Raise the Rockies' OBP: The Common Sense Series I

Doug Pensinger

SBN Designated Columnist Cee Angi returns to Purple Row with a three-part series on team-building that argues that not only should the Rockies learn to love the Coors Field effect, they should go even further in trying to exploit it.

After a disappointing season, the hot stove brings out the worst in all of us, providing an excuse for reactionary game plans to come flooding out of mother's basements everywhere. When a team fails, often our first instinct is to throw money at the problem, but it's naïve to think that free agent signings can easily solve any team's deficiencies and delusional to believe that there is a new market inefficiency just waiting for a team to exploit to gain an advantage.

Still, the hype is consuming, and with nothing else to cling to, it's easy to buy into the baseball fables of mentally tough closers and undiscovered sluggers that can hit 40-homers waiting to save rosters. The Rockies -- or any ball club, but the Rockies in particular -- shouldn't be on the quest for magic beans, nor supernatural managers, nor should they buy pills from late-night infomercials that promise to make their players run faster: common sense solutions can fix the Rockies and that's where the focus should be.

In an interview on MLB Network Radio immediately after his hiring as Rockies manager was announced, Walt Weiss said, "I'm going to try to win games ... I'm going to try to create an environment where guys respect each other and trust each other and care for each other and all those things that need to be in place to be a part of something special." It's a touching sound bite, but feeling special doesn't win championships: Fixing the fundamentals does.

The next three articles you'll see from me on this site, all of which will appear this week, I've dubbed the Common Sense series. There are three main ways for the Rockies to improve in preparation for next season, and while these pillars may seem obvious, they aren't necessarily easy to implement (Warning, Spoiler Alert) In part one the focus is on patience and on-base percentage. Part two is about taking best advantage of park effects for pitchers and hitters. In the final article, I'll look at defense.

The Common Sense Series Part One: Raising the Rockies' On-Base Percentage

Listen, I realize how obvious "Raising a team's on-base percentage will help it win more games!" sounds, but it's surprising how many teams haven't tried it-like the Cubs. Ever. The Rockies have finished in the National League's top three in OBP in 14 of their 20 seasons, but a good deal of that is an illusion created by Coors Field. For example, this year they finished second in the National League with an OBP of .330. However, that broke down to .367 at home and .291 on the road.

It's more useful to look at walks. As a team, the Rockies have led the NL in walks once and finished second on three other occasions, and -- no surprise -- those years corresponded with their best seasons. But even though it seems like I'm beating a dead horse*, it has never been a priority for the organization.

*This would make a good joke: "What do a dead horse and the Colorado Rockies have in common? Neither of them can walk."

In their inaugural season of 1993, the Rockies drew fewer than 400 walks, a feat that only 30 postwar teams have accomplished in a non-strike season. While it's tough to criticize a first-year expansion team, in some ways that set the tone for the years that have followed. As the teams around them have grown more patient (this century, the most patient teams have walked between 650-775 times per season; the 2000 Giants led NL teams with 709 walks, while the average team has walked 539 times), the Rockies have often struggled to keep up. Out of 20 seasons of franchise history, a fifth of them yielded 600-plus walk seasons: 2000, 2003, 2007, and 2009, a slightly above-average rate. As I'm sure you recognized immediately, two of those seasons, 2007 and 2009, were the only playoff appearances for the team since 1995. However, they have also finished tenth or lower eight times.

Walks are one of the few things that can't be blamed or credited to the environment in Denver; the strike zone is the same there as it is at sea level. The lack of walks is, not surprisingly, generated by packing lineups with impatient hitters. On an individual level, only three Rockies players have walked 90 or more times in a season: Todd Helton, Larry Walker, and now manager Walt Weiss. While Walker and Weiss had just one season each of 90-plus walks, Helton has been the ball-four king with seven seasons of more than 90 walks, good for an average of 99 walks per season. For every patient season Helton has had, though, there have been twice as many guys batting around him swinging at every pitch like they'd just put a quarter in a batting cage.

This season, the Rockies walked just 450 times-their first sub-500-walk season in 10 years. With a lineup full of impatient young hitters like Tyler Colvin, Jordan Pacheco, Josh Rutledge, and Wilin Rosario in the lineup nightly, the departure of Chris Iannetta and the absence of Troy Tulowitzki, and Helton were keenly felt. The hopeful news is that since the Rockies are a relatively young team (average age was 28 this season) there is a chance that some of these players will develop better plate discipline with more plate appearances. There's also a chance they all turn into Neifi Perez*.

