Turn Back The Clock: Mike Hampton

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We all love sweet nostalgia, which is why I am periodically going to turn back the clock to remember a forgotten Rockie.  I’m busting out my old baseball card collection and re-opening old wounds brought on by ghosts of Rockies past.

This week, my focus is on the money pit that was Mike Hampton.

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Truth be told, I loved Mike Hampton.  I was a short left-handed pitcher.  He was a short left-handed pitcher.  He was supposed to be good.  I had dreams of one day being average.  He could hit.  I couldn’t.

I was 8 years old when he was brought to Colorado on an 8 year, $121 million contract that some consider one of the worst of all time.  It seems ridiculous now, but it wasn’t all that crazy at the time.  Hampton was good in the years leading up to that contract.  He went 22-4 with a 2.90 ERA in 1999 for Houston.  He then played mercenary for the Mets in 2000, being the ace of a staff that won the pennant.  By steroid era standards, he was at the top of the game.

The Rockies thought Hampton could be the savior for the pitching staff that could help carry a team full of sluggers to the top.  He was uhh… not that.  Coors Field got the best of him.  His ERA went up by over two runs in his first year as a Rockie (3.14 to 5.41).  The following year, he managed to get even worse.  His ERA jumped to a Kyle Kendrick-like 6.15.  Again, keep in mind that this man was supposed to be the future of our pitching staff.  Remember what we all said about Kendrick?  Now imagine if we gave him $121 million.

There was a silver lining to all this.  First of all, Hampton raked.  He was a pioneer when it came to offensive prowess.  The man hit 10 homers in his two seasons in Colorado.  But this was only over 154 plate appearances.  If you extrapolate out to an average 600 PA season that a health position player hits, that’s 40 jacks.  Ignore me right now.  I know that pitchers tend to get more meatballs than, say, Arenado did in his 40 HR season, but stats are stats.  You can only hit the pitches thrown to you, and Hampton hit them hard.

The next best part of having Mike Hampton had to be getting rid of him.  A few weeks ago, Isaac and I had a back-and-forth conversation about the best trades in Rockies history.  He didn’t even have this on the list but I saw the gold in this.  There were several teams involved but ultimately, the Rockies got rid of Hampton and a young Juan Pierre (he’s forever young, but his age matched his appearance).  In return, they got Preston Wilson and Charles Johnson.  People always forget Preston Wilson!  He could be a “Turn Back the Clock” article by himself, but basically we got two starters back.  Preston Wilson was one of our best players, and Charles Johnson was a serviceable catcher.  They both had sizable contracts, but we at least got out from underneath Hampton’s crippling contract.  The Rockies saved $30 million in total from the deal.

Hampton ended up in Atlanta once the dust settled.  Despite improving slightly, he never returned to the same level he was at early in his career.  He then became a pin cushion for the surgeon’s needle.  It started with Tommy John in late 2005.  Then a torn oblique at the start of 2007.  Then a strained pectoral.  All in all, Hampton didn’t pitch in a major league game from August 2005 until July 2008.  The Rockies paid him to be bad.  The Braves (and to a large extent, the Marlins) paid him a whole lot of money not to pitch at all.

Hampton was basically done after that.  He tried to make a comeback in Houston, but tore his rotator cuff during his 2nd stint with the Astros.  He tried making one more comeback after that, but it just didn’t happen.  He finally gave in and retired at the beginning of the 2011 season.  Despite his early season career, Coors Field and his own body were too much to overcome.

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Since retirement, Hampton has bounced around coaching circles.  He was brought on this offseason to be the bullpen coach for the Mariners, certainly an intriguing job for a pen with a new closer (Steve Cishek) and set up man (Joaquin Benoit), and who traded last year’s best reliever to Boston (Carson Smith).

Mike Hampton, along with Denny Neagle, will always be the symbol of the Rockies’ shortcomings on the mound.  The Rockies haven’t made a pitching move anywhere near that important since, and they have paid the price.  I often dream of making a big signing around mid-December, but at this point, the ghost of Mike Hampton still haunts this franchise too much to make it a reality.  But hey, the man could hit!

Next: Rockies Raise The Fences

A surprising announcement came out of the Rockies front office today; the left field corner and right-center fences will be raised eight feet to eliminate some of the cheaper home runs that happen at Coors Field. Rockies GM Jeff Bridich used “23 years of statistics” to figure out where home runs leave Coors at a higher rate. The fences will not be in front of seating areas, as they will be put up in front of both bullpens and the tunnel down the left field line. The renovations will be completed by Apr. 8, the home opener for the Rockies.