No Country for Old Men: The Rockies’ Road Ahead

If you’re a baseball fan, you want to see the game succeed around the world. (Note: If you’re not a baseball fan and you’re reading this post, then a cruel and capricious Fate has once again sent your life’s tormented journey careening badly astray.) Baseball is the national sport in Japan and Cuba. It is played avidly in great swaths of Latin America. Korea, Taiwan, and even Australia have popular leagues. Baseball spans the globe and it was invented here. That’s pretty cool.

But a game that has colonized the land of the marsupials has struggled to gain a foothold at the major-league level in one place right here in the U.S. of A., and that’s Denver. Since their birth in 1993, the Colorado Rockies have never had four consecutive winning seasons. They’ve been to the postseason just three times, failing to get past the divisional series twice.  During their 23 seasons, the Rockies have finished last or second to last in their division 18 times.

The Rockies’ recent puzzling trade of Corey Dickerson for Jake McGee has renewed existential discussions about baseball at altitude: Can the Rockies ever win? If so, how? One aspect of this broader inquiry looks at the statistical anomalies associated with Coors Field. Another branch, the limb I’ve crawled out on here, looks at the Rockies’ roster construction problems.

We are fortunately not completely bereft of evidence bearing on the question of how to assemble a winning Rockies roster. Dan O’Dowd did it, taking the team to the World Series in 2007 and establishing the franchise’s only semi-sustained run of non-futility from 2007-2010. His success was somewhat fleeting, which is why he’s working for the MLB Network now. But he did at least momentarily succeed where all other have failed, so it’s worth sifting through those old Rockies to see if any useful artifacts can be found.

The 2007 Rockies were a career-year team. A lot of things went right for a lot of players at exactly the same time. Matt Holliday and Troy Tulowitzki had MVP caliber seasons (though fWAR liked Tulo a little less than bWAR did). Holliday, Kaz Matsui, Jeff Francis, and Manny Corpas all had career years under either version of WAR, and bWAR says 2007 was Tulo’s best year. Those were five of the Rockies’ six WAR leaders in 2007, the other being Todd Helton. Except for Matsui and Helton, they were under 28 years old.

These Rockies could pick it, especially in the middle infield. Regardless of defensive metric used, Tulowitzki and Matsui had outstanding defensive seasons. Using Fangraphs Def rating, Tulo at 22.2 runs above average was behind only the magnificent Omar Vizquel (30.2) at short. Matsui lacked enough innings to qualify, but he would have been third (13.0) behind only Brandon Phillips (19.4) and Chase Utley (14.5). The metrics split significantly on two other Rox, Holliday and Helton. Total Zone loved ’em, Def did not.

The Rockies took advantage of that iron curtain infield with a heavy ground ball pitching staff. The Rockies staff was first in the NL in the ratio of ground balls to fly balls, and in ground outs to air outs. They were better than the league average in WHIP, H/9, and BB/9. Their ERA and FIP were mediocre, but the park-adjusted figures were much better. Their ERA- of 90 was good for third in the NL, while their FIP- of 97 tied them for fifth. The one thing the Rockies pitchers didn’t do was miss bats – they were 14th of the then-16 NL teams in K%.

One more thing about the 2007 Rockies: they were young. Pitchers and hitters averaged about a full year younger than the league. Helton and Matsui were the only starting position players over 30, and Rodrigo Lopez was the only semi-regular rotation denizen over 30. The bullpen had two key contributors over 30: Brian Fuentes and LaTroy Hawkins, but also two under 26 (Corpas and Taylor Buchholz).

Today’s Rockies lack most of that 2007 vibe. The 2015 lineup had just one player, Nolan Arenado, who had a breakout season, and he was the only player from whom such a season might have been expected. The middle-infield defense was was almost exactly average, with Tulo (-1.6 Def) and DJ LeMahieu (2.6 Def) mere shadows of the 2007 keystone combination. The pitchers still get a lot of ground balls, but they don’t do anything else well. In 2007 the Rockies staff tied for 7th in the majors in average fastball velocity; last year they tied for 17th. And the team is older; the hitters are at just about the league average, and the pitchers roughly four months above it.

Career years, stellar defense, hard throwing: these are the components of a younger man’s game, and this is especially true in Denver’s lung-busting altitude. Whether by design or accident (or more likely some combination of both), O’Dowd found a winning recipe for Coors that exploded into relevance in 2007. Assemble a roster of mostly younger players with high ceilings, and hope a decent quantity of them hit those ceilings at the same time.

Not only is this easier said than done, it is also a strategy freighted with risk. A roster built like this may well still fail more often than it succeeds, though the successes can be very sweet. The expanding competition for young talent puts a premium on the Rockies’ ability to find players deeper down prospect lists that have promise and have not yet come close to achieving it. It’s harder to sell tickets when the team isn’t relentlessly successful.

But an overlooked aspect of Coors Field is its positive impact on team revenues. It is simply a fabulous place to watch a baseball game, particularly on a sun-drenched Denver summer afternoon. The Rockies put a craptastic product on the field last year and still managed to rank 8th out of 15 NL teams in attendance. This is the worst they’ve done in the last five years, despite fielding teams that have evaded victory with alarming regularity.

Denver fans are enthusiastic and patient. This is exactly the kind of fan base for which a gambling, win-in-the-window and then rebuild strategy might work. This is the fan base Billy Beane wishes he had.

The Rockies may or may not be poised to implement a plan like this. They now have six prospects in MLB Pipeline’s top 100, headlined by Brendan Rodgers, a player that may have the glove to stick at short with a bat that would play at third. They have some young hard (or at least harder) throwing arms. They have David Dahl, a center fielder who might have the enormous range to make fly balls slightly less dangerous to the pitching staff.

But there are some dragons on the map. Forrest Wall, the Rox’ top second base prospect, is more bat than glove, a combination that may be less helpful at Coors than elsewhere. Ryan McMahon is a third baseman and Trevor Story may profile best there, but this is the one major-league hole the Rockies have already filled. They have a glut of low-ceiling outfielders only slightly alleviated by the McGee trade.

That trade looks less puzzling seen in the light of a young, high-upside strategy. As David Laurila recently noted, the most favorable to way to interpret this trade from the Rockies’ standpoint is that GM Jeff Bridich intends to flip McGee for one or more promising prospects. Corey Dickerson is a decent player, but he doesn’t really fit with this kind of plan. It’s reasonable to expect a similar trade involving Carlos Gonzalez before the trade deadline. You will definitely need a scorecard to identify your 2017 Rockies.

The wildest of cards here is the Rockies’ erratic ownership group, at whose behest the team held onto Tulo for too long, and may have done the same with CarGo. If the Rockies want to follow the strategy outlined here, they will need to constantly and relentlessly purge their roster of older players when the career-year potential is behind them and their defense (or velocity) starts heading south.

Owners often want to hang on to the old, familiar names. The Rox would be better off having hearts as cold as their ballpark’s beer.

I'm a lawyer. But please don't hold that against me. If you're twitterious, follow me @MyBrokenDog.

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Of interest: Ex-Rocki OF Drew Stubbs was amazingly carried on the 40-man roster this winter by the Texas Rangers.