*You didn't think I'd write this whole section about walks without mentioning Perez, did you? In 1998 and 2000, both seasons in which Perez played 162 games for the Rockies, he walked just 38 and 30 times respectively. He averaged just 27 walks per season over his career. The likelihood of all of those young hitters turning into Perez is pretty unlikely, but worthy of mention nonetheless. Consider: Perez's career walk rate was 4.2 percent. This year, Rutledge's was 3.1, Pacheco's 4.4, Colvin's 4.7, and Rosario's 5.9. The NL average was 8.0.

Another part of the OBP problem is that the Rockies' offense is a lot of smoke and mirrors: Some of the more basic metrics make they seem much better than they really are because they don't take park factors into account. As mentioned earlier, for most teams, being second in OBP and first in OPS, as the Rockies were this season, would be fantastic, but in this instance it's just a figment your not-adjusting-for-park-factors-imagination. When park factors are taken into account, the Rockies are exposed as having limp bats -- OPS+ ranks them 10th in the National League this season. Their consistently miserable performance by adjusted offensive statistics such as True Average (.256 in 2012, .252 in 2011, and .257 in 2010) has been masked by a false sense of offensive juggernautness.

Again, this is a well-established problem, but because it's hard to rationalize the extreme dichotomy of hitters that we think we know are good with their road performances, there has been, I think, a tendency to take the splits with a grain of salt. The cognitive dissonance induced by the home-road splits is only magnified whenever a player you are certain is just a product of Coors changes teams and continues to play well. Nonetheless, the split is real and damaging, and it constitutes a problem that isn't just reflected in scoring but often in thinking: putting too much faith in the hitting has sometimes caused the organization to overstate the problems of pitching at altitude (as we will see in the next installment, that problem has been "solved" on a few occasions), leading to tinkering with the rotation and the bullpen rather than making needed offensive improvements.

The Rockies have demonstrated the value of OBP in previous seasons, especially in 2007 and 2009 when they ranked second and first, respectively, in the NL in walks drawn (in the latter season, the Rockies as a team walked in nearly 11 percent of their plate appearances). Fixing the OBP problem won't be easy, especially since the Rockies aren't likely to be major players in the free agent or trade market this offseason unless they decide to do something to upgrade the right side of the infield. Even if the Rockies want to look outside of the organization for upgrades, there aren't a lot of truly patient hitters available this offseason. It would be very nice if we could say that all the Rockies need to do is sign Rickey Henderson and Wade Boggs, but they're gone and haven't been replaced-the best the free agent market can offer in the way of parallels is Michael Bourn and Kevin Youkilis.

That leaves improving team patience to be an inside job. which could be feasible, especially with malleable young players. A few of the team's top prospects, Trevor Story and Kyle Parker among them, may help to mitigate this problem, but probably won't begin to do so for another year or two. As the Rockies' best hope is to focus on incrementally improving the young guys to make up for that absence, it's important to recognize that the difference in pitches per plate appearance (P/PA) between patient teams and impatient ones isn't that great. For example, the 2000 Mariners, the team that drew the most total walks in this century, saw 3.97 P/PA as a team. The 2002 Tigers, who had the least total walks, saw 3.61. It's such a tiny difference, but even small changes can have a big impact.

Those changes can take place in one season, although a slow improvement of the walk rate over a period of years is more common. For example, from 2004 to 2005, the Diamondbacks jumped from 441 walks to 606, improving by 26 games in the process (although they sort of had to improve -- the 2004 D'backs rank among the worst teams of all time). In adding Troy Glaus, Craig Counsell, and Shawn Green, they infused the lineup with players who, though not noted for extreme patience, were willing to take a walk when it was offered. These changes allowed the D'backs to jump from 16th in the league to eighth. From 2001 and 2002, the Florida Marlins improved their total walks by 21 percent without dramatically changing their roster; they did, however, change hitting coaches, switching from Jack Maloof to Bill Robinson.

Sometimes adding one patient hitter may be all it takes. The Angels under Mike Scioscia and hitting coach Mickey Hatcher (let go in May after having served since 2000) have always been a club that swung away rather than worked counts. When they signed Bobby Abreu as a free agent in 2009, they knew they were getting a patient hitter (he's averaged 100 walks per season in his 17 year career), but what they didn't know was that his approach would rub off on the rest of the lineup. With players crediting Abreu's example, the Angels moved up to seventh in the American League in walks, ending a streak of eight consecutive seasons below league average.

At Coors Field, the advantages work both ways, and an opponent might hit just as many home runs, if not more than, the Rockies on any given night. The only way to gain an advantage is to have more runners on base when the ball goes yard. The best strategy would be for the Rockies to add another patient hitter or two to the lineup, while hoping that some of these young players can learn discipline. If it's something that can be taught, Weiss will certainly be a good at that.

Cee Angi is one of SBN's Designated Columnists, one of the minds behind the Platoon Advantage, and the author of Baseball-Prose. Follow her at @CeeAngi.

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