Ask any fan of 1990s baseball -- even the casual ones -- about their fondest memories of the early Colorado Rockies teams. In unison, they'll surely respond with "the Blake Street Bombers."
Led by Dante Bichette, Vinny Castilla, Andres Galarraga and Larry Walker, the Rockies set records for scoring runs and hitting the ball out of the ballpark in Coors Field's early years. From 1995 through 1997, that core -- along with Ellis Burks -- averaged nearly six runs per game and saw 13 instances of 30 or more home runs in a season.
"Somebody was always going to have a huge game or do something that made you drop your jaw, whether it was Galarraga getting five or six hits or Larry hitting for the cycle or Vinny hitting a 102 mph fastball out of the yard," Bichette said at the Coors Field 20th Anniversary celebration last month. "You were going to see something that night from an incredibly talented hitter."
There's a problem, though: those offenses really weren't all that good, nor were some of the hitters all that effective, when adjusting for the insane run-scoring environment at 20th and Blake.
One of the great things to come out of the popularization of advanced baseball statistics over the last decade-plus is park-adjusted batting. Baseball-Reference has OPS+ and FanGraphs uses wRC+. At the end of the day, the two statistics do the same thing: give a true (or as true as possible, anyway) indication of how good a player is offensively in any given season. For both statistics, any figure above 100 is better than league average, while anything under 100 is below league average. While the 1995 Rockies were certainly unbelievable on the surface -- a .282/.350/.471 combined batting line with 200 home runs in 144 games -- the advanced metrics show otherwise. In fact, for the three years the original Blake Street Bombers played together at Coors Field, the trend was pretty much the same:
Applying what we know now to the 1995 season, we see that the Blake Street Bombers-era Rockies were, in all actuality, no better than average at the plate. Even with the basic "thin air helps baseballs fly" narrative that surrounded early Rockies teams, most people would've never dared say those clubs weren't good offensively.
"Most people" did not include Baseball Prospectus, the now flourishing publication that was apparently quite the group of visionaries two decades ago. From the Rockies section of the first-ever BPro annual, published in 1996:
One of the most overlooked facets of understanding player performance is park effects. The park a team calls home has a huge effect on the performances of the players on that team. If a club's management isn't careful, it can be roundly fooled, and greatly misjudge player contributions.
The book goes on to say that's exactly what happened; good-but-not-great hitters like Bichette and Castilla had significant (for the time, anyway) money thrown in their direction and, as we all know by now, the club eventually floundered. The Rockies didn't reach the postseason again until 2007, which not-so-coincidentally was the first time the club had an offense that approached above-average to complement an above-average pitching staff.
The Rockies had a few decent staffs over the years, according to FanGraphs' park-adjusted ERA-, but given its challenges, not many were better than that 1995 unit, which finished fourth in the National League with a 96 ERA- (like wRC+, 100 is average, but in this case lower is better). That fact also wasn't lost on Baseball Prospectus at the time:
The Rockies already have a championship caliber pitching staff; it's their hitting that stands in the way of a Mile High title.
A championship caliber pitching staff? The unit finished with a 4.97 ERA, which was last in the NL!
Ah, park adjustments.
ERA+, Baseball-Reference's version of park-adjusted ERA, pegged the Rockies at 108 in 1995. Unlike conventional ERA and FanGraphs' ERA-, here the higher number is better, and the Rockies' total ranked second in the league, behind only an Atlanta Braves staff that included three Hall of Famers in the rotation.
The Rockies' starting rotation was simply OK (the unit produced a 101 ERA-), but the bullpen -- led by Darren Holmes, Curt Leskanic, Steve Reed and Bruce Ruffin -- was otherworldly. The unit as a whole posted a 90 ERA-. Holmes, Leskanic, Reed and Ruffin were all significantly better than that:
Heck, even the traditional numbers -- a combined 2.83 ERA in 282⅔ innings -- support the claim of dominance from that fearsome foursome. A 2.83 ERA. At 1990s Coors Field. How the hell did they do that? It wasn't exactly the work of magic, according to Holmes.
"When things like that happen, there's a lot of different variables that go into it. The biggest one is that we were all great friends," Holmes said in a recent interview. "We pulled for each other, and we had the right attitude; remember, most of the guys who came here were left unprotected by other teams."
Perhaps that chip-on-the-shoulder mentality is what helped the Rockies find so much success in their early years. The 1993 club finished with the best record for an expansion team in NL history, and improvement came in each of the two following years, culminating with the 1995 playoff run.
Unfortunately, the tremendous amount of work Rockies relievers put in that year -- the club led the NL with 516 relief innings in a shortened season -- took its toll. The bullpen was below average in 1996 and the team's overall performance suffered. Though the Rockies finished with a winning record, they ended the year eight games out of first place.
"I don't know whether it was that season or a combination over my career, but I've had seven surgeries," Holmes said. "I'm not going to say all of that was attributed to the '95 season, but it takes a toll on your body pitching here."
Holmes himself was almost as good in 1996 as he was in the playoff year, but his performance fell off a cliff the following season. Though he finished with a 9-2 record, Holmes was below average in terms of adjusted ERA in 1997. The same thing happened to Leskanic and Ruffin. By 1998, only Leskanic remained. Ruffin retired, and Holmes and Reed moved on. The latter two found their way back to the Rockies, though it took Holmes until this season, when the club hired him to serve as its bullpen coach.
It appears he's glad to be back, judging by his fondness of his time in Denver as a player.
"Those years here with these guys -- me, Ruffin, Leskanic, [Mike] Munoz, Reed -- were the best times I had in the big leagues," Holmes recollected. "We were here for five years together, and you don't see that anymore. The camaraderie we had was important."
The fact that the Rockies' pitching staff carried the team in its formative years won't change the way fans remember their purple-clad heroes from the '90s, regardless of what I write, or what Baseball Prospectus publishes, or what Darren Holmes says. But, even if it's subconscious, one of the star hitters from those clubs knows what's up.
"We just knew no matter what the [opposing team's] lead was," Bichette said. "There's a good chance we were gonna beat you, and that was a great feeling."
Just out of curiosity, who do you think deserves the largest amount of credit for that, Dante?