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The Total WAR Project, Part III: The Colorado Rockies

Around 60 or 61 A.D., the Romans were colonizing the British Isles, they encountered resistance from an indigenous tribe called the Iceni offered token resistance around modern-day Norfolk. Led by Boudica, the widow of a king who had made peace with the Romans, the Iceni forged local alliances to collect an army of around 230,000 to march on Londinium, routing a Roman legion and sacking a Roman colony along the way.

The Roman governor of Britain, Gaius Suetonius Paulinus, at the head of 10,000 men, met them at what is now known as the Battle of Watling Street. Paulinus assembled his men, equipped with superior spears and armor, in a V shape, effectively funneling the Iceni attackers into a wedge where they could be surrounded by the cavalry and systematically cut down.

The plan worked spectacularly. The Romans suffered only 400 casualties, while the Britons suffered more than 80,000 – 200 Iceni for every Roman.

Amazing what you can down when you’ve got a plan and your opponent doesn’t.

What I’ve always found interesting about the Rockies is that while Coors Field caters to power hitters, the Rockies tend to have speedy, slap-hitting center fielders, rather than power hitters. The only exception is Ellis Burks–otherwise, the Rockies’ history is littered with guys like Dexter Fowler, Juan Pierre, Willy Taveras, and Alex Cole (look him up, I dare you).

This is because the architects who built Coors Field knew that the thin air would result in the ball flying out of the park, so they built a massive outfield, which needed a speedy, slap-hitting center fielder patrolling it. Otherwise, just about everything hit in the air would drop for a hit. Offensively, even someone like Juan Pierre, who hasn’t hit a ball further than 300 feet since 2001, benefits because of that huge outfield. The deep fence means the opposing outfielders play farther back, which, in turn, means that lots of Texas Leaguers drop and lots of 180-foot doubles get hit.

Total WAR numbers for the Rockies after the jump.

2009 Roster

C1: Chris Iannetta (2.0 WAR)
C2: Yorvit Torrealba (0.8 WAR)

1B: Todd Helton (3.6 WAR)
2B: Clint Barmes (1.9 WAR)
3B: Garrett Atkins (-0.4 WAR)
SS: Troy Tulowitzki (5.4 WAR)
INF: Ian Stewart (1.2 WAR)

OF1: Brad Hawpe (1.3 WAR)
OF2: Dexter Fowler (0.7 WAR)
OF3: Seth Smith (2.7 WAR)
OF4: Carlos Gonzalez (2.4 WAR)
OF5: Ryan Spillborghs (0.3 WAR)

SP1: Ubaldo Jimenez (5.7 WAR)
SP2: Jorge de la Rosa (3.7 WAR)
SP3: Jason Marquis (3.8 WAR)
SP4: Jason Hammel (3.8 WAR)
SP5: Aaron Cook (1.9 WAR)

CL: Huston Street (1.5 WAR)
SU: Rafael Betancourt (1.0 WAR)
RP: Matt Daley (0.7 WAR)
RP: Franklin Morales (0.5 WAR)
RP: Manny Corpas (0.4 WAR)
RP: Josh Fogg (-0.1 WAR)
RP: Matt Belisle (0.0 WAR)
RP: Alan Embree (-0.1 WAR)

2009 Total WAR: 44.7

The more I look at the numbers, the more I like this team. You know how everyone was saying a while back how you can’t win with pitching and defense in Coors Field? Well FUCK ‘EM.

That rotation’s quite good, and still quite young (out of the 5 starters for the 2010 Rockies, every one has posted at least one season of 3.7 WAR or better, and their ages will be 25, 29, 27, 31, and 29).

When I was looking at how J.A. Happ was more lucky than good last year, and how Cole Hamels was more unlucky than bad last year, I kept running into Jason Hammel. His case was like Cole’s only worse. Ask a baseball fan to name 6 starting pitchers under contract with the Rockies in 2009, and I bet Hammel’s name doesn’t even come up. I get great enjoyment out of the fact that everyone acted like Jorge de la Rosa’s injury last year was as big a deal as the injury to Ben Sheets in the 2008 NLDS (the Phillies don’t get out of the first round in 2008 if Sheets is healthy), when Hammel, who had a slightly better season, was an afterthought.

You wouldn’t know it from these numbers, but the Rockies’ biggest problem last year was the platoon split. Brad Hawpe (someone at Deadspin called the 2007 World Series “Hawpe on Papi,” a pun that I’ve giggled at periodically ever since) has an enormous platoon split. Against righties, he’s essentially Chase Utley (about .300/.400/.550), but against lefties, he’s barely a major-league average hitter. Likewise Garrett Atkins. I’ll concede that Atkins’ biggest problem is not the platoon split – it’s the fact that since 2006, his OPS has dropped almost exactly 100 points a year like clockwork. But it is worth noting that he OPS’d almost 250 points higher against lefties than righties. Also, while I was on his splits page, I noticed that Atkins hit .350 or better facing a starting pitcher for the second or third time in a game, which was almost as high as his OPS against a starting pitcher in his first at-bat in the game. I’m not sure what can be done about this, but there must be something, because he sucked last year.

