In a previous lifetime, I was submersed in a musical subculture where I felt that I needed to constantly prove my legitimacy. I participated in this through a daily performance of what I thought, and what I thought others thought, was a justification for inclusion. One day, as I was perusing the apparel at a local record store for another t-shirt to shore up my bona fides, I came across one with exactly what I wanted to say to the world. In fact, the shirt said it for me. In extremely large print, the shirt advised “posers” to go do unsavory things to themselves. The distinction between those who were in and those who were out—like the hated “posers”—was so important to my teen-self that I often didn’t even see how elusive the parameters of my own subculture were.
Luckily, I’ve moved beyond such pretensions. And it is in that spirit that I say that this is the first I am preparing for the upcoming baseball season by reading the Baseball Prospectus Annual. For long-time readers, I bring fresh eyes to the 2014 annual. For those that have never read the annual before, read this as a glimpse inside the guidebook. In this post, I offer a Rockies-centric review of the 2014 annual, and bring the commentary in line with the ongoing conversation taking place in the purple hued corners of the internet, primarily having to do with a couple of young pitchers in the Rockies system.
The bulk of the guidebook is a team-by-team analysis, each of which contains a team essay and player-by-player commentary. The team essays, bylined for the first time, are authored by 26 men and four women (it’s a start, but I hope there are more women’s voices next year). While each essay is structured differently and focuses on different aspects of the given team, there is a commonality that runs through each. The essays attempt to identify one or more revealing trends from the recent past and situate them in such a way that can provide insight into what to expect of each team in the near and distant future. The player comments are generally very well written, always insightful, and similarly aim to read past performance to an understanding of future potential and limitation.
Russell Carleton (@pizzacutter4) wrote the Rockies essay, and it contains a lot of what longtime Rockies fans might expect. But he also has a new take on an old quandary. First, the expected: “if you like offense,” he writes, “at least 2013 was entertaining.” This after noting that the Rockies scored the second most runs in the National League, but also gave up the most, and ended up in last place in the National League West. Finishing near the basement in team ERA was similarly ordinary for the Rockies. He notes, and many readers will know, that the Rockies have only finished better than league average in ERA twice in 21 seasons of play—in the most recent playoff years (2007 and 2009). Despite some surprising performances by Michael Cuddyer and Nolan Arenado, Carleton suggests that the club is left with the same persistent narrative in the end: there is just no escaping the effects of Coors Field.
The essay really becomes interesting once Carleton engages with the question of whether or not the Coors Field narrative has legs, specifically regarding its reputation as a home run haven. What, he asks, is a “park effect?” To find out, he measured home runs per plate appearance for home and away teams in all parks (excepting Target Field and Marlins Park) from 2010-2012. His answer concerning the park effects of Coors Field vis-à-vis all other parks is compelling in its simplicity—so much so to be almost self-evident. Based on his numerical wizardry, he argues that Coors Field’s park effect does not randomly create home runs. Instead, pitchers skilled at preventing home runs will be equally rewarded in preventing home runs at Coors Field as anywhere else, even if the total number of home runs is inflated. Likewise, a hitter who is good at hitting home runs will also be rewarded at Coors Field. In each case, the production or prevention of home runs relies entirely on talent. Coors Field does not “cause” home runs. Instead, the association between talent and production is accentuated at Coors Field. Talent should win the day.
This is an important point. Coors Field is so often portrayed as a chaos diamond where the inherited wisdom of each player, team, and baseball in general can be cast aside because the game is just so different there. It is not. The Coors Field canard is most annoying when the Rockies play on the road, as some broadcasters are wont to proclaim that a fly ball hit to the warning track at sea-level would nearly have left the park Denver. It’s lazy.
The isolation and explanation of the pitching problem, of course, does not necessarily come with a solution. But it can be the beginning of one. Everything relies on quality pitching. Obviously, every team wants good pitching, but the Rockies problem has always been obtaining and retaining quality hurlers. And therein lies the rub: the claim that a successful pitcher at sea-level can be just as successful at elevation does not mean that the pitcher’s statistics will look the same. It means that the pitching talent on the field will give the team an equally good chance to win at elevation as it would anywhere else. Winning and losing games, then, simply comes down to the relative strengths of the opposing teams. A winning formula for the Rockies is the same as for every other team—collect players good at baseball. Coors Field, however, does effect measures that determine a pitcher’s future marketability, such as his ERA, which makes coming to Colorado a difficult sell.
