Rocky Mountain Hi

Everybody here should know by now that I can be long winded, so the length of my following reply to Jim's Praising Arizona piece at Purple Row should come as no surprise. I want to say that I really like the squad the Diamondbacks have put together this year, it's going to be a heck of a struggle to win the division for any team, but I think somebody might be a little too quick in writing off the defending NL champs. Let's start off with this:

Colorado are largely seen outside the state as a mediocre team who got incandescently hot for about three weeks. Whether fair or not, their presence in the playoffs is thought of as a quirk, a once-in-a-lifetime miracle provided by the God widely reported [accurately or not] as occupying the corner locker in the home team's dressing-room at Coors. Certainly, looking back at the standings, for the first five and half months, the Rockies were the fourth-best team in the division. At the end of play on September 17th - that's after 92% of the season was completed for Colorado - they were six games back.

See, this would be a great point if it were actually true most of the time, but the fact is that runs such as the Rockies twenty-one out of twenty-two game winning stretch in 2007 -and there have been similar comebacks in baseball history- almost always happen when a team is in a multiple season success cycle. It's incredibly rare for mediocre teams to put together such streaks. I want to bring up a couple of examples here, the 1984 Royals for instance, were at 40-50 on July 17 but came back with a furious run to startle the Twins and Angels to win the AL West. I bring these Royals up because Jim pointed them out on this site earlier in the offseason in looking at other teams that won their divisions with negative run differentials. He also gleaned that the D-backs of 2007 didn't have a lot in common with them. Using Jim's standards of comparison, guess which team in the NL West is actually very similar to that Royals squad? What did Kansas City do the year after that, Jim? I can't remember, or maybe I can and I'm just being a smart-ass brat.

Let's go to another one: the 1964 Cardinals were pretty much a .500 team for the first half of the season. By September 20, they were a bit above that, but were still six and a half games out of the playoffs. They came back, of course, and made it into the playoffs. While the Dodgers would win the pennant the next two seasons, largely the same Cardinals squad would come back to win the two after that. I bring them up, because in a list of the greatest comebacks since the modern era, the Rockies seem to most closely resemble them as a team. The team ages are similar, both were led by a 22 year old rookie who provided offense in a defensive first position (catcher Tim McCarver for them) and a guy on the left side that might not have been quite worthy of the MVP -third basemen Ken Boyer actually won it. That '64 Cards team had an OPS+ of 101 and an ERA+ of 111, the Rockies of 2007 had an OPS+ of 103, and an ERA+ of 111.

Now the D-backs may very well play the role of that '65-'66 Dodgers squad to the Rockies for the next season or two, but don't think for a second that a strong run at the end means that a team is a one hit wonder. Almost always you'll find another pennant season close by when you look them up. BTW, if you want a comp that I really hope the Rockies follow in the footsteps of, check out what the 1891 Boston Beaneaters did in their last twenty-two games, and also look at what they did the two seasons following.

What startled me is that the Rockies devoted their time, energy and no considerable amount of money to signing Troy Tulowitzki - who was not going anywhere until the end of 2012 anyway - and signed him to the biggest contract ever for a player with his (lack of) experience. Especially one who batted an anemic .256 away from Coors, and whose average in Denver was bloated by a freakish .372 BABIP at home. At the time of writing, reckons the most similar hitter to Tulo is Bill DeLancey. Who? Exactly. If that's the case, I'd say the Colorado locking themselves in to a $30+ million contract seems a little premature. Still, not my money.

Tulo's high Coors Field BABIP is more likely a sign of high skill rather than luck. Over his career, Troy Tulowitzki has now put up a .370 BABIP in Coors. Only three Rockies players have had higher success rates in as many PA's and it's no coincidence that they are three of the greatest hitters to ever put on a Rockies uniform: Matt Holliday (.386), Andres Gallaraga (.378) and Larry Walker (.375). If you look at Holliday's early career in a Rockies uniform, he showed much of the same drastic tendency to put up freakishly high numbers in Denver and middling or worse numbers on the road. After watching this team for fourteen seasons, I've come to understand home BABIP to be a sign of a Rockies player's legitimacy. Vinny Castilla (.330), Neifi Perez (.333) and others who've also benefited from playing in altitude just didn't have that extra umph in their home stats. Tulo's in a different class, as was mentioned in the comments to this at Purple Row, Delancey was actually a prime catching prospect who's career was derailed by TB, his own most similar players at Baseball Reference include Russell Martin and Hall of Famer Gabby Hartnett (most similar at age 23) not exactly the scrub he's made out to be by the off the cuff comment.

