In the preseason, David Gassko wrote a preview piece for The Hardball Times that struck a raw nerve in me. Unfortunately, I lashed back in an acidly worded reply here, letting the frustrations of the team being ignored by a slew of analysts -not just Gassko- get the best of me. Why should it have mattered to me what these people say? Because I pride myself on not being just a typical blind follower fan-girl, but one who could actually take time to read and understand statistical analysis, and know why it's beneficial and rely on it being right more often than not when it comes to understanding this grand old game. Yet here I was presented with a conundrum. All these people who I would typically trust were coming to the same conclusion that was totally at odds with what I myself was seeing in regards to the maturation of this team. Where they were seeing slow and limited growth, I was seeing significant improvement. While they were seeing the Rockies struggle to even crack .500 in a division of light-heavyweights, I was seeing the Rockies in the same class as the leading contenders, at least worthy to be considered with the others even if they might not ultimately win the title. Had I turned into such a homer that I couldn't even see what was plainly in front of my face? That this team just wasn't what I thought it was? It turns out, no.
Yet I'm not writing this to gloat. To say I was right, you were wrong, nya nya nya. I've been wrong on many things in the past myself -if you read the link and the comments you'll see how much I undervalued Tulo myself in the offseason and I've been patiently expecting the Diamondbacks to flop all year- and I will be wrong many times in the future, but I just want to know why I was mostly right in this particular instance, and how might it help us interpret statistical projections in the future. So I'm going to look at the five original questions asked with this in mind, and we'll just see where it goes.
1. Are the Rockies rebuilding yet again?
Heading into 2007, the Rockies traded away their best pitcher from 2006 in Jason Jennings, and committed to rookies Troy Tulowitzki and Chris Iannetta up the middle, as well as a pretty young center fielder in Willy Taveras -one of the pieces acquired in the Jennings trade with the Astros. Yet despite the appearance of another new plan being brought into place, there were some key aspects to the team already in place that many may have overlooked. The remaining core of the lineup from 2006, though relatively inexperienced outside of Todd Helton in MLB play, was made of several key hitters in the peak 26-28 year old age range. Matt Holliday, Garrett Atkins and Brad Hawpe are all in the primes of their careers. What's more, key bench players like Yorvit Torrealba, Cory Sullivan and Ryan Spillborghs are also in that desirable mid to late twenties age range. This age range increases the odds of a player having a spike in production beyond what might otherwise normally be forecast, but at the same time minimizes the chances of a serious crash or underachievement in their production. Holliday has had a career year, Hawpe and Atkins have been solid contributors, and after slagging off Steve Finley and John Mabry, the old sub-standards the team broke camp with, Spilborghs and Sullivan have come in with significantly positive contributions.
What's more, Torrealba took over as the primary catcher when Chris Iannetta sputtered out of the gate, and although the gains from the catcher's slot have been limited, they haven't been the same counterproductive output we could have expected to negate our stars in seasons past.
2. Are the prospects ready?
Statistical forecasts for batting turned out to underestimate Tulo by quite a bit, while overestimating the impact Iannetta would have for the Rox (I overestimated that by a lot.) At the end of the day, the projected impact on offense from the pair probably balances out, but it's Tulowitzki's defense, that merits particular attention to where the forecasts were off in regards to Colorado's win percentage. Right now, Tulo is pretty much on target to exceed his Hardball Times pre-season 75th percentile projection by a little bit at the plate, which is good enough for seventh in the NL in wins added by shortstops. On defense, however, an argument can be made that he's the best shortstop in the majors (look at THT's Win Shares stat table, for instance) already, and certainly no matter what metric you choose to use, he ranks very highly relative to his peers. This combined with his offense vaults him into the top four among shortstops in the National League overall, although he still has a little ways to go to crack the NL East's trinity of Ramirez, Rollins and Reyes. That the projections would be so far off on his defensive ability show the difficulty and potential glitches of relying too heavily on minor league batted ball data, which still paints an incomplete picture relative to what we get in the majors. Specifically for Tulo's case, however, I think analysts need to look closer at the claims that his defensive value makes him a better ROY candidate than Ryan Braun. At the very least it puts him in the same class of value added, and he should get the deserved accolades for it.
