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A Hall of Fame Moment, Parsed and in Context

There were two outs. Many baseball stories, whether real or fantasy, begin with this situation. It’s when the stakes are highest for both the offense and the defense. An out means reprieve and perhaps a win for the team on the field, while reaching base means an extended opportunity for the hitters and possibly a win as well. Such stories tell moments of baseball history. They freeze the instance in time that might otherwise get lost in the accumulation of statistics, games played, and sometimes even wins and losses. Baseball moments can encapsulate a player’s entire career, or the essence of baseball at a particular time. Moments are what we remember. They are not always heroic—sometimes a great baseball moment does not capture the essence of a player as much as a quotidian aspect of the game—but they can nonetheless be what I would consider a Hall of Fame moment. While these stories will not, and should not, be part of the calculations when determining a Hall of Fame player, they have a way of remaining with the observer.

In one of my own early baseball memories, there were two outs. It was, in my estimation, a Hall of Fame moment. What makes it notable is that there were only two outs. In an April 24th game of the strike-shortened 1994 season, the Montreal Expos played a nationally-televised away game against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Chavez Ravine. In the bottom of the first inning, with a runner on first base and one out, there was a pop-up to Expos right fielder Larry Walker. Being the quality defender that he was and given the relative ease of the pop-up from a right-hander, Walker tracked down the ball for the second out. So far unremarkable, but what he did next stood out.

Walker handed the ball to a receptive young baseball fan in the front row and started trotting back to the dugout. The runner on first, Jose Offerman, tagged first and took off running. Noticing that he just turned a live ball into a souvenir, Walker ran back to the fan, took the ball, and threw it to the infield. It turns out he didn’t need to retrieve the ball. According to the rules, once the ball left the field of play the runner was awarded two bases. In the moment, though, neither Offerman nor Walker mentally flipped through the rulebook. Offerman tried to score before Walker could get the ball back in play, all while Larry Walker pilfered a material object from a fan and in the process made a memorable moment for one fan unforgettable for everyone watching.

In 1994 Larry Walker was in his fifth full major-league season. His career was off to a fantastic start. Through the 1994 season, Walker slashed .281/.357/.483. He had hit 99 home runs, stolen 98 bases, had a wRC+ of 128, and accumulated a WAR of 20.9—about seven wins more than Jose Offerman produced in his 15-year career. Not only that, but in the strike-shortened 1994 season, Walker put up numbers that would be All-Star worthy over the course of 162 games. In 452 plate appearances, he hit .322/.394/.587 with 19 home runs, 15 stolen bases, a wRC+ of 149, and put up 4.4 WAR. While WAR is the only statistic cited that includes defensive value, it should be noted that over this time he played above-average defense, had a cannon for an arm, and had already won two Gold Gloves—something a cheeky producer reminded the audience of after Walker forgot how many outs there were.

That particular play is so memorable because it showed a famous athlete, a group so often abstracted as herculean, as eminently human. Incidentally, in the time-span from 1989-1994, admittedly chosen only because of my focus on Larry Walker’s early career, the major-league leader in WAR was well ahead of not only Walker, but everyone else in Major League Baseball. At 50.8 WAR and 15 wins ahead of Hall of Famer Ricky Henderson, it would only be later that Barry Bonds’ all too human actions, including mistakes, would be cause for the indictment of a generation and withholding him and others from the Baseball Hall of Fame.

But back to the play at Chavez Ravine in 1994. It was not just a Hall of Fame moment because a right fielder who in my opinion should be in the Hall of Fame fielded a routine pop fly and brain farted it into the stands. The other part of the story is the hitter, who happens to be someone else who I believe belongs in Cooperstown: Mike Piazza. In 1994, Piazza was a year removed from a Rookie of the Year award. Earning this award is anything but a guarantee of a Hall of Fame worthy career or even years of average play. For instance, Piazza was second in a string of five consecutive National League Rookies of the Year for the Los Angeles Dodgers from 1992 until 1996. Eric Karros, Raul Mondesi, Hideo Nomo, and Todd Hollandsworth have garnered little attention and even fewer votes for the Hall of Fame, despite solid to above-average careers. Piazza, like Walker, had a shortened 1994 season that would be valuable for an entire 162-game season. In 441 plate appearances, he slashed .319/.370/.541, hit 24 home runs, had a wRC+ of 139, and accumulated 3.8 WAR.

