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Are the Rockies perma-underdogs?

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Most signs point to yes

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There have been lots of highs and lows in the 27-year existence of the Colorado Rockies. Great players, bad deals and trades, epic wins, gut-wrenching loses. Managers have come and gone, as have losing seasons and winning seasons. But one thing has stayed the same: the underdog status of the Colorado Rockies. This week, as SB Nation’s theme is underdogs, it leaves us with the question: Will the Rockies always be underdogs?

First, you would have to define what it means to be a permanent underdog. This is obviously subjective and please add your thoughts in the comments if you would define an underdog differently. I think underdog mean teams who are not perennial playoff contenders, either year in and year out or for the majority of a decade, and/or do not have any World Series titles. The idea being that when an underdog makes it to the playoffs, they are not favored and it would be fairly shocking for them to make a run, or even win a series.

I think the Rockies are perma-underdogs. There are five reasons that have helped cement this status: being an expansion team, playing at altitude, playing in the NL West, the midsize market and media realities, and the organization’s front office.

The 2007 Rockies are a perfect example of the underdog flying high, until being grounded by Boston. Every other playoff run, the Rockies have been the one-and-done or the ones who beat the Cubs in the Wild Card, and then got snuffed out by the Brewers. The Rockies aren’t the only ones in the perma-underdog category, but the thing that makes them a little more stuck to it is the notion that it is hard to imagine the Rockies stringing together seven straight playoff appearances or a World Series title any time soon. This could obviously change. What if the Rockies didn’t have that huge layoff period in 2007 and beat the Red Sox? It just takes the one win to shake the underdog monkey of your back—just ask the Nationals.

Can’t dig out of the expansion hole

As an expansion team to America’s pastime, one that saw the first professional game in 1869, the first National League game in 1876, and the first World Series in 1903, joining MLB in 1993 was pretty late to the game. Being new, being formed from a draft, lacking traditions and history that builds expectations, and having to build a fan base, expansion teams are automatically underdogs. There have been lots of MLB expansion teams, but let’s just focus on the 10 since 1969 for the sake of this article.

I think five of these teams, the Rockies, Padres, Mariners, Rays, and Brewers, are still stuck in underdog status, while the other five, the Blue Jays, Expos-turned-Nationals, Royals, Marlins, and Diamondbacks, have shed their permanent underdog status. Although, they may still dip into underdog phases (Miami now would be a good example).

Starting with former underdogs expansion teams, in chronological order, the Royals, starting in 1969, have played in four World Series, winning two. Also beginning in 1969, the Montreal Expos couldn’t get the job done in Canada but finally lifted the Commissioner’s Trophy as the Washington Nationals in 2019. Entering the league in 1977, the Blue Jays won back-to-back World Series in 1992 and 1993, the latter thanks to the magic of Joe Carter in one of the greatest World Series moments of all time.

The Rockies’ expansion twins, the then Florida but now Miami Marlins, won World Series titles in 1997 and 2003. Even if their roller coaster seasons often leave them in very low valleys of losing seasons like the current era, once you win it all, it’s hard to go back to underdog.

The Arizona Diamondbacks arrived in 1998. They became the fastest expansion team to win the World Series just four years later. In their shorter history than the Rockies, they also have five NL West championships and aren’t underdogs anymore. The Rockies have five playoff appearances, one NL pennant, no NL West titles, and remain underdogs.

Joining the Rockies in the perma-underdog position, the Seattle Pilots, who couldn’t start roots in Seattle in their lone season there in 1969, departed to Milwaukee and became the Brewers in 1970. The Brewers have played in one World Series, been to the playoffs six times total—never more than two years in a row—and they have been around for almost twice as long as the Rockies. So, at least the Rockies have the time advantage on the Brewers, even if the Brewers might have a better team currently. The Rockies also have a slight edge over the Padres, who also joined the league in 1969, and have the same amount of playoff appearances as the Rockies (5). On the other hand, San Diego has been to two World Series and has four NL West titles since 1995’s division realignment. The Padres are also in the midst of a 13-year playoff drought.

Hitting the scene in 1977, the Mariners have never been to the World Series and are the only current MLB team who can say that. Seattle has won the AL West three times, but they haven’t been to the playoffs in 18 years. The most similar team to the Rockies might be the Tampa Bay Rays. They joined the MLB ranks in 1998 and have been to the playoffs five times, including a World Series loss in 2008. They have won the AL East twice, which is impressive considering they share it with the Yankees and Red Sox.

It’s hard to know when the expansion roots are so deeply buried that people don’t remember them anymore and it is easier to transition out of underdogness. Maybe 50 years? Or a World Series win? Let’s hope the latter comes first.

