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WAR Lords of the Diamond (Starting Pitchers)

Previous Sessions in the WAR Lords Series:

C (with methodology) I 1B I 2B I 3B I SS I LF I CF I RF I RP

For the next step in my ongoing quest to quantify the greatest Rockies ever by position, I'm revealing the best performers at starting pitcher (through the 2008 season).

Obviously this is not a comprehensive list of all starting pitchers, but all the pitchers who have made a large contribution to the Rockies as starters were weighed, measured, and (often) found wanting. All in all, 54 players were ranked.

Once again, I'm using Sean Smith's historical WAR database (not Fangraphs) 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 pitching WAR is calculated. Note: the calculation that Smith uses is different than the one used in my article, so the numbers at Fangraphs will be slightly different than the ones I present in these articles.

As I explained last week, starting pitchers are MUCH more valuable than relief pitchers when one is measuring WAR, by and large, due to the fact that WAR is a counting stat. Starting pitchers throw more innings and therefore have a greater influence on the game than do relievers, which stands to reason. This is also the reason why a pitcher like Franklin Morales, who could develop into a dominant closer, would be better off just remaining a starter.

Remember, relief pitchers are often failed starting pitchers who are given an easier task that their skillset will allow them to handle. Nearly every starting pitcher in baseball could be a useful relief pitcher. Very few relief pitchers could be useful starting pitchers. Replacement-level starters can be useful relievers; Juan Rincon is neither.

In any case, what both Smith and the fine folks at Fangraphs have shown is that star starting pitchers are just as valuable if not more so than star position players (and their contracts often bear this point out). Even though a dominant starting pitcher will only play once every five games, they have such a huge influence on whether their team wins the game that it mitigates the difference in playing time between the position player and, say, Troy Tulowitzki.

For instance, this season Ubaldo Jimenez (Colorado's top pitcher) has been worth 5.5 WAR while Tulowitzki (the top position player) has accumulated 4.7 WAR. On a macro scale, the Rockies' pitching staff has actually contributed more WAR to the team (23.3, 2nd in MLB) than have the position players (16.5, 17th in MLB).

But I digress.

Like the denizens of the bullpen, a club's starting rotation is often in a constant state of flux due to injuries and inconsistent performance. The fact that the Rockies have only had five pitchers start more than two games this year is quite frankly amazing--the MLB average for this is closer to eight starters. I would say, though, that starting pitching performance is by and large more predictive overall than relief pitching performance due to the larger sample sizes involved in any one year's stats. A reliever can be unduly harmed or helped by luck when used less often--a trend that can see an unpleasant (or pleasant) change the subsequent year.

In order to qualify for consideration for this list the pitchers had to be one of the top five or six starters in innings pitched in a given year or throw over 50 innings for the team in a mostly starting role. It's a relatively deep group, with 14 starting pitchers having delivered at least one league average season (2 WAR) as a starter for the Rockies.

Starting Pitchers

Note: some of these pitchers were both starters and relievers for 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. I'm ranking eight players to reflect the fact that the modern starting rotation generally uses eight pitchers in any given year.

Keep in mind when reading this list that WAR is a counting stat and therefore longevity counts for quite a bit, especially in this category. Also, Smith's numbers seem to be park-adjusted, therefore pre-humidor pitchers are given a nice park-factor boost to their less-than inspiring numbers (small consolation for having to pitch in an offensive haven.

1. Pedro Astacio

Career WAR: 9.9 (2nd)
Top Three Seasons: 9.3, 1999-2001 (1st)
Top Season: 5.3, 1999 (1st)
Average Rank: 1.33

Originally signed out of the Dominican Republic as an 18 year old by the Dodgers, Pedro Astacio came over to the Rockies as a 27 year old before the waiver trade deadline in 1997 in exchange for Eric Young. Needless to say, trading EY was not originally a popular move with fans, but Astacio soon won over Colorado partisans with his sublime pitching even at Coors Field.

Astacio's third season with the Rockies, 1999, was the greatest pitching season in franchise history (though it will soon likely be surpassed by Jimenez this year) with 5.3 WAR. The 29 year-old righty threw 232 innings, managing a 17-11 record and 210 strikeouts (a club record to this day) despite a 5.04 ERA. Considering that Coors Field in 1999 had a Park Factor of 127 (this year = 107), it was pretty tough to succeed using conventional pitching stats. Astacio's 4.56 FIP and 8.15 K/9 (2.91 K/BB) hold up pretty well in such a poor pitching environment.

