On December 9, 2000, the Colorado Rockies and left handed pitcher Mike Hampton put ink to paper on an eight year, $121 million contract. In coming to Colorado, Hampton had signed the largest contract in MLB history at the time. The Rockies hoped that Hampton, in conjunction with some other moves like signing fellow southpaw Denny Neagle to a five year, $51 million deal, would help usher in a new age of starting pitching at Coors Field.
In the Rockies’ seven year history up to that point, a rotation pitcher had an ERA under 4.00 just once: Marvin Freeman’s lost 1994 season. Meanwhile, Hampton had pitched with an ERA over 4.00 just once: his 1993 rookie season in Seattle. From 1995 to 1999, Hampton had become a key contributor to the Houston Astros’ rotation, pitching 150 or more innings each season. This culminated in a dominant 1999 campaign where Hampton was selected for his first All-Star appearance, led the national league in wins, and had an ERA of just 2.90. In the final year of his contract, the Astros traded Hampton to the New York Mets, where he pitched to the tune of a 3.12 ERA and was named the 2000 NLCS MVP during the Mets’ postseason before becoming a free agent.
So Mike Hampton was made the highest paid player in baseball, was granted access to a quality school system, and the Rockies got a long term anchor for their rotation. It all sounded like a win-win situation... Until Hampton was promptly traded away after two of the worst seasons in what would be a 16 year career. The contract is viewed as one of the biggest busts in franchise history, set the course of the Rockies for decades to come with a front office reluctant to sign big name starting pitching.
Mike Hampton: 1999-2003
|New York Mets
So what happened? Hampton’s nosedive was immediate and startling... but not altogether unexpected. Hampton had a career 6.88 ERA at Coors Field prior to the singing, and the Rockies had already experienced poor luck with free agent starters. The late Darryl Kile, Hampton’s longtime teammate in Houston, had a similar fall from grace with his two career worst seasons in 1998 and 1999. The Rockies signed Kile to a three-year, $24 million contract, only to trade him after two seasons (again much like Hampton). Former Rockies skipper Don Baylor expected it to be difficult.
“It’s a tough place to make pitches,” Baylor said. “Hampton is a battler. He wanted to take that challenge. Darryl Kile got away from throwing the breaking ball. Hampton is going to have to put aside his ERA and just concentrate on wins.”
Then-general manager Dan O’Dowd also admitted Coors would be a difficult task for Hampton.
“It’s a tough place to pitch. We didn’t come in there and sell Mike Hampton how it was pitcher’s heaven.”
Even Hampton himself understood how difficult it would be to pitch for the Rockies, but believed he would be able to overcome it by inducing ground ball contact with his sinker and cutter.
“There’s no doubt it’s the toughest place to pitch. It’s a test I look forward to and something that I think will make me a better pitcher in the long run. We’re [Kile and I] different pitchers. He relies on his good curveball. I think my style might suit it a little better.”
2001 was a tough year for Hampton, as he saw his ERA spike to 5.41 and his strikeouts drop from 151 the previous season to 122. He also had a heavy increase in home runs allowed with 31. Prior to 2001, his career high was 18. However, it wasn’t all bad. Hampton slugged his way into his second All-Star Game appearance and his third consecutive Silver Slugger Award by slashing .291/.309/.582 with 16 RBIs and 7 home runs.
Things didn’t completely collapse until 2002, which would go down as Hampton’s worst career season. With an ERA of 6.15 through 178 2⁄3 innings (the fewest innings he had pitched in a season since 1996), Hampton struggled his way to his first losing record since his rookie season. He struggled in all categories with an SO/9 of just 3.7, a BB/9 of 4.6, and an HR/9 of 1.2.
Despite boasting that he could overcome pitching at altitude, Hampton was done in the Mile High City. He was traded following the 2002 season, along with promising center fielder Juan Pierre, to the Florida Marlins for Charles Johnson, Preston Wilson, Vic Darensbourg, and Pablo Ozuna. Pierre would go on to have a long and solid career, including a World Series ring in 2003. The Marlins then flipped Hampton to the Atlanta Braves.
In Atlanta, Hampton’s career immediately rebounded as he posted an ERA of 3.84 in 31 starts. He increased his strikeout rate, decreased his walk rate, and gave up just 14 home runs. He continued to pitch well with the Braves until 2005, where Tommy John Surgery ended his season and kept him out of baseball until 2008. He started 13 games for the Braves in 2008 with a 4.85 ERA, but clearly wasn’t the same pitcher. The next year he would return to Houston in his final season as a starter. With the Astros in 2009 he had an ERA of 5.30 in 21 starts. In 2010 he made 10 appearances as a reliever with the Arizona Diamondbacks, but retired prior to the 2011 season.
Whether for the schools or for the money, you can’t blame Mike Hampton for taking the contract with the Rockies. How many people out there would turn down being the highest paid player in baseball in exchange for the challenge of pitching at altitude? Yes, Hampton had misplaced his confidence that he could overcome Coors Field, but the fault also lies at the feet of the Rockies front office. The Rockies had just been burned by the Darryl Kile contract, only to sign two more big name free agents and have things fall apart. Even ESPN at the time knew this could spell disaster.
“Over the last three seasons, the Rockies and their opponents have hit .320 with 700 homers and 3,126 runs in games at Colorado, compared to .257 with 394 homers and 1,920 runs when the Rockies are on the road. That does not bode well for either Hampton or Neagle. Neagle gave up the most flyballs in baseball last season and Hampton has walked 200 batters over the past two years, meaning their ERAs may inflate as much as their salaries.”
The Rockies finished paying off Hampton in 2018, but the memories of what could have been—and what came to be— still linger on in the memories of Rockies fans. Much like Jeff Bridich’s now-maligned “super-pen,” the organization took a big risk on name brand talent, only to have it blow up spectacularly in their face and for the pitcher(s) to be gone before the end of their contracts.
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MLB.com’s Rockies beat reporter Thomas Harding puts top first base prospect Michael Toglia at the top of his list for prospects that forced their way into the spotlight. The big switch hitter out of UCLA has to work on his strikeout rate and consistent contact, but was praised by skipper Bud Black as a “gold Glove-type defender at first. Good runner. He’s playing first, but I think they will let him run in the outfield, too, because he’s athletic.” Toglia is currently playing in the Arizona Fall League and has some cushion to develop with the two-year re-signing of CJ Cron.
Rox Pile’s Noah Yingling takes a look at the Rockies’ rotation and explores whether it might be prudent to make rotation additions. With or without Jon Gray returning, starting pitching depth has always been an issue for the Rockies. It’s why they had to turn to Chi Chi González multiple times, and to untested Double-A prospect Ryan Feltner. Peter Lambert made two starts at the end of the season following his return from Tommy John, but remains unproven. Within the organization, Lambert, Feltner, and farmhands Ryan Rolison and Frank Duncan are available options for rotational depth, but it might not be enough.
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On the Farm: Arizona Fall League Edition
Michael Toglia, Ezequiel Tovar, and Ryan Vilade all started in the loss against the Saguaros. Toglia continued his success in the AFL with a 2-for-4 afternoon—both singles— and his average now sits at .318. Vilade plated both of the Rafters’ runs with a two RBI single in the bottom of the eighth, which was his only hit of the game. Tovar was hitless in four at-bats.
Tonight the Glendale Desert Dogs will travel to Salt River Fields at Talking Stick to take on the Rafters. First pitch is at 7:35 PM MDT.
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