Like Walker’s case, only the most aspirational observer would have been thinking about the Hall of Fame and Mike Piazza in April of 1994 when he popped out to right field. Also like Walker, it’s the rest of his career that makes him a Hall of Famer. Piazza accrued 7745 plate appearances and hit 427 home runs over the course of the rest of his career, which ended after the 2007 season; his triple slash was .308/.377/.545; he had a wRC+ of 140; he ended his career with 63.7 WAR. He was the best-hitting catcher of all time, and the only real debate left, as Eno Sarris compellingly demonstrates, is whether he or Johnny Bench was the best catcher of all time. Larry Walker concluded his career after the 2005 season with more plate appearances than Piazza, 8030—his final tallies were a line of .313/.400/.565, a wRC+ of 140 (the same as Piazza’s), and 69 WAR. That Walker was able to do all of this despite missing quite a bit of time due to injury should buoy his Hall of Fame chances rather than diminish them, contrary to what Denver Post writer Troy Renck suggests. Additionally, that wRC+ and WAR are park-adjusted stats should mitigate the stigma of Coors Field.

Finally, somebody had to pitch the ball to Mike Piazza for Larry Walker to run it down, catch it, and give it away—that somebody was, in fact, future Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez. It was Martinez’s second full season as a major-league pitcher, and it was his first with the Montreal Expos. Prior to the beginning of the 1994 season, the Expos traded second basemen Delino Deshields to the very same Los Angeles Dodgers for Martinez. 1994 was also Martinez’s first great season as a starting pitcher. He tossed 144.2 innings in the short season, had an ERA of 3.42, which was slightly worse than his FIP of 3.32, and he struck out 8.83 batters per nine innings, all contributing to a 3.4 WAR mark. Martinez’s 1994 season in the context of the rest of his career was a blip akin to a pop out. He ended his career after the 2009 season with a 2.93 ERA, a 2.91 FIP, 10 K/9, 87.1 WAR, and a near guaranteed first-ballot selection to the Baseball Hall of Fame when he becomes eligible next year.

That play at Chavez Ravine in April of 1994 was as extraordinary as it was banal. Pedro Martinez got Mike Piazza to pop out to Larry Walker in right field in the first inning of an April game and within a shortened season when there wouldn’t even be a World Series. At the time, they were just baseball players. They are now potential and future Hall of Famers. One will be a first-ballot selection, another will likely be elected in the next two years, and I can reasonably see the third as either being the victim of an overcrowded ballot and losing candidacy—or sneaking in somewhere around his 13th-15th year of eligibility. The pop out that resulted in the second out of an inning was a Hall of Fame moment not just due to the players involved, but because it was a story that lodged itself into the collective memory of baseball fans. Stories and moments accumulate to create baseball legacies just as much as statistics do. Viewed in context, they are counter-narratives that illustrate that great baseball moments, and the greatness of players, are told through the stories of exceptional athletes and flawed human beings. Take a look.

The Rockies’ One Through Eight: the Small Successes and Failures of Lineup Construction

Given the speedy obsolescence of my last blog post, I am left to conclude that Dan O’Dowd and Bill Geivett either don’t read my blog, or they don’t give a shit what an immodest blogger has to say about the Rockies. It’s likely both. Indeed, after the Rockies traded Dexter Fowler and signed Justin Morneau last week, there’s no use rehashing alternatives and possible failures. The task now is to think about what the Rockies can do with the roster that they do have. Last week, I wrote about the construction of the Rockies’ roster in the long-term and on a macro scale. This week, I want to think about what the lineup might—and, yes, should—look like on a micro level. What did the daily lineup look like in 2013? What will the daily lineup look like in 2014? Can it be a recipe for immediate success? What does the structure of the lineup tell us about the organization? Because the pitching staff is the area most likely to go through changes between now and opening day, I’m limiting myself to the position players and their offensive production.