The lows of high altitude

I don’t want to dig into the altitude blues and Coors Field dilemmas too much. We all know that it is not an advantage over the course of a season. It’s hard to have consistency, and therefore success, in the Mile High City. The ball moves differently and pitchers struggle. That might be in getting pounded by home runs, death by bloop singles in the massive expanses of the outfield, or losing the ability to locate pitches. While we’ve had some good pitchers from Aaron Cook to Jorge de la Rosa, to Ubaldo Jiménez and Jeff Francis, to the current promising trio of Jon Gray, Germán Márquez, and Kyle Freeland, none have been able to yet withstand the test of time at 5,280 feet to string together a solid career at Coors Field. Relievers seem to be able to hang for a while before losing it (see Wade Davis) or getting traded (see Adam Ottavino). Altitude is a grind that a lot of pitchers can’t withstand. It’s a strong component of the Rockies’ identity that makes them perma-underdogs. There is hope with more focus on raising homegrown talent and players used to altitude and Rockies coaches like minor league pitching co-coordinator Steve Merriman embracing advancements in analytics and technology to try to level the playing field.

Hitters might get a bump in batting average and homers but then have to quickly adjust for every road trip. Rockies hitters get discredited all the time for playing at Coors but are never given grace for the drastic changes they have to make throughout the season (at least Larry Walker finally made it to the Hall of Fame despite this). On the bright side, thanks to a current group of players that really hate losing, Charlie Blackmon and company are now adjusting practice and preparation to try to overcome these obstacles, as reported in this Athletic article about overcoming “the Coors Field hangover.”

Since other teams don’t have these challenges, they make the Rockies perma-underdogs.

The Monster that is the NL West

Since MLB’s division realignment in 1995, an NL West team has made it to the World Series nine times. That’s third behind the AL East and the NL East (11), and ahead of the NL Central (8), AL West (6), and the NL Central (5). Because the NL West has the Dodgers, the Diamondbacks, and the Giants, it’s always going to be a tough division.

The Dodgers have won seven straight NL West crowns, putting them in comparison to the dominance of 11 years of titles for the Braves in the NL East (1995-2005) and nine consecutive championships for the Yankees (1998-2006). The Dodgers are top dog in the NL West. Preceding and overlapping this stretch, the Giants won three World Series in five years (2010, 2012, and 2014). Add those achievements to their legendary histories (eight World Series wins for the Giants and six for the Dodgers) and San Francisco and Los Angeles are prized-breed dogs.

The Diamondbacks have proved they can field competitive teams regularly with six playoff appearances and accolades discussed above. They also, like the Dodgers and Giants, have pretty consistent good pitching. From 1999 to 2014, 12 of the 15 NL Cy Young winners came from the NL West. This includes Hall of Fame names like Randy Johnson and Clayton Kershaw but also dominant pitchers of their times like Tim Lincecum, Jake Peavy (yeah, even the Padres got in on this), Eric Gagné, and Brandon Webb. Notice that guys like Zack Greinke, Curt Schilling, Madison Bumgarner, and Kevin Brown aren’t even in that list.

The Rockies are still looking for their first division title. Every playoff appearance has come via Wild Card, which is synonymous with underdog. The Rockies almost had it in 2018 but fell to the Dodgers in the division-deciding 163rd game. Even the Padres have won the NL West four times since 1993. Whenever the day comes where the Rockies win their first NL West Championship, it will be a big step forward in establishing a non-underdog identity.

Midsize market and no media love

In April of 2019, according to Forbes, the Colorado Rockies were valued at $1.225 billion, 22nd in MLB (and it’s better than the Brewers, so that’s cool).

In terms of media market size, the Rockies rank No. 17 out of 67 teams that have a least one team in MLB, the NFL, NBA, or NHL, according to Sports Media Watch, which puts Denver market homes at 1.5 million.

This of course doesn’t count the vast region of the Rocky Mountains since Colorado is surrounded by states without baseball teams. However, that 17th ranking is the lowest of all cities that has all four major professional teams. New York City is tops at 6.824 million homes, and Los Angeles (5.145 million) and San Francisco (2.365 million) are in the top six. Bigger cities get bigger TV contracts, more exposure, and more money. For the Rockies, they have to fight for attention in their own media market where the Broncos dominate local sports coverage. The Avalanche and Nuggets have the advantage of their own radio and TV stations, although that turned out to be a disadvantage for Nuggets and Avs fans this year with Altitude’s disputes with Comcast and Dish. But the Rockies don’t have their own TV or radio stations and you can go an entire day of listening to Denver sports radio and never hear mention of the Rockies. They are the underdogs of their own city.

Last year, the Rockies were No. 15 when it comes to revenue (which consists of ticket sales and television and media rights), bringing in $305 million, according to Statista.

