Auditing the 2010 Colorado Rockies: Second Base

Despite their respectable conventional stats (3rd in the NL in runs, T-2nd in average), the dirty secret of 2010 is that the Colorado Rockies' offense just wasn't very good this year. This is especially true when you look at everyone not named Carlos Gonzalez and Troy Tulowitzki. While CarGo (42.1 weighted runs above average) and Tulo (31.9 wRAA) were studs, the next best offensive player on the Rockies in 2010 was either fifth outfielder Ryan Spilborghs (5.0 wRAA) or utility infielder Melvin Mora (3.1 wRAA). As I wrote two weeks ago, that's not the formula for a playoff team, no matter how good your top two hitters are.

In fact, the position players outside of CarGo and Tulo were 25.9 runs below average (with pitchers included, they were -80.7 wRAA). Even with CarGo and Tulo, the offense was still below average (-6.7 wRAA). In other words, the 2010 Rockies were a two man show on offense. If those two weren't hitting well, by and large the team wasn't winning. To refresh your memory, wRAA is the counting stat batting component of WAR. I explain how it is calculated here

Who was the biggest single culprit for this offensive ineptitude? Anyone who played second base, really. More so even than the Rockies' woeful contributions from first base, Colorado's second sackers dragged the whole team down offensively. When compared to all other MLB second basemen, Colorado's 2B were 23% worse than average (77 sOPS+). The three worst position players in terms of wRAA for the Rockies in 2010 all played the majority of their time at second (Jonathan Herrera -4.7, Eric Young Jr -7.9, Clint Barmes -17.1 -- worst of any Colorado player).

So with that ugly truth in mind, it's time to audit Colorado's second basemen. For those of you who missed it, here is the premise and methodology of this series.

Second Base

Expectations

Second base has long been a problem spot for the Rockies. As such, going into 2010 Rockies fans were not expecting that much from de facto starter Clint Barmes. Barmes had come back from the dead to return to roughly league average status in 2008 (1.9 WAR) and had followed that performance up with a very streaky 2009 that ended up around where 2008 left off (1.7 WAR). Last year Barmes stroked 23 homers and played very good defense (8.7 UZR), so we were somewhat willing to overlook the fact that he was pretty terrible offensively (-14.8 wRAA, .312 wOBA, 80 wRC+).

However, there were certainly calls for Barmes to be replaced by a better player (Orlando Hudson or Kelly Johnson anyone?) and there was plenty of concern when the Rockies' front office talked about a multi-year contract for Barmes during the offseason. After talks broke down, Barmes settled for a one year $3.35 million contract to avoid his second year of arbitration.

Most fans were probably hoping for Barmes' power surge and great defense to continue, but they probably knew that he was due for some offensive regression.

As for other players, Melvin Mora was brought in to back up Barmes at 2nd and 3rd base. Expectations were low for the 38 year-old reserve, though he had proven to be a valuable player in the past. Since Mora didn't actually play much at second this year, I'll only touch briefly on him today.

Meanwhile, Eric Young Jr. had shown off his speed in a September callup in 2009 and was expected to play a role off the bench when he was called up. Jonathan Herrera was completely off the radar, as well he should have been given his pathetic 39 wRC+ in 66 PAs in 2008. Chris Nelson was a former first round pick coming off an injury-shortened 2009 and was trying to prove himself in his first season at AAA Colorado Springs.

Results

Well, let's just say that it was a tough year for Clint Barmes. Barmes not only had to deal with the tough mental burden of an ailing father, he also wasn't hitting the baseball well. Barmes started off with a sOPS+ of 66 in Mar/Apr and 68 in May. He did rebound with a 134 sOPS+ June in which he hit .313/.371/.488 (good for a .358 wOBA and 117 wRC+), but that was his only above average month at the plate.

Barmes tapered off to a still respectable 94 sOPS+ in July, but then fell off a cliff in August with a sOPS+ of 1 (yes, one). At that point, Jim Tracy had seen enough and replaced Barmes with Young full-time. In limited playing time as the season wound down, Barmes performed respectably in a reserve role. His first half sOPS+ was 96 and his second half sOPS+ was 44. Barmes was equally poor at home (83 sOPS+) and on the road (81), but he did hit lefties relatively well (102) though he really struggled against righthanders (73). In all, Barmes was worth 0.4 WAR due almost entirely to his positive defensive value as a middle infielder.

While Barmes was struggling in the early going, first Mora and then Young were called upon to play key roles. Each of them failed: Mora had a 91 sOPS+ at the position with bad defense at 2B, while EY2 put up a 91 sOPS+ in a limited sample before suffering a broken leg that kept him out for three months. Once EY2 was given the job full-time after his return from injury, he was much worse than in the first half, posting a meager second half sOPS+ of 62 over 152 PAs.

