guthrie if I could ask him a couple of further questions, one-on-one.

“No,” he said. “Thank you.” And then he hightailed it out of the clubhouse.

Now, granted, this refusal could well be because of my personal charm. Guthrie would not be the first athlete who, given a choice, declined an opportunity to spend any more time than necessary answering my questions. But he also gave me a flashback to the most famous Coors Field casualty of the Rockies’ first 20 years, who gave me a similar response when I tried to talk to him one-on-one about pitching here.

In 2001, Mike Hampton got the biggest contract ever given to a pitcher at the time — eight years, $121 million. He’s the poster boy of Coors Field casualties. The Rockies broke the bank to sign him after coming off consecutive (pre-humidor) seasons in which their starters pitched to earned-run averages of 6.19 and 5.59, numbers that might sound familiar if you’ve followed this year’s team, whose starters are currently at 6.06.

Hampton had gone 37-12 over the previous two seasons for the Astros and Mets. He was a power sinker ball pitcher, exactly what their home launch pad seemed to demand. So the Rocks overpaid in a big way to snare the top free agent pitcher of the year.

His first start was awe-inspiring. He threw 8 1/3 innings of five-hit, shutout ball at Coors Field against the Cardinals. On June 10, when he beat the Cardinals again, he was 9-2 with a 2.98 ERA and a National League All-Star for the second time.

From there, it went downhill in a hurry. By the end of July, he had lost six of his previous seven decisions and the ERA had swelled to 4.97. His jaw tightened in post-game interviews. He retreated to formulaic answers, just as Guthrie has, reciting his pitches in a bland monotone the way a golfer recites his shots. This pitch missed, that pitch got too much of the plate. He denied any larger issues. The competitor in him would not allow him to acknowledge them, at least not publicly.

He finished the season with a record of 14-13 and an ERA of 5.41. For a pitcher who had put up ERAs of 2.90 and 3.14 the two previous seasons, it was impossible to accept. He couldn’t have suddenly forgotten how to pitch. It had to be the park. The park or the altitude; either way, this $%&* place!

By his second year, Hampton was such a mess that his road ERA exceeded his Coors Field ERA, which is not the case for Guthrie. At sea level, Guthrie has been the guy the Rocks traded for — actually a little better than the guy they traded for — pitching to an ERA of 3.67. True, he’s only 2-4, but he’s used to pitching pretty well and losing; it happened all the time with the Orioles.

But in Colorado he’s now 1-5 with an ERA of 9.23. In body language and impassive post-game postmortems, he seems to be all but shouting, Get me outta here!

For Hampton, the splits didn’t matter as much as the general deterioration. The harder he gripped the ball, the more he tried to force it to do what he wanted, the less it did. Again, this was pre-humidor, when many pitchers attributed the absence of break in their pitches to the feel of the baseball, which they said was slick as a billiard ball.

Relatively successful hurlers at Coors — the few, the proud — adjust to the reduced movement of their pitches in the less-dense air at altitude, and then adjust back when they go to sea level. By the end of his second and final season with the Rockies — he went 7-15 with a 6.15 ERA — Hampton wanted nothing but to follow Bob Seger’s advice and get out of Denver. The Rocks obliged, but the financial burden of his fully guaranteed contract — and those they took on in exchange for it — haunted them for years.

The original Coors Field casualty was Greg Harris, a breaking ball specialist, and he didn’t even pitch at Coors Field. The Rocks were playing at Mile High Stadium during their inaugural season when they traded for two Padres starters — Harris and Bruce Hurst. Harris had burst on the scene as a reliever in his early years in San Diego, his out pitch a devastating 12-to-6 curve ball.

The Padres converted him into a starter in 1991. He was 10-9 with a 3.67 ERA when the Rocks traded for him on July 26, 1993. After his arrival, he went 1-8 with a 6.50 ERA. His curve no longer broke; it just spun up to the plate with a little sign on it that said, “Hit me!”

The following season, 1994, he went 3-12 with a 6.55 ERA. When the season was over, the Rocks released him. He was 30 and he was done. The Twins gave him a shot the following year. He went 0-5, 8.82 and called it a career.

Another Coors Field casualty was not a pitcher at all. Manager Jim Leyland quit on the Rocks in 1999, walking away from the final two years of his contract. The club lost 90 games that year and Leyland decided he couldn’t manage in a place where he didn’t recognize the game.

We now add Guthrie to the list. Jason Hammel, the starter for whom he was traded, is 8-6 for the Orioles with a 3.54 ERA. Indignant fans want general manager Dan O’Dowd fired for making such a terrible trade. Of course, Hammel was 7-13 with a 4.76 ERA last season for Colorado. If you don’t think altitude has a lot to do with both Hammel’s sudden improvement and Guthrie’s sudden deterioration, you haven’t been tracking this thing as long as the Rockies have.

For most of the past 20 years, Rocks management has declined to discuss the challenges of pitching at altitude in any detail. Acknowledge it, they figure, and you’ve given your pitchers a built-in excuse if they perform poorly. This year, they have acknowledged it in perhaps the most explicit way yet, switching to a four-man starting rotation with a limited pitch count.

O’Dowd admitted to season-ticket holders that the organization still hasn’t solved the riddle of pitching here. He also told them that starters who pitch a normal workload for three years at altitude tend to suffer debilitating injuries. The limited pitch count is an effort to prevent their pitchers from destroying themselves.

On the bright side, pitching successfully here is not impossible. In the next post on this blog, a conversation with someone who’s done it.


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.