If I were a Rockies fan, I'd be miffed that management hadn't seen fit to shore up a pitching staff which appears reliant upon Ubaldo Jimenez being the second coming of Nolan Ryan. I mean: Jeff Francis as your Opening Day starter? He'd be the #4 in Arizona. RoxGirl and I have already debated the longer-term future of the two franchises, and both look more than averagely bright, as the prospects which they hold should keep them in good stead down the line. However, as far as 2008 is concerned, the Diamondbacks seem to have a much better chance of repeating their triumphs, than the Rockies have of repeating theirs.
Frankly, the Rockies season will hinge on how close our pitching staff will be able to keep us to the Dodgers and Diamondbacks, and possibly the Padres if Mark Prior and Randy Wolf are healthy (ha! right!). There's plenty of reason to be skeptical that we have the guns. Peavy, Webb, Penny, Haren, Cain and Young all are better than Francis, and so long as he's healthy, a case can be made that RJ is as well. The only reason that none of this would matter is if somehow the Rockies lineup was able to mitigate the success of these aces, and if our own meager pitchers were able to step up when going head to head:

Rockies offense against the NL West, 2007: 4.78 runs per game
Rockies pitchers against the NL West, 2007: 4.34 runs per game.

That latter figure is equal to the runs allowed average of the Dodgers against the rest of the NL West and just a tick behind the Giants' 4.33. The Padres led the division at 4.12 and the D-backs trailed at 4.39. Of course, none of the other squads pitched half their games at Coors Field and none of them came close to that runs scored figure. The Rockies got to the playoffs in 2007 by beating their divisional rivals. The Diamondbacks didn't end the Dodgers chances, that didn't happen until a crushing sweep at home by the hands of the Rockies to start our hot stretch. Look at all the newspaper reports, all the Dodger blogs to see what day they felt they were out of contention. September eighteenth, not the sixteenth is the stain in their history when they felt the lifeblood drain out, when their veterans and rookies went to war with each other.

The Padres also simply couldn't beat the Rockies. The difference between what Jim calls the  Diamondbacks "B" squad that lost the last two games to us and the low scoring "A" squad that lost twelve of twenty to us including the playoffs did not amount to much. It certainly felt like the B squadders put up more of a struggle in game 162 than the A squad did in games one through four of the NLCS. The fact is, that no other team in the rest of the division could beat the Rockies in an eighteen game series last season, so of course it was their imperative to try and catch up, and of course the Rockies didn't have to feel pressured to make a move.

Now to me the question is, will Danny Haren be enough to give the Diamondbacks a shot at winning the season series against the Rockies? Will Hiroki Kuroda and Andruw Jones bring the Dodgers close enough? Haren's coming off of a career year where the spike in his production was way ahead of anything he had previously done. At age 27, it could very well be possible that he never duplicates his 2007 season again, and there's ample reason to believe this side of things. His stats last year were pretty close to his 90 percentile projections, meaning he came in at the upper end of where models would suggest he was capable. A step down from that is almost always a certainty (the same's true for Todd Helton, Manny Corpas and a lot of Rockies, so don't think I'm just picking on you guys here) in the following season, and the difference between pitching at Chase Field from McAfee as well as the strength of the other NL West lineups outside of San Francisco will mitigate a lot of the advantage he would otherwise get from switching to the lesser league.

I think many Diamondback fans have too high of expectations for Haren. He's not ace #2, he's just a #2. He's a really good pitcher, but to expect him to stay in the top dozen in baseball next season is wishful thinking. Still, with Haren the Diamondbacks have the best one through five rotation in the division, I can't deny that. Where the Rockies will likely make up a lot of ground in starting pitching is in the infirmary. Your rotation has some significant potential health issues after Webb and Haren. The drop off in pitching quality from Owings to Edgar Gonzalez isn't that big, but with Micah's bat it becomes significant. From Gonzalez to whoever's next on your list the drop is a lot bigger. Yusmeiro Petit just isn't as good as the Rockies make him look. Max Scherzer has one fabulous pitch and mechanics that make everybody wince. His special fastball loses life and velocity at around the sixty to seventy pitch mark, patient MLB hitters will get to him as a starter. The Rockies, meanwhile, will have another decent middle of the rotation arm ready with Greg Reynolds should Ubaldo Jimenez succumb to the Verducci effect.

I think the Padres are due for a step back this season, Greg Maddux is in peril of experiencing a final collapse and Wolf/Prior aren't safe bets to return to glory. Their outfield defense has worsened, and that will hurt Chris Young's line as well. I worry about the Dodgers, frankly, but I'm hopeful that the egos and incompetence in LA will once again prevail over the talent.

However, a reality check is in order. Despite the sweep inflicted by the Rockies in the Championship series, I think it's safe to say that Arizona fans do not really regard Colorado as a significant threat to our ambitions of another (yawn!) division title.
While I guess what I'm doing with the Padres is just that, writing off any of these four teams before September is a dangerous vanity, and as the Rockies showed last season, even then you better make damn sure the pulse is dead before you turn your back on any of them.

Good luck on the Spring, D-backs fans, Rockies fans look forward to your promise that our battles of summer will be fierce and worthy, and we'll keep our end of that bargain as well. As for a wager on the year, I propose a straight up season series challenge. Win more games against us -including any potential playoff games- and Snakepit Day will return to the Row next year. If we win more against the Snakes again, it'll be your turn to host. Since Jim is so certain of Tulo being a Coors fluke, maybe our shortstops can act as a tie breaker. I'll even take the defense out of the picture -since I know it wouldn't be close to a fair fight otherwise- and let's just go with a straight Tulo vs Drew VORP as the determinant should the teams split the season series. What do you say Jim? You think your boys are up to it?

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