As a second baseman on the year, EY2's 60 sOPS+ was worse than Barmes' 72, while he also provided negative defensive value (-2.3 UZR) in admittedly small sample. As bad as he was at home (82 sOPS+), Young was flat out awful on the road (39 sOPS+), and the switch-hitter was bad against both lefties (52) and righties (68). Yes, he stole 17 bases, but he was pretty awful at getting on base (.312 OBP out of the leadoff spot). In all, Young finished with a woeful .244/.312/.285 line in 189 PAs (.281 wOBA, 65 wRC+). Yikes.

With all of this failure all around and the injury to Troy Tulowitzki in June, the man brought in as an injury replacement, Jonathan Herrera, performed better than any other Rockies second baseman this year. The most interesting part apart Herrera's year was that he got the most amount of credit for what he did when Tulowitzki was out, but it was during that time that he played his worst (or as I like to call it, probably where he'll end up if given the job for a full year in 2011).

During June, Herrera hit .279/.297/.292, which ends up a pretty bad .248 wOBA, 45 wRC+, and a 63 sOPS+. In other words, basically what he did in his 2008 call-up. Given consistent playing time despite this poor start (and lots of seeing eye singles), Herrera improved to a 98 sOPS+ in July (.323 wOBA, 93 wRC+) and even hit a home run. After Tulowitzki returned, Herrera was sent back to the minors for most of August but returned late in the month in a savvy move by Dan O'Dowd that preserved the last of Herrera's minor league options (less than 20 days were spent in the minors after Herrera had been placed on the 40 man roster). After that, he incredibly became an average offensive player (.329 wOBA, 97 wRC+, 106 sOPS+ in 65 Sept/Oct PAs).

To be honest, the fact that Herrera contributed a 93 sOPS+ and 0.7 WAR to the Rockies this year (roughly on pace for a league average 2 WAR over a full season) is one of the things that went miraculously right for Colorado this year. For that, Herrera's career year should be celebrated, even if it was mostly due to his success at Coors (106 sOPS+ at home, 75 on the road). Just don't expect it to happen again.

As for Chris Nelson, we can only wonder how he would have responded if he had been given more playing time at the major league level. His line at AAA (.317/.379/.498, .384 wOBA, 125 wRC+) certainly suggested great offensive potential for the former first round pick. In almost two months with the big club though (potentially costly ML service time), Nelson only saw action in 17 games (most as a pinch-runner), getting only 27 PAs. Yes, he stole home, but what else did Nelson do at the major league level? Nothing much (.280/.308/.320 in that small sample). As a result, Nelson is an unknown commodity at the major league level going into 2011.

 

Analysis

Given his contract status, Barmes is a no-doubt non-tender this offseason, though he could return for much less money in a utility role in 2011. In my opinion, that's always been the role Barmes was best suited to play anyways. If Mora does return, it probably won't be as an option for second base.

Meanwhile, Young, by virtue of playing THE WORST of any of the terrible second baseman for Colorado in 2010, is the early favorite to win the job going into 2011. I have yet to see Young distinguish himself in any way that makes him a decent option in my eyes. Young has one elite skill (his speed) but DOES NOT by any means belong anywhere near the starting job in 2011 and especially not at the leadoff spot in the lineup, not until his hitting improves, anyway.

Hopefully EY2 isn't Willy Taveras 2.0 (after all, he is still young, he did perform fairly well in the minors, and had the excuse of being injured this year), but the numbers he put up this year don't point to him succeeding at the big league level.

Herrera was magic last year, especially near the end of the year, but I have trouble seeing his success as anything but a fluke. Talent-wise, Herrera is a very poor man's Juan Pierre (without the speed but with a better arm), the kind of utility player that is great to have as a 25th man late inning defensive replacement but not great if he's your starting second baseman. There's just no offensive projection there at all. If he does play in 2011 at a rate much greater than the one 25th man Omar Quintanilla played in 2009, Colorado is probably in trouble.

Without a question the player with the highest ceiling of the three primary in-house candidates for the 2011 second base job, Chris Nelson is a man in limbo. The Rockies' brass obviously didn't trust the former shortstop to play over the others this year, perhaps because of his injury history (though by that token they should also be suspicious of EY2) or an over-emphasis on "the little things" provided by Herrera or maybe even because they fell dangerously in love with the pure speed of Young.

Whatever the case, despite his talent and numbers Nelson hasn't had the opportunity at the big league level to succeed the way that both Herrera and Young have. That's why most are placing Nelson third in the pecking order in the fight for the starting job and why they see him returning to AAA to begin 2011. Unfortunately, I think that's what is going to happen.

If EY2 or Herrera is starting at second for Colorado in 2011, we will most likely be settling for a below average offensive player (again) at second base. With Nelson, there's a decent chance that the result could be much closer to acceptable offensively for the position. Or the Rockies could choose to go the free agency route with a player like Orlando Hudson for what will likely be an expensive marginal update.

I say give the keys to Nelson and see what he can do with them. Yes, there is definitely the possibility that he flops, but it could hardly be much worse than the performance of the Rockies' second basemen in 2010.

Next Up...Third Base

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