Similarly to Tulo's defense -which had its value hidden by injuries and limited sample sizes- thanks to wholly uninspiring walk rates in his minor league career, rookie pitcher Franklin Morales is in a statistical/scouting nether-region, where the scouting reports don't necessarily jive with the performance record and the statistical projections derived from them, but neither seem to paint a very reliable picture of what is to come. Early in the season, it appeared that Gassko and others were very much correct in writing him off, as Morales' BB rate showed no improvement whatsoever. However, he was asked to compete in the Minor League Futures Game as part of this year's All-Star festivities, and after an inspired inning and a third where he struck out three of four batters he faced, he started to display much more control. So much, in fact, that after injuries ravaged Colorado's rotation in the second half, he was called up to the front lines. Thus far he hasn't been disappointing, posting a 151 ERA+ in seven starts and even collecting three hits to help his own cause (most teams were trying to recruit him as an outfielder out of Venezuela, that Colorado was willing to let him pitch won him over for us.) Last night, Morales punctuated his importance with his biggest game yet, going pitch for pitch with Jake Peavy. Yet even this should be tempered with caution. Despite his improvement, Morales still walks and hits a few too many batters, and seven starts is hardly enough to paint a complete picture. Remember it took several seasons after winning for Jason Jennings to return to his rookie of the year form, let's be careful not to anoint Frankie an unmitigated success too soon.
While he was correct in calling the minimal impact of Ian Stewart, one of my main concerns with Gassko's preview, was that his answer left out much with the final sentence to this segment:
I do have to give some credit, that final "that is the only way they can exceed expectations" phrase foretells exactly what was to happen this season. That said, overlooked and left completely unmentioned in Gassko's rundown were a couple of rookie pitchers that would have an impact on the team this year, one a very big impact. First, while Jason Hirsh's potential contribution was mentioned in one part of the preview, his season ending broken leg injury led to the promotion of a pitcher who wasn't. Ubaldo Jimenez hasn't exactly outperformed expectations, but even meeting them with 13 league average starts has been a tremendous help in keeping our hopes afloat. More importantly, however, when closer Brian Fuentes had a four game meltdown in a disastrous 1-9 road trip at the end of June, the Rockies called on 24 year old Manny Corpas to take his place.
Since taking over on July 2, Corpas has allowed just four runs in thirty-two innings, with only nineteen hits and four walks allowed, and 28 K's. I suspect Gassko wasn't the only one to overlook Manny, even though there were several signs from his 2006 season that he was a much better pitcher than his projections made him out to be. For one, it's pretty rare for players to skip from High A ball to the majors in one season, even if they are a relief arm. Second, his scouting reports from Baseball America and elsewhere were glowing, and his statistics showed a solid pitcher emerging. By clearing the fast path to the majors and slowly mixing him into higher leveraged situations once there, the Rockies seemed to be grooming him to be Fuentes' eventual successor, in fact. Still, for somebody not following the team as closely as die-hard fans do, Corpas' rise to prominence this year was as stealthy as they come. Because the bulk of his growth as a pitcher occurred suddenly in the Venezuelan League over the offseason prior to 2006, he left some middling stats behind from his early minor league career that threw the projections way off. He simply did not have enough time in the minors after this awakening to give the stats a chance to catch up and properly evaluate him. His three year projection from THT had him posting ERA's of 5.45, 5.35 and 5.29. Not exactly the sub 2.00 ERA he's been putting up this year, nor is that close to what we should expect in the next two.
The long answer has been "yes," the prospects are very much ready.
