Mike Hampton Retires - A Decade Later, How Do We Feel?

SCOTTSDALE AZ - FEBRUARY 21: Mike Hampton #21 of the Arizona Diamondbacks poses for a portrait at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick on February 21 2011 in Scottsdale Arizona. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Have you felt the urge to vomit in your mouth this morning with no verifiable cause? Before you call your doctor - wait it's Saturday....before you call your brother-in-law's babysitter who is a nurse - I can probably pinpoint the cause for you. This morning, possibly the two most profane words known to Rockies fans has been blowing up across the interwebs today.  Those words? "Mike Hampton."  You probably felt ill through electronic osmosis or something. 

The scourge of the franchise was attempting to make the Arizona Diamondbacks baseball club as a bullpen arm, and he was failing miserably. In just 9 2/3 spring innings, Hampton had allowed 12 runs on 18 hits and 11 walks. Unable to find a relief job for a team that had by far the worst bullpen in 2010, Hampton elected to officially retire today at the age of 38, sixteen years after his career started.

One decade, three months and seven days ago, Dan O'Dowd took the route currently taken by the Washington Nationals to build a team - he overpaid for a quality player in free agency. Mike Hampton was coming of 22-4 (2.90) and 15-10 (3.14) seasons, and his stuff was thought to play as well as possible in Coors Field. O'Dowd then made Hampton the highest paid pitcher in Major League Baseball history with a 8-year, $121mil contract.

A decade later, that contract is considered ""one of the biggest free agent blunders in baseball history," as DJ Short puts it. 

Mike Hampton was supposed to be the ace of the Rockies staff. The guy that proved it was possible to pitch in Coors Field, to remove the Darryl Kile stigma and bring more free agents to Colorado. It was seen as the only blueprint for success in an environment that no pitcher dared venture - it had to be proven wrong, and it had to be proven wrong with the best.

It started off perfectly to script. The lefty twirled 8.1 shutout innings against the Cardinals on Opening Day in his first start at Coors Field. Six starts later, he tossed a complete game shutout. By the All-Star break, he was 9-5 with a fantastic 4.02 ERA. As we know, it didn't last.

Hampton stumbled to a 5-8 record in the second half with a 7.46 ERA and wasn't any better in 2002: 7-15, 6.15.

It appeared to many that Hampton shrunk under the challenge of Coors Field. His home run rate went up. His walk rate went up. His strikeout rate went down. His hit rate went up. He just was not pitching the same as he had before.

That prompted Dan O'Dowd to pull the plug. Hampton and his contract had to go, and O'Dowd pulled off a very underrated move, now overshadowed by the Carlos Gonzalez trade. O'Dowd shipped Hampton with Juan Pierre to Florida for Preston Wilson (who was an All-Star for Colorado the following season), Charles Johnson, Vic Darensbourg and Pablo Ozuna. Two days later, Florida flipped him to Atlanta for Tim Spooneybarger and Ryan Baker.

The real genius in the deal wasn't Johnson or Wilson. It was the salary relief from that contract. It is strangely unknown to me how relatively little the Rockies actually ended up paying Hampton:

Team Money paid Years paid
Colorado $49 mil 2001-2005, 2009
Florida $23.5 mil 2003-2005
Atlanta $48.5 mil 2003-2008

In fact, the Rockies only shelled out $12.5million to Hampton when he was not in a Rockies uniform. The wizardry of that move astounds me.

After leaving Colorado, Hampton returned most of the way back to his Colorado form, but he dealt with chronic injuries that killed his value.  In the last six seasons, Hampton had appeared in just 56 games.

Wins Losses ERA
Before Colorado 85 53 3.44
With Colorado 21 28 5.75
After Colorado 42 34 4.284

Due in large part to the injuries, it is almost as if the Braves' fans should be the ones most upset about Mike Hampton.  Considering how much Atlanta shelled out for Hampton, he actually provided better value per season to Colorado than to Atlanta:

Tenure Team fWAR total fWAR avg
1993       Mariners -0.4 -0.4
1994-1999 Astros 15.4 2.6
2000         Mets 4.4 4.4
2001-2002 Rockies 4.2 2.1
2003-2008 Braves 6.5 1.1
2009         Astros 0.8 0.8
2010       Diamondbacks 0.1 0.1

***

Should we hate Mike Hampton? Most Rockies fans would immediately say yes. He took our money, flushed it and killed our reputation. Right? I don't think so. He may have not been up to the challenge of Coors Field, but he didn't intentionally hurt the franchise.

"It's unfortunate," Hampton said. "I've thought about it quite a bit. Shoot, when I sign a big contract, I want to be overpaid, not underpaid. Even though I wasn't as successful as I would have liked to have been, it wasn't from a lack of trying or lack of work or lack of want. I did everything in my power to be on the field and help my team win a World Series. I can look in the mirror and face the guy looking back and know he's telling the truth." 

- Mark Bowman, MLB.com

He may have been overpaid. But Mike Hampton was a very good thing for the Rockies' franchise. Just as it is good for us all to be treated poorly in a high school relationship to learn to stand up for ourselves, the Rockies needed to learn that Werthian methods of building a franchise don't work. The magnitude and rapidity of Hampton's spectacular collapse drove that message home and completely changed the course of this franchise.

I am glad Mike Hampton fell hard when he fell. A Barry Zito situation, who is still a decent pitcher, might not have changed the philosophies in the front office as strongly. Post-Hampton, the Rockies focused on building from within, and that philosophy has made the Rockies one of the most competitive teams in baseball, and easily one of the best-run middle-market teams.

Sometimes the worst events provide the best lessons; it is for that reason that I am appreciative of Mike Hampton. Have a happy retirement Mike. Take care of that elbow, and maybe you'll get to play catch with your grandkids one day and tell them about pitching against the Yankees in the 2000 World Series.

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