The consensus among those who think about these things is that most managers follow orthodoxies that determine what types of hitters can hit where—speedy guys are lead-off hitters, and power hitters hit in the four or five hole. However, there is evidence that these managerial codes are non-optimal. The big caveat, however, is that research indicates optimizing lineups might only account for a handful of runs a year, and maybe one or two wins. But sometimes one or two wins can be the difference between postseason play and spending October noting the changing leaves. My goal here is not to compare the probable 2014 lineup with a more optimal one and argue that it constitutes the difference between success and failure. Rather, I suggest that a daily glance at the Rockies one through eight in 2014 can illuminate broader directions regarding where the team is going. Or not going, as the case may be.

Here is what I think the Rockies daily lineup will look like come April (for the sake of simplicity, I’ll only consider lineups against right-handed starting pitchers):

1)      Charlie Blackmon, LF

2)      DJ LaMahieu, 2B

3)      Carlos Gonzalez, CF

4)      Troy Tulowitzki, SS

5)      Michael Cuddyer, RF

6)      Wilin Rosario, C

7)      Justin Morneau, 1B

8)      Nolan Arenado, 3B

9)      Pitcher

The immediate result of the Fowler trade is that the Rockies have lost their leadoff hitter. Fowler fit the profile of a conventional choice to lead off games. Namely, he is fast. Still, Fowler was a good fit to hit leadoff, but it was not because of his speed, but because he was among the best on the team in getting on base. This should be the primary metric for a leadoff hitter because guys need to get on base in order to score runs. Despite hitting just .263, Fowler’s 13% walk rate elevated his OBP to .368. For comparison, Rosario hit .292, but his free swinging style and 3% walk rate put his OBP at just .315. Even without the threat to steal (Fowler stole 19 bases in 28 attempts), his ability to get on base made him the best candidate on the team to hit in the one hole. Without Fowler, I think Walk Weiss (or Bill Geivett, or whoever the hell makes these clubhouse decisions) is going to go with Blackmon (and sometimes Corey Dickerson) in the leadoff spot, only because Blackmon fits the profile that values speed first. If we assume that Blackmon splits time with Dickerson in left field as well as leading off games, they collectively project (per Steamer) to get on base at a .325 clip in about 700 plate appearances, hardly enough to justify hitting first.

Whereas the decision to bat Fowler first made sense both by conventional and unconventional thinking, the number-two hitter is where the Rockies really made a mistake. I expect it to be repeated in 2014. Over the course of the year, a mélange of as-of-now below average hitters were placed in the two spot—mostly whoever happened to be playing second base, meaning either Josh Rutledge or LaMahieu. The total slash line of all two hitters for the 2013 Rockies? .256/.290/.341. Aside from the pitcher’s spot, the collective average and OBP of the two hitter was better than only the seven spot, and the slugging percentage was the worst among position players. The Rockies essentially placed their worst hitter between the one and three spot. If the Rockies, as I suspect, go with LaMahieu to hit second, they’re going to repeat the error. The other player I can envision Weiss placing in the two hole is Arenado—who projects to be the only position player with worse offensive numbers than LaMahieu.

What throws this mistaken lineup construction into such stark relief is that research suggests that the two spot is precisely where the team’s best hitter should be placed. Sky Kalkman argues that a team’s three best hitters should be placed in the one, two, and four holes, with high OBP leaning towards the one and two spots and power at the four spot. The next best two should be hitting in the three and five spots, and the worst hitters placed in spots six through eight (in the National League). If the Rockies daily lineup looks like what I think it will, then two of the team’s three worst hitters will regularly hit one and two.