However, there is promise in this arena as well because even though the Rockies might be below average in value and revenue, they uncharacteristically have shown more interest in paying more money for players the last few years. The Rockies ranked No. 12 in payroll at $146,346,833 in 2019.

On the other hand, just because you spend money (for example $106 million for Wade Davis, Bryan Shaw, and Jake McGee and $70 million for Ian Desmond), it doesn’t mean it is money well spent. Five teams with lower payrolls than the Rockies (Milwaukee, Minnesota, Atlanta, Oakland, and Tampa) all made the playoffs last year. With a history of spending too much on guys like Denny Neagal and Mike Hampton, who then turned out to be busts, the recent deals were the first big free agent spending sprees in a while. Now we don’t know if we’ll see any for many more years.

The front office conundrum

Can the Rockies stop being underdogs with Dick Monfort as the owner and Jeff Bridich as the general manager? Maybe. There are some things that are completely out of their control and you could make the argument that they are doing the best with what they have.

There are certainly pros of the current front office as they are spending more money, the farm system has drafted and developed some darn good players (Charlie Blackmon, Nolan Arenado, Trevor Story, and David Dahl to name a few), and Rockies fans continue to fill the seats at Coors Field, as proof by having the sixth highest attendance in MLB at 2,993,244 fans in the seats in 2019.

In a Q&A with 5280 Magazine, here is Monfort’s response to a question about why strong attendance over the years hasn’t led to more playoff appearances.

“We are a midmarket team. We get a midmarket television deal. We get midmarket prices for our tickets. We draw well, but some of those tickets are cheap Rockpile-type seats. I think we probably do better than any other midmarket team as far as revenue goes, but one of the problems in baseball is that you have the higher-market teams that are going to be able to spend more money. We can’t get into the real high free agent market, so keeping our star players for as long as we can will always be the way for us to be successful. We were one of the first teams that said, ‘We are going to be a draft-and-develop team.’ And on an annual basis, I think we have more of our own kids playing on our team than probably any other team.”

With the fans choosing to spend summer nights and days at Coors Field, the organization could get complacent with not being a perennial playoff contender as long as they don’t fall into the lovable loser category, which they can’t afford. Luckily, with a guy like Nolan Arenado, a likely future Hall of Famer who is making a play at best third baseman ever, the Rockies have to look like they are trying to win in order to keep him. Unfortunately, Bridich and Monfort weren’t very good at that in 2019, leading to the public feud with their best player and never-ending rumors that Arenado will be out of purple pinstripes by July 2021.

Bridich has earned the reputation of not liking the media and gives off the vibe that he is the smartest guy in the room. Critiquing or even questioning his decisions seems to equate to talking trash about his mom in his mind. Communication also doesn’t seem to be a strong suit of Bridich or Monfort. We have still never heard if Bridich met with Arenado to try to smooth things over. Monfort is more reserved and doesn’t have a big public presence, but he doesn’t seem to take criticism very well. I get it. It’s hard to get bashed, especially when you feel like a lot of what you do is unseen and not appreciated. But there are ways to communicate and get on the same page with fans outside of telling them you might move the team or that if you don’t like it don’t come like his rage emails in 2014.

Monfort sees the Rockies as a family. This is great in terms of atmosphere, but the demanded loyalty and inability to see things objectively could lead to an inability to establish a culture of winning. In that same interview with 5280, Monfort was asked what was the toughest lesson he learned, saying, “Former Rockies manager Jim Leyland once told me, ‘Don’t fall in love with your players.’ I’m sort of a homer. It’s extremely hard to part with somebody who has come up through our ranks. … I had to learn that it’s fine to love your players, but you have to make sure that when the right business deal comes along, you’re willing to part with them.” He might also have to learn that most players aren’t willing to take a hometown discount because the Rockies drafted them.

So, are the Rockies perma-underdogs?

Probably, but I don’t necessarily think that being an underdog is a bad thing. There are plenty of upsides to the underdog quality: they are likable, people don’t see them coming and/or underestimate them, and it makes the winning that much better.

There can be negative side effects, however, like complacency in settling for mediocrity and an inability to become a perennial playoff contender. If you are always an underdog, you always have an excuse to fail.

As a fan, cheering for the underdog is hard work. The bragging is amazing when David beats Goliath, but for all those other time when you lose in the first round of the playoffs, it gets harder and harder to come back with the same excitement and optimism. Cynicism creeps in. We can’t help it. For now though, with no end to the underdog status in sight, we just have to keep the hope. Right now, I would be so excited for the Rockies to play again that I don’t care if they are forever underdogs. In the wise words of Alicia Keys,

“This goes out to the underdog

Keep on keeping at what you love

You’ll find that someday soon enough

You will rise up, rise up, yeah.”