The 2017 Rockies sport so many competent rookie pitchers that it almost makes it feel like a normal thing—just a couple trade acquisitions and a couple homegrown pitchers who all happen to be debuting in the same year. It’s not normal though. And during the brief history of the Rockies, it’s downright abnormal. This situation should give Rockies fans an even deeper appreciation of the first Rockies’ pitcher to show up as a rookie and offer something hopeful to latch on to: Jason Jennings.
The Diamondbacks were the first team to draft Jennings. They took him in the 54th round of the 1996 draft out of Ralph H. Poteet high school, located in Mesquite, Texas. Jennings didn’t sign with the D-backs. Instead, he elected to go to college at Baylor. Jennings excelled as a hitter and a pitcher there, earning first-team All American honors each year from 1997 to 1999. In 1999 Baseball America named him the College Player of the Year. That was plenty to convince the Rockies to take him 16th overall in the first round of the 1999 draft.
The Rockies assigned the 20-year-old Jennings to their Class A Short-Season team at the time, the Portland Rockies (the equivalent of the Boise Hawks today). He made just two starts there because the competition was simply no match for him. He pitched nine innings total, gave up five hits and one run, walked two batters and struck out eleven. He finished his first year of professional baseball with the Asheville Tourists, and the competition there wasn’t much more difficult. He made quite a first impression.
Jennings continued his quick rise through the organization in 2000 and 2001. He played multiple levels in each season—Class A Advanced and Double-A in 2000 and Double-A and Triple-A in 2001. His toughest run was in Triple-A, when he confronted a tough run environment, especially at his home ballpark in Colorado Springs.
Jason Jennings, MiLB, 1999-2001
It was all workmanlike though. He was just checking off the boxes of minor-league levels on his way to the majors. And, indeed, the Rockies called him up in August of 2001, just about two years and two months after being drafted, to make his major-league debut.
It was quite a debut. Jennings threw a complete game shutout against the Mets at Shea Stadium, and he also hit a home run, something nobody else had done before or since. The home run was the cherry on top, but it was also just the tenth time since 1970, around the time it started to become somewhat normal for starters to need relief help, that a pitcher tossed a complete game shutout in his debut. It’s only happened one time since. It was a rare game then, and given the evolution of pitcher usage, it’s the type of game that’s nearly extinct now.
Jennings had an unusually linear progression from college star to minor-league steamroller to outstanding debut. Things don’t typically happen so neatly. But it all continued for Jennings in 2002, when he became the first and so far only Rockies player to win the National League Rookie of the Year award. He won the award easily, too. Jennings received 150 points on the strength of 27 first place votes, while second place Brad Wilkerson had 50 points and two first place votes.
The year Jennings won the award was distinct in another way: it was the first year of the humidor. Jennings posted a 4.52 ERA, a 106 ERA+, and 2.7 rWAR. Neither ERA+ nor rWAR existed at the time, and there were no historical precedents of un-dessicated baseballs. What voters likely saw at the time was the fourth lowest season ERA in Rockies history up to that point for starters who threw at least 150 innings, and just the eighth time a starting pitcher for the Rockies posted a season ERA under 5.00. Looking at the vote now, Jennings’s 2.7 rWAR was third among NL rookies in 2002, behind Austin Kearns’s 4.1 and Mark Prior’s 3.1. Neither of those players had full seasons though, which probably also gave Jennings a boost.
Jennings’s first full season remained his best with the Rockies until his last season, in 2006. The intervening years, 2003-2005, saw his ERA inflate to over 5.00—more typical among Rockies’ pitchers. Those weren’t bad numbers, but they did deflate a little bit of the promise that came from his pedigree and splashy entrances.
That promise returned in 2006, when Jennings not only had his best season as a professional, but one of the best starter seasons in Rockies history. As measured by ERA+, Jennings’s 130 was the second best pitcher season in Rockies history, only behind Joe Kennedy’s 135 ERA+ from 2004. And since 2006, there have only been two better seasons, Ubaldo Jiménez in 2009 and 2010. The Rockies finished 76-86 that year, which was the best season Jennings experienced as a member of the Rockies, and it was just before the Rockies would ride a wave of youngsters to being the best team in the National League and pennant winners in 2007.
Jennings wasn’t a part of that team, but it wasn’t for lack of trying on the Rockies’ part. The Rockies offered Jennings a $24.5 million contract extension that included three guaranteed years and a club option. Jennings believed it was a low offer, and he rejected it. Because he was set to become a free agent after the 2007 season, the Rockies had to trade him.
Ultimately, it was extremely fortunate that Jennings rejected the contract extension. On December 12, 2006, the Rockies sent Jennings along with Miguel Ascensio to the Houston Astros in exchange for Willy Taveras, Jason Hirsch, and Taylor Buchholtz. Hirsch and Bucholtz combined for 206 innings in 2007, Hirsch as a starter and Buchholtz mostly as a reliever, and 1.9 rWAR. Taveras, bunter extraordinaire, played center field and added 1.2 rWAR in 2007. The Astros pursued Jennings because a trade for Jon Garland fell through.
For their part, the Astros believed they were getting a number two starter to slot in behind ace Roy Oswalt. But injuries got in the way of that dream. Jennings missed most of the first two months of the 2007 season with elbow inflammation. Then he missed the final six weeks or so of the season with flexor tendon surgery on his elbow. He entered free agency coming off of surgery and his worst season as a professional. Jennings stayed in Texas, as the Rangers signed him to a one-year contract worth $4 million. In 2008, Jennings went back on the disabled list at the end of April due to more issues with his flexor tendon, which led to another surgery, and he didn’t return for the remainder of the season.
After becoming a free agent for the second time prior to the 2009 season, the Rangers signed him for a second time. But in this instance it was a minor-league contract, and it was for Jennings to pitch out of the bullpen. He acquitted himself decently well, and he collected his one and only against the Diamondbacks (in extra innings, but still). Jennings became a free agent after the 2009 season, and Oakland signed Jennings to a minor league deal, but he never made it to the majors for them. Jennings played his final year as a professional in 2011, when he started 19 games for the Grand Prairie AirHogs of the American Association.
When the Rockies traded Jennings prior to the 2007 season, he was the franchise leader in games started and innings pitched, as well as wins and losses. He’s since been surpassed by pitchers like Jeff Francis, Aaron Cook, and Jorge De La Rosa. Someday, those pitchers might fall below one or more of the Rockies’ current crop of rookies—Jeff Hoffman, Germán Márquez, Kyle Freeland, Antonio Senzatela.
But for a moment, Jennings was the most successful pitcher in Rockies’ history. He wasn’t on any winning Rockies teams, and his two best seasons were in otherwise forgettable years. But he had a debut that is likely to be one of a kind, and he’s still the owner of the only Rookie of the Year award in Rockies history. Rockies fans are currently spoiled with fun rookie pitchers, and they’re all following in the footsteps of Jason Jennings.