Then what should the lineup look like? Baseball Musing’s lineup analysis allows the interested fan to input a name, OBP, and slugging percentage, and it purports to output the optimal team lineup based on runs per game. The calculus is based on past performance taken from data either from 1959-2004 or the steroid inflated statistics from 1989-2002. As Jack Moore observes, both models are flawed because neither is applicable to the game today and the simulations take place in a vacuum without context. Additionally, the RPG outputs are inflated beyond reason. But regardless of whether or not the RPG outputs can be taken at face value, the tool has some use because it enables you to see RPG differentials among different lineup constructions. Using the more inclusive 1959-2004 model and 2014 Steamer projections, the supposed optimal lineup—the one that ostensibly would produce just over five runs per game—looks like this:

1)      Tulowitzki

2)      Gonzalez

3)      Blackmon

4)      Morneau

5)      Cuddyer

6)      Arenado

7)      LaMahieu

8)      Rosario

9)      Pitcher

This lineup is enticingly unconventional. It provides for the Rockies’s best hitters to have the most opportunities to get on base and score runs. Still, I wouldn’t follow it. For one, the team’s best hitters at getting on base also happen to be the ones with the most pop. So there is no easy way to favor OBP at the one and two spots and power at the four and five spots. I would love to have an OBP Carlos Gonzalez and a home run hitting one, but we have to make do with the fortunate curse that they are the same person—at least we do now, as Fowler reached base about as often as Gonzalez in 2013. This lineup would also be risky because the two through four hitters are all left-handed, which would make it easy for the opposition to marshal its lefty specialist late in a close game. Conversely, I would construct the Rockies daily lineup as follows, this time with projected slash line (again, per Steamer):

1)      Gonzalez – .297/.376/.547

2)      Cuddyer – .281/.343/.474

3)      Rosario – .278/.316/.515

4)      Tulowitzki – .300/.376/.534

5)      Morneau – .276/.345/.461

6)      LaMahieu – .289/.328/.392

7)      Arenado – .277/.318/.446

8)      Blackmon/Dickerson – .276/.326/.455

9)      Pitcher (based on 2013 production) – .140/.176/.165

In my mind, this lineup is the one most likely to produce the most runs for the Rockies. Ideally, I would rather have Gonzalez hitting second rather than first, but the rest of the roster limits this flexibility. The possibility of Gonzalez leading off has been raised, but I don’t think there is much to the talk. Other than Gonzalez’s first half season with the Rockies in 2009, he’s only led off when Jim Tracy thought it could pull him out of a horrid slump. Tulowitzki is certainly a better hitter than Cuddyer, but Tulo’s power coupled with Cuddyer’s ability to get on base (even if he’s in for some serious regression in 2014) make hitting Cuddyer second and Tulo fourth the best play. The three and five spots will produce more outs than the one, two, and four spots, but the upside of Rosario’s power mitigates the risk of those outs, as would Morneau’s relatively higher OBP and ability to hit about one fifth of his balls in play as line drives.

Again, this exercise does not identify the path to success and the path to failure for the Rockies in 2014. The team is unlikely to make the playoffs regardless of how the lineup is structured. But what it should do is serve as a reminder to pay attention to the daily details and to think beyond inherited baseball wisdom. If the daily lineup turns out to replicate past mistakes, then I think it points to a much larger organizational problem of resisting even the simplest and most easily integrated baseball analytics. But if Weiss runs out lineups that defy convention, then it might suggest that the franchise has a baseball plan in addition to a business plan.

Confounding: Are the Rockies Rebuilding?

