This marks the last team preview in the 30 Teams in 30 (Week) Days series. Tomorrow I will present a finalized projected standings for 2012 based on roster changes, injuries, and other events that have taken place since Spring Training began.
Yesterday host Gill Alexander and I completed Part II of the pre-season podcast which began last week. (Part I can be listened to here:http://goo.gl/uzDaa ). We started by talking about the rules under which the Virginia Tech co-ed softball leagues were conducted and how, if adopted at the MLB level, it would effect baserunning and frankly, it only got more fun from that point forward. You can listed to the podcast here: http://goo.gl/bFEFn
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What They Did: 73-89, 4th Place NL West.
Actual Runs: Scored 735 runs, Allowed 774.
Expected wins based on RS and RA: 77.2 (4.2 above actual)
Restated: Scored 728 runs, Allowed 768.
Exp. wins based on restated RS and RA: 77.0 (4.0 above actual)
Every once in a while you’ll hear a story about parents who went away on a trip and assured their teenage son that they trusted him to be sensible. Sure, they said, you can have some friends over, but you know our rules so we trust you. Then, as sure as the growth of grass follows a rain storm, a week later they express disbelief upon arriving home to find empty bottles of beer stuffed into the pillowcases in the master bedroom and the lawn furniture sawed clean in half in the backyard*. Never really blaming themselves, the parents instead can’t believe that the combination of teenagers, alcohol and a hospitable venue proved so toxic.
(*) This actually happened to a former college roommate of mine. When we saw Risky Business together in college he shook his head sadly with a Hollywood-just-doesn’t-get-it-look and said, “That was nothing. My buddies hid so many empty bottles of beer around the house my parents were still finding them after I was at college.”
The Colorado Rockies have apparently decided to mix toxic ingredients in 2012 and conduct a similar experiment.
Remember the talk about the humidor at Coors Field in Colorado? The Rockies entered the league in 1993 and immediately the combination of thin Denver air and expansion-quality pitching turned Mile High Stadium and then Coors Field into a hitter’s haven. After nine years of regularly allowing the most home runs in baseball, Colorado discovered that storing baseballs in a humidor before the game reduced the number of home runs hit at Coors. Before the arrival of the humidor, Rockies’ home games featured 65% more home runs than its away games. In the nine years after the humidor was installed (through the 2010 season), that figure dropped to 28%, a figure deemed acceptable to the club.
Home runs may have dropped but Coors Field is still an extremely hitter-friendly park. Because architects knew the high elevation in Denver would result in more home runs, the stadium was built with outfield walls further away from home plate than any other stadium in baseball. As a result, the outfield is the largest in baseball. Even though home runs have been reduced, there are still more doubles and triples hit in Coors Field than in any other stadium and it rates as the most hitter-friendly venue in the Major Leagues.
Knowing this, Colorado should place a premium on pitchers with two specific skill sets: extreme ground pitchers and pitchers who strike out an above-average amount of players. Pitchers with either of those traits, and ideally both, will obviously allow a lower-than-average amount of balls to be hit into the thin air and vast spaces of the outfield.
After allowing the second most runs in the National League last year, the Rockies pitching staff this year has a decidedly different look. Gone are a half-dozen pitchers who started more than half of Colorado’s games last year. Colorado has replaced them with the equivalent of arsonists hired to protect a forest during a drought.
Colorado’s new “ace” in the sense that he will be its opening game starter is Jeremy Guthrie, acquired in an off-season trade with the Baltimore Orioles. Of the 94 pitchers in the majors last year who pitched at least 160 innings, Guthrie ranked 78th in percentage of ground balls allowed. Obviously, that would appear to be a horrendous problem in Denver, but it’s made worse by the fact that only four of the 16 pitchers who allowed more ground balls struck out less hitters per nine innings than Guthrie. Kris Humphries and the Kardashian family were a better match than Guthrie and the Rockies, and frankly, by all rights the relationship shouldn’t last any longer.
Colorado’s new number 2 pitcher? None other than 49 year-old Jamie Moyer, last seen – in his age-47 season – struggling to keep his ERA below 5.00 while he struck out batters 13.7% of the time, a rate that would have ranked 79th among the 94 qualified starters last year. In six of the nine seasons batted ball data is available, Moyer allowed fly balls at a rate of 60% or greater, putting him squarely in the Guthrie camp.