3. How will the humidor affect play in Coors Field?
Thus far, even I've been wrong on this as it's playing almost exactly like it did in 2006. It's becoming clear that the stadium may no longer be the most extreme hitting environment in the league, with Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati and Chase Field in Arizona also in a statistical dead heat for the "honor". The bigger question that Gassko asks is how the Rockies have been affected by their home park when they leave it, as in years past a considerable hangover effect could be expected on the road. Thanks to Baseball Reference's sOPS+ stat, we can find out. Here's how the Rox have fared as a run scoring unit on the road as a team relative to the rest of the majors for the their 14 seasons:
2007 has been much more democratic, with Yorvit Torrealba and Kazuo Matsui being the only regular members of the Rockies lineup to exhibit severely substandard bats on the road, and every other regular posting an sOPS+ of over 95. Yet despite this, the Rockies still have a sub .462 winning percentage away from Coors Field this year. How so? A closer look at run differential shows that bad luck probably plays some part in this, as the team should be .500 away from Coors -outscoring opponents 361-351 this year. Rockies fans in particular look to that 1-9 road trip in June as their downfall, as the normally reliable Fuentes gave up four ninth inning leads. But do these numbers say anything about how forecasters should adjust their Rockies projections for the team away from Coors as well as at home? Frankly, no. Not yet at least. While the combined nine year average road sOPS+ pre-humidor is slightly lower than the five years since, the difference is still too small to be meaningful. The fact is, the Rockies simply have a more consistent lineup in 2007 than they have in the recent past.
4. Are there any bright spots?
Plenty, it turns out, even though it looks like it still might not be quite enough. In addition to the heart of the lineup and Tulowitzki, the Rockies have gotten solid contributions from Willy Taveras in center and Matsui (at least at home) acting as table setters, with each also contributing a great deal on the basepaths and stellar defense. Unfortunately, injuries have limited both to less than 100 games this year. That said, in the case of center field, credit Clint Hurdle for his use of a surprisingly potent platoon duo to replace Taveras in Ryan Spillborghs and Cory Sullivan. No such luck was found at second base, as Jamey Carroll has proven his solid 2006 campaign was indeed a fluke, but at least with sound defense he too is a decent bench player.
Gassko saw correctly that Aaron Cook and Jeff Francis would be the anchors for the rotation, but props also have to be given to Josh Fogg for maximizing some rather uninspiring stuff into a positive, injury free campaign, and the contributions of starters Morales and Jimenez has fans salivating at the prospects of how strong the team can be in years to come. Even the bullpen has gotten steadier with Fuentes and Corpas anchoring a gang of cast-offs that hasn't ruined us yet.
5. How much time does Dan O'Dowd have?
This question was answered way too early in the season to sit right for many Colorado fans and sports columnists, as it was announced that O'Dowd and Hurdle had their contracts extended on Opening Day. While it turns out that O'Dowd need not clean out his office yet, the team still has a couple more steps to take, and getting to the playoffs becomes the next imperative.
Similar to the mid 1990's Cleveland squads that O'Dowd helped construct, it's hard to say how much of a window this Rockies team has before the core becomes unaffordable for the small market ownership and the rebuilding will need to begin anew. Already there are cracks on the horizon as Matt Holliday's banner year and representation by Scott Boras portend a large payout once he hits free agency in 2009 that the Rockies might not be able to afford. Key pitchers Aaron Cook and Brian Fuentes become free agents after the 2008 season, and the question arises of whether the team should deal them now like they did with Jason Jennings, or let them walk for draft pick compensation following the season. While the farm isn't as strong as it was last year, the Rockies do have more starting pitching in the minors ready or almost ready to step in, and a handful of position players still worth following. Trades of major leaguers might need to address some system gaps that are appearing with the last couple of seasons of promotions as well as fill a potential hole at second base with Matsui's pending free agency.
The answers once again lead to more questions, but at least this time they are about making a winning team better, rather than how long a losing team must suffer.