In the 2014 Hardball Times Baseball Annual, Jeff Moore analyzes six teams undergoing some form of “rebuilding.” He correctly notes that the concept has become a platitude in sports media, but that it still has explanatory value. In order to highlight the utility of “rebuilding,” he parses the concept to represent different forms of practice implemented by a variety of organizations. Moore covers the “ignorance” of the Philadelphia Phillies who continue on as if their core of players wasn’t aging and Ryan Howard was ever a reliable contributor; the “recognition” of the New York Mets that they have to be patient for one or two more years before the pieces come together and, they hope, work as well as Matt Harvey’s new elbow should; the “overhauling” of the Houston Astros evident in their fecund farm system and arid big league squad; the “perpetual” rebuilding of the Miami Marlins in a different key from anyone else, most recently using the public extortion and fire sale method; the Kansas City Royals’ “deviation” by trading long-term potential for a short-term possibility; and the “competition” exemplified by the 2013 Pittsburgh Pirates as they seemingly put everything together in 2013, though it remains to be seen whether or not they will need to rebuild again sooner rather than later.

Although the Colorado Rockies are not on Moore’s radar, I think they fall into an altogether different category. They appear to be in a confoundingly stagnant state of non-rebuilding. The mode of rebuilding can be as stigmatizing as it is clichéd, and it is as if the Rockies are avoiding the appellation at the cost of the foresight it might bring. Or, I don’t know what the hell is going on, and I’m not convinced there is a clear plan.

That might sound unfair. But if we, like Moore, take the definition of rebuilding to essentially mean identifying a future window of opportunity and working towards fielding a competitive team to maximize that opportunity, but with the acceptance of present limitations, then I don’t think I’m far off. General Manager Dan O’Dowd is, inexplicably, the fourth-longest tenured general manager in all of baseball, despite overseeing just four winning clubs in 14 full seasons. The only GMs who have held their current job longer are the dissimilarly successful Brian Sabean of the San Francisco Giants, Brian Cashman of the New York Yankees, and Billy Beane of the Oakland Athletics. The possible moves that have been rumored suggest that Dan O’Dowd and de facto co-GM Bill Geivett are frozen by anything more than a one-year plan.

Let’s look at some of the possible moves that are garnering notice. Beat writer Troy Renck reports that the Rockies are eying first baseman Justin Morneau to replace the retired Todd Helton. Of all of the speculative deals, this one is most likely to happen. But what would this accomplish in the short and long-term? In the short term, it would provide a replacement for Todd Helton and possibly provide a bridge for either Wilin Rosario or prospect Kyle Parker to take over full-time at first. The long-term effects are not as easy to identify, as his contract probably wouldn’t exceed two years.

It might sound just fine, until you realize that Morneau would be a “replacement” in more than one sense. Per FanGraphs’ Wins Above Replacement (WAR), Morneau hasn’t accrued an average major-league season since the half-season he played in 2010. Hayden Kane over at Rox Pile notes that he slashed .345/.437/.618 before a concussion ended his 2010 season and most of the next, but those numbers were inflated by a .385 Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP), over .100 points higher than his career average. He was still well on his way to a successful season, but the effects the concussion had on his productivity cannot be overstated. Morneau accrued 4.9 war in the 81 games he played in 2010, and 0.4 since. Optimistically, if Morneau out-produces his projected line next year (.258/.330/.426, per Steamer projections), which he likely would do playing half of his games in Coors Field (except against lefties, who he can’t hit), he would at best be a league-average hitter to go along with his average defense. Sure, it would be an improvement from the lackluster production from first base in 2013, but not enough to build beyond current listlessness.

Fundamentally, I believe that the Rockies do need a bridge before easing Rosario into a defensive position where he is less of a liability or seeing what the team has in Parker. But they already have the link in Michael Cuddyer. While he’s unlikely to reproduce the career year he had in his age 34 season in 2013, having Cuddyer play out his contract sharing time at first seems to be the better allocation of resources in the short-term. In January of 2013, Paul Swydan characterized the Rockies as an organization on a “quest for mediocrity.” Signing Morneau would go a long way toward realizing that goal.

