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Thursday Rockpile: For 2012, Rockies must stop the pressers

Piggybacking on some of what Jeff Aberle wrote in yesterday's Rockpile, I thought it would be insightful to look into the Rockies high leverage hitting as this will play a big part in whether a team is able to win close, low scoring games or not. Since Aberle pointed out that the Rockies have been pretty terrible in said win loss results, it should come as no surprise that the club proved severely lacking at the plate in those high leverage situations at all but two positions. Additionally, like Aberle I'm going to break down each position, as I come to different conclusions than he does about how to approach the offense during the offseason. I think O'Dowd needs to be an aggressive problem solver on this side of the coin. 

Catcher: The Rockies started the season very competitive at the position, but finished on a slide, winding up fifth overall in f-WAR. As with other positions, there was a decided lack of punch when it mattered most, with the Rockies tying the Dodgers for a league worst .169 batting average in high leverage situations. Chris Iannetta has value in trade and the Rockies F.O. and management seem to feel that they may be able to replace his value on the field with some combination of Wilin Rosario, Jordan Pacheco and/or Jose Morales. So Iannetta will once again figure to get a lot of off-season trade scrutiny. For what it's worth, I think Pacheco looks ready at the plate, not not so much behind it, while Rosario is in the opposite situation.

First Base: Another position that the Rockies came in fifth in f-WAR, yet tied for last place in the National League in batting average in high leverage situations, this time with a .184 average. Outside of those crucial moments, 37 year old Todd Helton continued his career's twilight with a solid season at the plate and in the field, while 40 year old Jason Giambi was the only Rockies bench player to have an above league average OPS+ in 2011. The bad news is that both will be one year older in 2012.

Second Base: While the four N. L. playoff teams averaged a 3.6 f-WAR at the keystone in 2011, the Rockies registered a 0.4. That said, Mark Ellis stabilized the position defensively and his 1.4 wins actually kept that gap between the Rockies and the legit teams of the league from looking a lot worse. Defensive metrics are fickle and not yet universally agreed on, so r-WAR gives Ellis only 0.6 wins for the Rockies. Big deal? Well, given MLB free agent salaries (and that Ellis will be a free agent,) yes, you're talking about $3 million worth of value between the two WAR estimates. It seems likely that the Rockies are going to re-sign Ellis, but it may not be the hidden bargain the UZR based WAR at FanGraphs will make it seem, and while Ellis looks attractive relative to a weak free agent crop, that doesn't necessarily mean he's the best second baseman available. The Rockies should explore potential trade upgrades as well. The Rockies second basemen were dead last in the NL, batting .160 in high leverage situations.

Shortstop: Only the Mets got more f-WAR value at shortstop in 2011, but all of Tulo's excess value went to making up for the deficits at second and third base. And once again, we see a situation of giving their value mostly when it least matters. Rockies shortstops batted just .203 in high leverage situations. 

Third Base: Another position where there was a three win gap between the Rockies production (-1.5) and the average N.L. playoff team (2.2) in f-WAR. At their best (using Kevin Kouzmanoff or Ty Wigginton) the Rockies were still two wins below a competitive average. Not taking an aggressive, serious look at alternatives during the off-season at this position could become the team's biggest winter mistake. Rockies third basemen batted .162 in high leverage situations.

Right Field: Seth Smith and other Rockies right fielders were actually the NL's fifth best in high leverage situations in 2011, but at just a .248 average, it doesn't seem as much of an accomplishment. Yes, it's a lot higher than what others on the team have done, but we'd need to get mining permits to get that bar any lower. Given that on the whole Rockies right fielders hit .275, you still see a clear step down. Overall, the Rockies had the league's fourth most valuable right fielders in 2011 according to f-WAR, but we see another fog of WAR discrepancy, as r-WAR has Smith at replacement level for the year. Smith plays at a position that upgrades should be available, and they may be relatively cheap. At the very least, a platoon situation seems like it may be beneficial.

Center Field: The National League has had a boom in production in center field, so while in normal seasons we'd look with pleasure at the Rockies 2.9 f-WAR produced at the position, the 11th best showing instead causes some distress. The four NL playoff teams averaged 5.75 wins out of center this season, leaving the Rockies WAR deficit relative to them about as large in center as it is at Colorado's worst positions. The problem is that there's not  much to be done other than hope that Dexter Fowler gets better relative to the league. He's a decent young player at a position that's stocked with some truly great ones right now. The Rockies could try to trade Fowler and move Carlos Gonzalez over, but given the glut of CF's, are they going to get Fowler's value back? I doubt it.  The good news? If there's one player that's come through in the clutch for the Rockies in 2011, it's Fowler, who batted .432 in high leverage situations leaving the Rockies at first at the position in the league. Given this and UZR's wonky issues with Rockies outfielders, particularly those that play center, I think Fowler's actual WAR deficit to the NL leaders that I mentioned above is probably a lot closer than FanGraphs says.

Left Field: In a similar situation to center field, Rockies left fielders ranked 11 out of 16 NL teams in f-WAR in 2011. I doubt many people would actually believe, however, that Carlos Gonzalez leaves Colorado at a below average level for the position going forward. As with center, production at the plate from Rockies left fielders didn't drop in high leverage situations, with the team batting a respectable .270.

Why there's so much of a systemic problem for the Rockies in high leverage situations is a difficult mystery to crack. I'd normally attribute this to bad luck that will level out with time, and it might just be that given that there's not much of a sample to go on, but the fact that bad situational hitting occurs almost universally across the board for Rockies hitters is disturbing. Given statements to the press, we know that Jim Tracy's keenly aware of the problem, but is the pressure he's putting on the players to produce at these moments part of the cycle? Does he try too hard to make something happen with all of his contact play calls and suicide squeezing rather than just letting his hitters take their hacks? At the same time, any Rockies fan who's seen some of those ugly hacks that Tulowitzki, Wigginton and others take in important situations can tell you that maybe Tracy has it right trying to take the bats out of their hands.

In my mind, Michael Cuddyer remains the off season's most attractive free agent target for the Rockies for a variety of reasons:

  1. He could fit as either a very much needed offensive upgrade at third base, or in the corner outfield. Worries about his defensive liabilities are overstated (remember what everybody thought about Lance Berkman in the outfield last year?) given his ability to stabilize a lineup in free fall and upgrade the team's depth through chaining (by pushing either Smith or Kouzmanoff to the bench, where they'd be tremendous assets.)
  2. Concerns about his likely cost are also getting overstated. He is desirable, but I still think he may wind up costing less than Aramis Ramirez while providing near equal punch at the plate and much better versatility. Maybe too much versatility with the Tinkerere Jim Tracy as the manager, but that doesn't mean Cuddyer isn't valuable.
  3. It's a considerable step down from his tier at the plate to the next one. Signing a Jonny Gomes (106 OPS+ the last three seasons despite being younger) type of player will likely not improve the offense that much, Cuddyer (117 OPS+ in 2009-2011) almost certainly would. 
  4. He would be the ideal veteran first base fill in for 2013 and 2014, when Nolan Arenado will hopefully be ready to be given the reins at third. 

If the Rockies have money to spend in the offseason, I think it's wisest to either go after Cuddyer, or a similar high offensive value trade target rather than going on a bargain hunt. 

And with that, I'm really late with this post and haven't even looked for the links, but congrats to the Rays and Cardinals on their comebacks to win the wild card. However, I'm not liking that they're already diluting our 2007 season in the media, so for that reason I'm hoping both get eliminated in the playoffs quickly.