But Atkins is gone now, leaving only one bleeding, gangrenous pustule on the team’s otherwise impeccably maintained backside: the bullpen. In 2009, one would have been well-advised to heed the words of Captain Kirk on the Klingons and apply them to the Rockies relievers: “Don’t Trust Them.”

There’s a lot of potential in that bullpen, but not a single pitcher who can’t be touched. No one knows the perils of an unpredictable bullpen better than Phillies fans, and I know I can say that’s no way to go through a pennant race.

2010 Roster

C1: Chris Iannetta (3.0 WAR)
C2: Miguel Olivo (1.4 WAR)

1B: Todd Helton (3.0 WAR)
2B: Clint Barmes (1.9 WAR)
3B: Ian Stewart (3.0 WAR)
SS: Troy Tulowitzki (6.4 WAR)
INF: Eric Young (1.9 WAR)

OF1: Brad Hawpe (2.2 WAR)
OF2: Dexter Fowler (2.2 WAR)
OF3: Seth Smith (2.3 WAR)
OF4: Carlos Gonzalez (2.6 WAR)
OF5: Ryan Spillborghs (0.8 WAR)

SP1: Ubaldo Jimenez (5.1 WAR)*
SP2: Jorge de la Rosa (3.7 WAR) 4.07 FIP, 162 IP
SP3: Aaron Cook (1.9 WAR) 4.28 FIP, 172 IP
SP4: Jason Hammel (3.8 WAR) 4.32 FIP, 157 IP
SP5: Jeff Francis (1.6 WAR in 2008) 4.41 FIP, 157 IP (Bill James)

CL: Huston Street (1.5 WAR) 2.99 FIP, 55 IP
SU: Rafael Betancourt (1.4 WAR) 3.60, 63 IP
RP: Matt Daley (0.7 WAR) 3.98 FIP, 59 IP
RP: Franklin Morales (0.5 WAR) 5.10 FIP, 56 IP (Bill James)
RP: Manny Corpas (0.4 WAR) 3.87 FIP, 59 IP
RP: Taylor Buchholz (1.2 WAR in 2008) 4.32 FIP, 31 IP (Bill James)
RP: Matt Belisle (0.0 WAR) 4.02 FIP, 62 IP
RP: Esmil Rogers (0.1 WAR) 4.10 FIP, 62 IP (Marcel)

2010 Projected Total WAR: 52.6

Out: Atkins, Marquis, Torrealba, Embree, Fogg

In: Eric Young, Jr., Jeff Francis, Taylor Buchholz, Miguel Olivo, Esmil Rogers

Just as a note, I used the three Bill James projections and a Marcel projection because CHONE doesn’t recognize the existence of Jeff Francis or Taylor Buchholz, and they bumped Morales and Rogers up to the rotation.

Ah, a Taylor Buchholz sighting. I remember him being the onetime Phillies’ Closer of the Future—Now if that isn’t a death sentence I don’t know what is. Also, noted Phillies Killer Yorvit Torrealba has been kidnapped…no, that’s not right…released is the word I was looking for.

Anyhoo. Like the Braves with Hudson, the Rockies get a front-line starter back from injury, noted Canadian luminary Jeff Francis. I’ve been a Francis fan since I read a story on him in Baseball Weekly when he was in college. He didn’t want to leave Canada to go to college, so he went to the only Canadian school that plays NAIA baseball (for those of you unfamiliar with the NAIA, it’s the rung of American collegiate athletics below the NCAA, even Division III) even though he was a first-round talent. He wound up dominating and getting picked by the Rockies in the first round anyway, and I thought it was a cool story, so I’ve rooted for him ever since, except when he beat Cole Hamels in Game 1 of the 2007 NLDS.

So that covers the two Rockies pitchers who haven’t thrown a ball in over a year. Apart from that, it looks like we’re in for a little regression across the board from what was an outstanding and fun starting staff last year. However, the various projectors show the bullpen picking up the slack a little, which would offset the regression of pitching staff. There’s no reason Ubaldo Jimenez doesn’t continue to get better, and given that, if they have 4 other guys who go out there and pitch well on their turns, as all indications say they will, the Rockies ought to be in good shape.