In addition to possible additions via free agency, trade rumors are aren’t helping to clarify where the team is. It has been rumored that the Rockies are interested in trading for Anaheim’s Mark Trumbo, which would also fill the hole at first base that I don’t think actually exists yet. Trumbo, a power hitter, is misleadingly tantalizing. As opposed to Morneau, Trumbo is at least on the right side of 30; similarly though, Trumbo doesn’t get on base enough to provide the offense the boost it needs, especially on the road. He’d be a virtual lock to hit 30+ home runs, but he would also be sure to have an OBP hovering around .300. It’s unclear who would be involved in such a deal, as the Angels wouldn’t be interested in the Rockies’ primary trading piece, Dexter Fowler.

Speaking of Fowler, he’s going to be traded. In an interview with Dave Krieger, O’Dowd said that the organization has given up on him. Not in those words of course—rather, he noted that Fowler lacks “edge,” which is a bullshit baseball “intangible” that doesn’t tell us anything about the player in question, but rather that the front office seeks amorphous traits that can only be identified retrospectively. Reports have the Rockies in talks with Kansas City that would result in the teams swapping Fowler for a couple of relievers, likely two of Aaron Crow, Tim Collins, and Wade Davis. This, too, would maintain organizational stagnation.

The Rockies are practicing a confounding type of non-rebuilding, wherein veterans are brought in not with the idea that they can be valuable role players (like Shane Victorino, Mike Napoli, and Stephen Drew were for the Boston Red Sox last off-season), but as immediate solutions to problems that should be viewed in the long-term. I’m not as pessimistic as I might sound. The Rockies finished in last place for the second straight season in 2013, but with just two fewer wins than the Padres as Giants, and a true-talent level of about a .500 team. The thing about teams with a win projection of about 80 is that they can reasonably be expected to finish with as much as 90 wins—and as few as 70. If the Rockies are competitive in 2014, it will likely be due to health and a lot of wins in close games. I do, however, think they can be competitive starting in 2015. That’s the rebuilding window of opportunity the team should be looking at. If they are, it won’t be because of who is playing first base or right field, or even an improvement in hitting on the road, but progress in the true source of their problems: run prevention.

Last year, only the Twins and the lowly Astros allowed more runs per game. Despite this, for the first time in a while Rockies’ fans can be optimistic about the engine of run prevention, quality starting pitching. This is an area where the team can build a clear agenda for the future. Tyler Chatwood and Jhoulys Chacin should be reliable starters for the next few years. It’s unclear how many good years Jorge de la Rosa has left in him, and it’s also unclear whether or not Juan Nicasio can be a legitimate starter. But the Rockies have two polished, nearly big-league-ready pitching prospects in Jonathan Gray and Eddie Butler—Rockies’ fans should be really excited about these two—so long as one of them is not one of the “young arms” rumored to be in play for Trumbo. If Gray and Butler can be shepherded to the big leagues in a timely manner and learn to pitch to major leaguers quickly, they could join Chatwood and Chacin for possibly the best rotations in Rockies history. And if the front office really wants to make a big free-agent splash, the answers aren’t in the Brian McCanns or Jose Abreus of the world, but in splitter-throwing, ground-ball inducing, 25-year-old starting pitcher Masahiro Tanaka. His presence would likely push a rotation in 2015-2016 and possibly beyond from dependable to exceptional. Of course, it won’t happen. The Rockies, if they bid, will be outbid, and it’s precisely starting pitchers in demand that tend to stay away from Colorado.

In a sense, every major-league team is always in some stage of rebuilding, whether they admit it or not. My point is that I think there can be power in the admission of it. De-stigmatizing the “rebuilding process” might contribute to the recognition that it’s not necessarily a multiyear process, and that being in the process is not an acknowledgement of failure. Recognition of this, which by itself should provide more foresight, should lead the organization and armchair observers like myself from a state of confusion due to the team’s pursuit of stagnation, to one of encouragement where progress can be visualized.