WAR Lords of the Diamond (Left Field)

 

Previous Sessions in the WAR Lords Series:

C (with methodology) I 1B I 2B I 3B I SS

For the next step in my ongoing quest to quantify the greatest Rockies ever by position, I'm revealing the best performers at the left field position.

Once again, I'm using Sean Smith's historical WAR database to compile these numbers (with a big assist to the fabulous Baseball Reference; here is the glossary of the terms Smith uses and an explanation of how WAR is calculated.

Left Field, according to Tom Tango's positional adjustment scale, is given a rank of -7.5, meaning that left field is an easier position to play defensively relative to short stop or center field. The main responsibility of left fielders is not only to catch fly balls but also to deny baserunners advancing to an extra base. Therefore, arm strength and accuracy are desired traits of left fielders.

However, since left field in a ball park is usually the area that requires the shortest throws (and the smallest area to cover) of all the outfield positions, arm strength, accuracy, and range (speed, often) is usually placed on the back burner and offense (particularly power) is emphasized in the major leagues. That is why we get players like Manny Ramirez, old Barry Bonds, Ryan Braun, and Adam Dunn at the left field position.

Of course, there are several excellent defensive left-fielders (Carl Crawford comes to mind) today, and with an increased emphasis on improved defense we might see some better fielders slotted into left.

As for the Rockies, their top five players in games played at left field comprise the top five slots in the rankings...though not completely in order. This is the most productive positional group for the Rockies since the Todd Helton show at first base.

Left Fielders

Note: most if not all of these players played multiple outfield positions with the Rockies. I have placed these players in this category subjectively on the basis of where I believe they provided the greatest impact to the Rockies. In case of an average rank tie, career WAR is the tiebreaker.

1. Matt Holliday

Career WAR: 16.9 (1st)
Top Three Seasons: 15.9, 2006-2008 (1st)
Top Season: 7.3, 2007 (2nd)
Average Rank: 1.33

Big Daddy is atop this list, and for good reason. His 2007 season, in which he batted .340/.405/.607 with 36 HRs and 137 RBIs (winning the batting title and the RBI crown) with a .428 wOBA while providing excellent left field defense (TZ of 14) and 7.3 WAR, ranks as the second best season in Rockies history from a left fielder (more on that later). His fine 2006 (.326/.387/.586/.409, 34 HRs, 114 RBI, 3.8 WAR) and 2008 (.321/.409/.538/.418, 25 HRs, 88 RBI, 4.8 WAR) campaigns solidified Holliday as the cream of the crop in left field.

Holliday was acquired in the seventh round of the 1998 draft out of Stillwater High School in Oklahoma (where he also excelled as a quarterback) and well, you all know how he left--as a trade asset, Holliday kept giving to the Rockies, netting Carlos Gonzalez and Huston Street, key components for the contending 2009 Rockies and hopefully beyond.

2.Ellis Burks

Career WAR: 10.8 (2nd)
Top Three Seasons: 10, 1996-1998 (2nd)
Top Season: 7.6, 1996 (1st)
Average Rank: 1.67

The reason that Burks is rated as a left fielder and not in center field (where he played more games) is that in his career season (1996) he played mostly in left field. That and the next best guy in these rankings would be Butch Huskey with 0.8. Burks was acquired by the Rockies through free agency on a five year, $18.6 million contract after the 1993 season after six excellent, though injury-plagued seasons (the first five with Boston). The injury bug continued to bite Burks during the 1994 campaign, limiting Ellis to 42 games played, and the rest of his Colorado tenure (though he played in over 100 games in his subsequent four seasons with the team).

Burks qualifies in my mind as a charter member of the Blake Street Bombers, bashing over 30 home runs in both 1996 and 1997, his healthiest years with the team. His 1996 season in particular was the greatest ever by a Rockies left-fielder. Burks put up an insane batting line of .344/.408/.639 with 40 HRs (93 XBH), 128 RBI, 32 SB, and an astounding .449 wOBA. Add in his stellar defense (TZ of 12) and Burks produced 7.6 WAR in 1996. Burks was elected to the All-Star game (one of two such selections in his career), won the Silver Slugger, and finished third in MVP voting.

Burks was traded at the 1998 trade deadline to the San Francisco for Daryl Hamilton and Jim Stoops. Ellis produced very well for the Giants and later the Indians (17.1 WAR after leaving Colorado) before retiring in 2004 with the Red Sox and getting a World Series ring.