The really exciting part comes from the continued progression of Troy Tulowitzki and Chris Iannetta, as well as the emergence of perhaps the most exciting pair of young outfielders in the game: Carlos Gonzalez and Dexter Fowler. Fowler was the Rockies’ starting center fielder from midseason last year. He’s one of the fastest players in the game, and while he only hit .266 last season, he hit 29 doubles and walked 67 times in 518 PA. The thing I like best about him is that he’s already got pretty good plate discipline for a 23-year-old with fewer than 500 major league at bats in his career. Plus he’s got that top-end speed you need to patrol center field in Coors.

He needs to improve on two things in order to take the leap to elite status. First, he needs to be more selective in his base-stealing. Fowler was 27-for 37 last year. With that speed, he can be absolute murder to opposing batteries if he gets better at reading pitchers and picking his spots.

The second, I’ll get back to in a moment. Carlos Gonzalez, who came to Colorado in the first Matt Holliday trade last season, is poised for a breakout year. I distinctly remember him hitting around .850 in last year’s playoffs. We just could not get this guy out. He’s almost like Fowler, a speed guy with an eye, except that he hits lefty (Fowler’s a switch hitter) and with a little higher average and a little more power.

Ok. Back to that second way Fowler can get better. Tony Gwynn told a story once that George Will recounted in his book Men at Work. In 1984, when the Padres went to the World Series, Gwynn credited the great season that he had to Padres shortstop Alan Wiggins. Wiggins got into drugs after that year and was never really the same; in 1987 he fell for the hidden ball trick twice in the same season and in 1991 he became (it is believed) the first major league ballplayer to die of complications from AIDS.

But in 1984, Wiggins stole 70 bases. Pitchers were so afraid of Wiggins on the bases that they faced Gwynn, who had almost Ichiro-like bat control, more fastballs than he had ever seen. The idea was that throwing fastballs would make it easier to catch Wiggins stealing. Never mind that it allowed Gwynn to sit on the heater and post what was to that point a career season. Gwynn tallied 213 hits and a .351 batting average, both league-leading totals, Wiggins scored 106 runs, and the Padres won the pennant.

Fowler and Gonzalez could be that kind of a 1-2 punch in front of Tulo and some combination of Helton, Seth Smith, Brad Hawpe, and Chris Iannetta if Fowler hadn’t struck out 116 times in 433 at bats in 2009. That’s an appalling rate, one that you can get away with if you’re Mark Reynolds, Ryan Howard, or Adam Dunn, but not if you’re a leadoff hitter who only hits 4 homers a year.

Particularly maddening is that Fowler’s BABIP was .355 last year, a mark that I suggest is 100 percent sustainable with his speed. If he ever cuts down on his strikeouts, he’ll be just incredible. Turning 10 percent of his strikeouts into walks and another 10 percent infield hits ups his OBP by 50 points.

I brought this up the other night with Paul, and he tells me that young players very seldom cut down their strikeout rates, but reducing his bat speed and concentrating more on contact might be the difference between Fowler being a good leadoff man and a great one. Either way, he’s a good player now, and is a couple tweaks in his game from being a great one. Even if he doesn’t cut down on his strikeouts, a little coaching could raise his stolen base percentage, and then you’ve got a .360 OBP leadoff hitter with blinding speed. I suppose you could do worse.

Fowler and Gonzalez are just two of five good outfielders on the Rockies. I think that’s going to be one of their greatest strengths: depth and flexibility. Apart from Tulowitzki, there isn’t a superstar on this team, but neither is there a position player on the roster who would be truly embarrassing to trot out there every day. The Rockies have managed to get 13 solid position players on the same roster, which is hard to do. The Phillies and Yankees didn’t manage that last year.

Between Smith, Hawpe, Gonzalez, Fowler, and Ryan Spillborghs, they have five quality outfielders, plus second baseman Eric Young, Jr., who can also play center. Starting second baseman Clint Barmes can also play short (and third in a pinch), and third baseman Ian Stewart can also play second. Should he so choose, manager Jim Tracy could rewrite his lineup every day, putting the best seven of his non-catcher position players out there in just about any combination. That kind of interchangeability can be invaluable to a manager, particularly when injuries strike. Tracy showed in 2009 that he was no problem shaking up the batting order, so expect more of the same in 2009.

The projections show the Rockies taking a big step forward, about 8 wins’ worth of WAR in total improvement. Of course, a lot of that is predicated on how well Jeff Francis and Taylor Buchholz bounce back from a year’s layoff, and how well players like Gonzalez and Stewart react to playing every day.

I’m really rooting for these Rockies–they’ve got a bunch of fun, likable young players, and with all due respect to the Cardinals, this team is one breakout season away from being the Phillies’ biggest competition for the NL pennant next year.

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