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Would Dante Bichette have thrived in the modern National League?

Colorado Rockies news and links for Thursday, December 14th, 2023

Much like how the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell, slugger Dante Bichette was once a powerhouse of the Colorado Rockies hitting corps. One of the original Blake Street Bombers, Bichette was one of the best hitters on the team during his seven year tenure in the Mile High City with more than twenty home runs and a slugging percentage over .500 each season.

Bichette enjoyed a successful 14 year career in Major League Baseball, but seems to seldom enjoy the accolades fellow bombers like Larry Walker and Vinny Castilla do. Despite being a “Coors Field product,” Bichette only accumulated 5.6 career WAR per Baseball Reference and quickly fell off the ballot for the Hall of Fame.

While no doubt an all-time Rockies player, Bichette is overshadowed by his Hall of Fame (and soon-to-be Hall of Fame) teammates Larry Walker and Todd Helton, as well as more recent players like Charlie Blackmon and even Nolan Arenado. Despite his place in Rockies history, he isn’t even a member of the team’s All-Time Top 24 Players by rWAR. Bichette is the only Blake Street Bomber not on the list.

Why did Bichette—on the leaderboard for many career offensive statistics with the Rockies—struggle to accumulate rWAR? Bichette struggled defensively in the cavernous outfield of Coors Field during the pre-humidor era.

Speaking with Manny Randhawa and the Society for American Baseball Research, Hall of Fame scout Tom Kotchman claimed Bichette had the “raw tools to be a great defensive outfielder” with solid raw range, a powerful arm, and the tools to become a Gold Glove outfielder once refined.

“I’d have to sit down and go through my rosters over the past 30 or 35 years to see if I had anybody that had as much of a five-tool raw package as him,” Kotchman said.

Bichette injured his knee playing football prior to the 1992 season. He waited for it to heal naturally but when it was still swollen months later, team doctors with the Milwaukee Brewers diagnosed him with a torn ACL. Fearing the potential consequences of missing playing time, Bichette didn’t have his ACL surgically repaired until after the 1995 season.

When Bichette arrived via trade to Colorado for the 1993 season, his knee injury limited his ability in the outfield when it came to running routes and making cuts. Bichette posted a negative value in defensive WAR every single season in his career, though the numbers get especially bad when the Rockies moved to Coors Field.

In 1995—the season he should have won National League MVP—Bichette had his best career season, hitting 340/.364/.620 with 40 home runs, 128 RsBI, and 197 total hits. He was an All-Star and won a Silver Slugger, but that MVP-caliber season was worth just 1.2 rWAR. He was worth -2.5 defensive WAR—the second worst figure in his career—with a -24.1 adjusted defensive value per Fangraphs. For comparison, MVP Barry Larkin posted a 5.9 rWAR with a 0.3 defensive WAR and 1.7 adjusted defensive value.

Bichette continued to hit at a high level for the Rockies and even signed a three-year, $21 million extension towards the end of the 1998 season that should have kept him with the team through 2001. However, his defense continued to be a sore spot. In 1999—the first year of his extension—he was worth -2.3 rWAR despite hitting .298/.354/.541 with 34 home runs and 133 RsBI. He was worth a career worst -3.9 defensive WAR and a staggeting -40.6 adjusted defensive value.

“The honeymoon was over” for Bichette in Denver. New general manager Dan O’Dowd wanted his team to have more athleticism and dealt Bichette to the Cincinnati Reds in exchange for a younger and faster outfielder in Jeffrey Hammonds and relief pitcher Stan Belinda. Bichette’s career was over just two seasons later.

Dante Bichette’s fate might have been different had he played for an American League team... or the Rockies in the current era of baseball. With the adoption of the universal designated hitter in 2022, the National League brought in a position that would have been ideal for Bichette.

Removed from the difficult outfield of Coors and primarily working as a hitter would have kept Bichette’s rough defensive numbers from punishing him so much. He would have accumulated more career rWAR—potentially joining his fellow Bombers—and could been one of the premiere designated hitters in the National League.

Bichette was always a good situational hitter even as his power diminished with age. When Dan O’Dowd wanted the Rockies younger and more athletic, there still would have been a spot in the lineup for Bichette and one of the inaugural Rockies would have been able to finish out his career in LoDo. Bichette hit .294/.350/.477 in 2000 with 23 home runs for both the Reds and the Boston Red Sox, then .286/.325/.460 with 12 home runs in 2001 when his contract with the Rockies would have ended.

With the earlier adoption of the DH in the National League, Dante Bichette could have been the Rockies’ equivalent to Edgar Martínez of the Seattle Mariners. Removing his need to play defense would have set him up for success as an offense-only player. He may not be a Hall of Famer, but his accolades wouldn’t have become overshadowed with time like they have now.

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