In any case, Astacio was traded by Colorado to Houston for homegrown pitcher Scott Elarton at the 2001 trading deadline as he approached free agency. Oddly enough, Astacio's performance never was even replacement level for the rest of his career even when pitching in better environs.

TOGB celebrated Astacio in an edition of Rockies Retro.

2a. Aaron Cook

Career WAR: 10.3 (1st)
Top Three Seasons: 7.3, 2006-2008 (2nd)
Top Season: 3.4, 2008 (6th)
Average Rank: 3

You might not have realized it, but Aaron Cook has been pitching for the Rockies since 2002 (and he's signed through 2011 with a mutual option for 2012). His longevity and consistency (he's been over 1 WAR his last five seasons) are what puts the Rockies' 2nd round pick in 1997 near the top of this leaderboard and to the summit of the Rockies' career WAR leaderboard.

Cook's best year was his All-Star season last year, when in the awful beginning of the year he was the only thing keeping the season from becoming a complete disaster. His 16-9 record and 3.96 ERA in 211.1 IP got him on the All-Star team and his 3.76 FIP garnered him 3.4 WAR. His 4.37 career ERA is tops in Rockies history.

Going forward, Cook is a solid middle rotation starter that is locked into the Rockies for a couple of more years. He is already the longest-tenured Rockies starter, and could be one of the few players in today's game to pitch a long career with one club.

2b. Jason Jennings

Career WAR: 9.1 (3rd)
Top Three Seasons: 6.6, 2004-2006 (3rd)
Top Season: 4.2, 2006 (3rd)
Average Rank: 3

Talk about selling an asset high. Jason Jennings, the jewel of the Rockies' player development system, Rookie of the Year in 2002, coming off of his best season, was traded to the Houston Astros after the 2006 season (and before his third year of arbitration) for Willy Taveras, Taylor Buchholz, and Jason Hirsh. Dan O'Dowd was lambasted for this trade by most, yet in hindsight this move looks like an absolute steal.

Why? Because Jennings fell off a cliff once leaving the Rockies, sustaining arm injuries and pitching poorly enough that he's now the Rangers' mop-up man. Despite the hard times that have befallen JJ, let us remember his glory.

The 16th overall pick of the 1999 draft out of Baylor, JJ rocketed through the Rockies' system and made his big league debut in 2001, going 4-1 and having a rather memorable debut, pitching a five pitch shutout and hitting a home run. Jennings only got better in 2002, going 16-8 and winning the ROY. However, it was JJ's 2006 that cemented his status as a front line pitcher (or so thought poor Ed Wade).

In 2006 Jennings compiled a 9-13 record but had a 3.78 ERA (4.09 FIP) with 206 Ks (1.67 K/BB) in 212 IP, good enough for 4.2 WAR. And then O'Dowd sold high. What a move that was. His WAR since 2006: -1.1, -0.8. While I appreciate what JJ did for the Rockies, I'm glad O'Dowd let go when he did.

4. Kevin Ritz

Career WAR: 6.6 (6th)
Top Three Seasons: 6.5, 1995-1997 (4th)
Top Season: 3.9, 1995 (5th)
Average Rank: 5

Kevin Ritz, a 4th round pick of Detroit in 1985, was picked as the 46th pick of the 1992 expansion draft by the Rockies. Ritz was a rotation regular by 1994 and had a nice two season stretch in 1995 and 1996. Ritz went 11-11 with a 4.21 ERA (4.15 FIP) with 120 Ks (1.85 K/BB) in 173.1 IP for the Wild Card-winning Rockies in 1995 (3.9 WAR). He followed it up with a 2 WAR 1996, going 17-11.

Ritz's career ended when he was released by the Rockies during the 1998 season after he was unable to overcome arm injuries.

TOGB wrote a nice profile on Ritz in Rockies Retro.