Just for fun I looked up Moyer’s career statistics at Coors Field. Jamie Moyer has a lifetime ERA of 9.00 in Coors Field. Granted that ERA has been accumulated in just 11 innings pitched over two games (both losses for Moyer.) Now, I’m usually the first person to scream “beware small sample sizes!” but sometimes we need to use common sense and override statistical caveats. If, for example, I tell you that I am 0-1 in career Mixed Martial Arts bouts, there’s really no need to worry about sampling error. You can safely extrapolate that over 30 fights as well. A 49 year-old making a major league roster is a nice story but the only places it would make sense are in stadiums forgiving to fly ball, low-strikeout pitchers like Oakland, San Diego, or Seattle.
And then there is Tyler Chatwood. As my book was taking shape last summer, I stumbled upon an investment even more lucrative than Apple stock – betting against Tyler Chatwood. The average major league pitcher strikes out 18.6% of the batters he faces while walking 8.1%. Chatwood has made it his mission apparently to make those numbers converge. Last year he walked 11.5% of the batters he faced, nearly the exact amount he struck out, 11.8%. The only way a pitcher like that is going to win games in the long run is if his team scores at least six runs a game. No team in baseball came close to doing that last year, least of all his old team the Los Angeles Angels. Chatwood pitched in 17 games after Memorial Day last year and the Angels, a team that won 86 games in 2011, went 3-14 in those games, many of those as a favorite, causing me to dub his starts, based on the day of the week as “ATM Thursday/Friday, etc.” on Twitter. Inexplicably Colorado traded catcher Chris Iannetta in exchange for Chatwood during the off-season. Between the Guthrie and Chatwood trades as well as the Moyer signing, it’s as if the Rockies’ opponents constructed Colorado’s roster like a cruel joke on the guy who shows up late to his fantasy draft and is told he auto-selected a bunch of injury-prone underachievers.
Despite playing in a league with a designated hitter, Colorado is going to give up more runs this year than any other team in baseball. To win games the Rockies are going to have to score a lot of runs. They’ve got a line up anchored by start shortstop Troy Tulowitzki and, based on a stellar 2010, a much hyped left-fielder in Carlos Gonzalez, and an exciting center fielder in Dexter Fowler. However, the Rockies have five below-average players rounding out the line up, a big change from prior years when the Blake Street Bombers could overcome a porous pitching staff by outslugging its opponents.
The Rockies didn’t have to be a last-place contender this year. Tulowitzki is always a decent pre-season MVP choice and Fowler and Gonzalez provide an intriguing mix of speed and power. The departures of Iannetta and Seth Smith have weakened the team offensively and new starting third baseman Jordan Pacheco projects to be a poor choice to start in a line up that’s going to need to score runs. The signing of Michael Cuddyer to replace Smith in right field is also a curious choice; Cuddyer is a terrible fielder and in the vast spaces of Coors Field, outfield defense is vitally important to suppressing runs. The pitching staff, below average in any environment is particularly ill suited to take the mound 50% of the time in Colorado. The Rockies’ front office appears to have put the team together without any regard for the environment it plays in. They can tell the pitchers, “we trust you” but like the parents of teenagers left alone for a weekend, they shouldn’t be surprised at the carnage that ensues.
Oddsmakers’ expectations: I’m much more pessimistic on the effect the new pitchers will have on Colorado’s fortunes this year than others. Oddsmakers see the Rockies as a .500 team, making the total wins over/under 81½, and one analyst I deeply respect, Clay Davenport, has the Rockies in a dead heat to win its division with the Giants and Diamondbacks at 85 wins. I don’t see how they will hold down opponent scoring enough to achieve a .500 record. While this is the fourth “under” I see in the NL West, the Rockies represent my favorite play of the lot.
72-90 – Fifth in NL West
709 Runs Scored 798 Runs Allowed
Mop Up Duty:
Joe Peta is the author of Trading Bases, the Newsletter, a companion piece to Trading Bases, A Story about Wall Street, Gambling, and Baseball* (*) Not necessarily in that order, a Dutton Books/Penguin (U.S.A.) February, 2013 release.
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