Burks' career with the Rockies remains a little disappointing--if only the outfielder had been healthy, he could have surpassed even Holliday's accomplishments with the team.

3. Jay Payton

Career WAR: 3.8 (3rd)
Top Three Seasons: 3.8, 2002-2003 (3rd)
Top Season: 2.4, 2002 (4th)
Average Rank: 3.33

Jay Payton was only a Rockie for a short while--he was acquired at the 2002 deadline with Mark Corey and Robert Stratton from the Mets in exchange for John Thomson and Mark Little and stayed through the 2003 season--but he was very productive for the Rockies, enjoying the best years of his career in Colorado.

In particular, Payton played extremely well in August and September of 2002, posting a .335/.376/.606/.413 line over 181 PA--which combined with his solid defense came out to a WAR contribution of 2.4 for two months of work. Payton followed that up with a very solid 2003, in which he batted .302/.354/.512/.369 with 28 HRs and 89 RBI, after which time the Rockies granted Payton free agency.

4a. Todd Hollandsworth

Career WAR: 3.5 (4th)
Top Three Seasons: 3.5, 2000-2002 (4th)
Top Season: 1.3, 2000 (5th)
Average Rank: 4.33

The 1996 Rookie of the Year winner, Todd Hollandsworth was traded to the Rockies at the 2000 trade deadline with a couple of prospects for Tom Goodwin and cash. Like Payton, the other Todd did well in his first two months with the team, batting .323/.365/.569/.396.

Hollandsworth only played 33 games in 2001 and after an average half season in 2002 he was traded at the 2002 trade deadline, when he was traded with Dennys Reyes to the Rangers for Gabe Kapler, Jason Romano, and cash.

Did you know? Hollandsworth is current Rockies reliever Matt Herges' brother-in-law.

4b. Dante Bichette

Career WAR: 1.8 (5th)
Top Three Seasons: 3.3, 1993-1995 (5th)
Top Season: 2.7, 1993 (3rd)
Average Rank: 4.33

Bichette was acquired in the 1993 expansion draft from the Milwaukee Brewers and was the Rockies' starting left (or right) fielder until after the 1999 season, when he was traded to the Reds with cash for Stan Belinda and Jeffrey Hammonds.

In the mind of many Rockies fans, Alphonse Dante Bichette is the greatest ever Colorado left-fielder, or at least on par with Matt Holliday. Theoldgrizzlybear profiled Bichette in an edition of Rockies Retro. His 14th inning walk-off home run to christen Coors Field in 1995 is an integral piece of Rockies lore. Dante rocked a mullet and wore a "Bichette Happens" T-Shirt--what more was there to love? Heck, Bichette was a charter member of the Blake Street Bombers, belting over 20 HRs in each of his seven years with the team. 

Then why is he ranked so low according to WAR? Bichette's 1.8 WAR with the Rockies would be about league average over one season, but it is horrible production over seven full campaigns. Dante is an excellent case study on where the advanced stats and the traditional baseball stats severely diverge.

Take Bichette's final season with the Rockies, 1999. Dante hit .298/.354/.541/.376 with 34 HRs and 133 RBI, yet the net result was a WAR of -2.8, by far the worst season that I've measure for any Rockies player. A lot of this has to do with Bichette's historically awful defense (TZ of -32!) and poor baserunning (-6 RAA), but not all. After all, Bichette finished with -1 batting runs above average--in other words, his production was below league average at the plate as well. From Sean Smith's glossary:

Bat runs - This is park adjusted linear weights batting runs, using customized weights at the team level to ensure that total runs credited to players will equal the actual runs scored for that team.

In other words, Bichette was the ultimate Coors Field creation, his gaudy numbers almost entirely the product of one of the greatest hitting environments in ML history. Bichette's best year outside of Colorado was 0.5 WAR. Actually, due to the park factor built into the WAR calculation, Bichette's best season was his first with the Rockies in 1993, in which his line of .310/.348/.526/.377 with 21 HRs and 89 RBI (plus average defense) at Mile High Stadium was worth 2.7 WAR.

Bichette's excellent first season was cancelled out by his awful last season. In other seasons with the Rockies he never had more than 0.7 WAR. Rockies fans, I'm sorry for soiling your good memories of Dante Bichette, but it needed to be said--he just wasn't that good.

Other Rockies left-fielders that posted positive WAR for the club are Butch Huskey (0.8), Jerald Clark (0.7), Ron Gant (0.5), and Seth Smith (0.4).

Now that I've ruined your positive perception of Dante Bichette, I'll be moving on to center fielders next week.

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