5. Armando Reynoso

Career WAR: 7.6 (4th)
Top Three Seasons: 5.0, 1993-1995 (6th)
Top Season: 3.1, 1993 (8th)
Average Rank: 6

Armando Reynoso, originally purchased by the Braves from his Mexican professional team, was selected by the Rockies with the 58th pick in the expansion draft. Reynoso quickly became Colorado's best pitcher, posting a 3.1 WAR in the team's inaugural season. However, his career was quickly detoured by chronic arm injuries, otherwise he'd be higher on this list. The righty, who possessed an awesome pick-off move, did manage to put up 1.1 and 2.6 WAR seasons in 1995 (half year) and 1996.

The Rockies traded the plucky finesse pitcher to the Mets after the 1996 season for Jerry DiPoto as he became more expensive given his injury risk. Reynoso won a World Series ring with the Diamondbacks despite performing poorly in 2001, his last real MLB season. 

TOGB wrote a profile on Reynoso in Rockies Retro.

6. Marvin Freeman

Career WAR: 4.6 (8th)
Top Three Seasons: 4.6, 1994-1996 (T-8th)
Top Season: 4.0, 1994 (4th)
Average Rank: 6.67

Ladies and Gentleman, the single season ERA record holder for the Colorado Rockies! A 31 year-old Marvin Freeman was picked up off the scrap heap by the Rockies after the 1993 season, and though he only had one good season with the team, what a blaze of glory it was!

The imposing (6'7") righty was, quite frankly, amazing in 1994 for the Rockies. In only 112 innings (18 starts), Freeman went 10-2 with 67 Ks (2.91 K/BB) and a 2.80 ERA (3.84 FIP), worth 4.0 WAR!

Of course, in 1995 and 1996 everyone was reminded that Freeman wasn't actually this good (0.9 and -0.3 WAR) and he went away quietly--he was released at the waiver deadline in 1996.

7. John Thomson

Career WAR: 7.2 (5th)
Top Three Seasons: 4.8, 1997-1999 (7th)
Top Season: 2.7, 1997 (10th)
Average Rank: 7.33

Drafted by the Rockies in the 7th round in 1993, Thomson exceeded the production of 1992 2nd round draft pick Mark Thompson, who I often confuse him for. Thomson reached the big leagues in 1997 as a 23 year old and had immediate success, posting 2.7 WAR (7-9, 4.71 ERA) and following that up with another 2.7 WAR (8-11, 4.81) season in 1998.

Unfortunately, the injury bug bit Thomson hard after 1998, and he managed only half seasons in 1999 and 2001 with no season at all in 2000. Finally healthy in 2002, Thomson was traded at the July deadline with Mark Little to the Mets for a package that included Jay Payton. After the trade Thomson had a few injury-free years and performed well for the Rangers and the Braves, then was ultimately undone by more injuries. 

8. Jeff Francis

Career WAR: 6.2 (7th)
Top Three Seasons: 5.7, 2006-2008 (5th)
Top Season: 2.5, 2006 (13th)
Average Rank: 8.33

The 9th overall pick in the 2002 draft out of Canada, Jeff Francis moved rapidly through the Rockies' system and was with the big club by 2004 as a 23 year old. Francis finished sixth in the ROY voting in 2005, his first full season, then enjoyed two very nice years in 2006 and 2007.

The soft-tossing lefty equaled Ritz's and Astacio's franchise wins mark with his 17-9 record in 2007 (he had 2.2 WAR) and finished 9th in the Cy Young Award voting. However, he suffered a torn labrum after a tough 2008 and has been rehabbing the injury since then.

The Physicist has one year left on his contract ($5.75 million) with a $7 million club option for 2010. It will be interesting to see if Francis can ever return to his early form and make it worthwhile for the Rockies to exercise that option. I've taken a pretty pessimistic view on this injury from the start, so my money is that Francis will never contribute significantly to the team again. I would love to be proved wrong though.

Other great single seasons include Joe Kennedy's 2004 (4.7 WAR) and Roger Bailey's 1997 (3.2).

Career Underachievers: Mike Hampton (-1, though he was worth 2 WAR batting), Denny Neagle (1.1), Scott Elarton (-2.9), and Livan Hernandez (-1.2).

Others of note: Jimenez (3.4 and on his way to a place high on this list very soon), Darryl Kile (4.1), Jamey Wright (4.6), Shawn Chacon (2.2, but 3.9 as a starter), Josh Fogg (-0.6) Greg Reynolds (-1.5).

Next week I'll reveal the unholy amalgamation that is the Colorado Rockies All-WAR team.