We’ve always known that it is challenging to attract free agent pitching, and those that the Rockies have brought in have not turned out so well, which means that homegrown pitching talent is even more important. I found it curious, then, that this was included as part of Carleton’s conclusion: “The truth is that there’s not a lot of pitching on the way in the minors, and right now that’s what this
team needs.” When the page numbers of the 2014 Annual turn to the 500s, you find the top 101 prospects. Sitting at number 16 is Rockies prospect Jonathan Gray, someone “who fits the mold of a future no. 1 starter,” as Jason Parks writes, and a player who has garnered debate about “whether he [will] blossom into a legit ace or fall a bit short.” Sounds good to me. And at number 26 we have Eddie Butler, whose skillset is one that “most believe [is] enough to project him as a potential front-end starter.” Similarly, ESPN’s Keith Law characterizes Gray as someone with “a very high floor,” and he sees Butler as “at least a no. 2 starter.” Not only that, but they profile as the types of pitchers that should succeed at Coors Field: both have a power fastballs that contribute to a lot of strikeouts, and their secondary breaking pitches (both throw a slider and changeup) rely on horizontal, rather than vertical movement.
Both Gray and Butler are exciting prospects—as prospects generally are because they have not had a chance to fail at the major league level yet. Sometimes I think that Rockies fans need to take a deep breath to remind ourselves that this isn’t the first time the Rockies had two minor-league arms that were supposed to lead the club into pitching competence. The last time, in fact, was a few years ago after the team got Drew Pomeranz and Alex White from the Cleveland Indians for Ubaldo Jimenez. Pomeranz and White, as opposed to Gray and Butler, have had a chance to fail, and they did so spectacularly. Also because they have been around longer, we can look back to see what certain publications—such as online archives of the Baseball Prospectus Annual—had to say about them. Where they touted as highly as Gray and Butler?
The answer is no. Let’s start with White. In 2010, he was called “one of the top college arms in the 2009 draft,” but already the writer wondered whether or not his power fastball/splitter combination would be more appropriate in relief. In 2011 scouts’ opinions were “mixed,” and the consensus was still that he might fit better as a late inning reliever. This coming season will likely prove this diagnosis correct, if he makes the major league roster for the Houston Astros. Pomeranz was touted a bit more highly as a prospect. He was the fifth overall pick in the 2010 draft, and like White he was considered one of the top college arms in the draft. In Pomeranz’s first write up, the Baseball Prospectus team not so subtly identified the caveats to his potential with this declarative: “Pomeranz is a guy who walked nine over three innings in his biggest game of the spring; two years from now, he could still be struggling to find the plate at Double-A.” They were correct that he would be struggling to find the plate, but it was actually bouncing between Colorado Springs and Denver. The culprit in those years, as in the early diagnostic, was Pomeranz’s inability to throw strikes. For what it’s worth, he’s projected to have a nice season for the Oakland Athletics this year.
It’s somewhat unfair to say that White and Pomeranz failed the Rockies. It’s just as likely that the Rockies failed the players in terms of physical and mental preparation. I am certain that both were rushed to the big leagues before they were ready. My point is that White and Pomeranz, even when they were shiny draftees and then prospects, were not given the accolades Butler and Gray are currently receiving. An enterprising reader can also look back to the prospect profiles of Aaron Cook and Jeff Francis, the Rockies two most successful pitching draftees. I would expect to find expectations more in line with Pomeranz and White than Gray and Butler. The truth is, the Rockies have never had two pitchers with so much potential before. And their development and estimated arrivals in the majors overlap. So after taking that deep, sobering, breath, get really excited about them again.
So then why did Carleton leave out Gray and Butler from his essay? Perhaps it was a comment on the lack of promise outside of those two. Two other names that have peppered Rockies prospect lists in recent years, Tyler Matzek and Chad Bettis, look like they will turn into productive relievers rather than rotation contributors. Or maybe he just doesn’t want to count his alligators before they hatch. That is a position with which I can empathize. But Gray and Butler are unprecedented talents in the Rockies organization, and they are two that can contribute to putting the Coors Field conundrum to rest.