Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Losing the WAR: Colorado Rockies Hitters

A popular mini-project that baseball fans like to play around with is building fictional rosters of the best players in team history, or the best players in the league today, or the best players all-time.  The thing is, these lists are usually focused upon just that: the best.  What if we looked at the question from the other side?  Who were the worst players in a team's history?  How bad would an all-time worst Rockies (since, you know, we're all Rockies fans in Nicht Diese Tone land) roster be?

I went through's Rockies pages to dig up the worst single-season performances in Rockies history, by position.  For simplicity's sake I used WAR as my metric of choice, but in a few cases of ties I went with a combination of other statistics and personal opinion.  The roster, along with comments, is as follows:

Catcher - Joe Girardi, 1995, -0.6 WAR
Other Stats: .262/.308/.359, 58 OPS+, 76 Ks to 29 BBs.

Girardi was never a great player, and this was one of his worst seasons.  To his credit, the Rockies did make the playoffs in '95, but not so much due to Joe's contributions.  His .308 OBP was especially uninspiring, and while he did manage to hit 8 homers, that "power" was almost certainly the result of the inaugural season at Coors Field (6 of the 8 came at home).  Indeed, Girardi was a test-case for Coors Field, hitting .291 at Coors and .228 on the road.  Remarkably, Girardi - who was 30 years old in '95 - went on to have a number of decent, if unspectacular seasons, with the Yankees and Cubs in the late '90s.

First Base - Todd Helton, 2010, 0.4 WAR
Other Stats: .256/.362/.367, 87 OPS+, 8 HR, 37 RBI, 118 G, 90 Ks to 67 BBs.

Let's get this one over with...  Helton is, as you know, probably the best player in Rockies history.  Well, that's not totally clear, because there's a good case to be made for Larry Walker.  But Helton has spent his entire career in purple pinstripes, and figures to retire with Colorado in the next few seasons.  Indeed, it was practically inevitable that he would hold this "worst ever season by a Rockies first baseman" spot if only because the Rockies have only had two starting first basemen in their entire history.  Think about that for a minute.  The Rockies have been around since 1993, and the only contenders for this spot are Helton and Andres Galarraga.  The Big Cat actually did have a season of 0.2 WAR in 1994, but both he and Helton's contributions were entirely from defense, and Andres still slugged over .500 in the strike-shortened '94 campaign (it's just that the park adjustment is so big that his offense looks bad).

Anyway, it's about time Helton start moving towards retirement.  2010 was the first season in Helton's career in which he struck out more than he walked (first since his call-up in '97, anyway, when he struck out 11 times and walked 8 in 35 games), and his 8 home runs is, frankly, sad for a first baseman playing in Colorado.

Second Base - Mike Lansing, 1998, -0.2 WAR
Other Stats: .276/.325/.411, 78 OPS+, 18 GDP, 12 HR (after hitting 20 the year before in Montreal)

Lansing is the rare player who actually got worse after coming to Coors Field.  In 1997, playing for the Expos, he hit .281/.338/.472, mashed 20 homers, and accumulated 2.5 WAR.  Not a bad season.  Hardly what you build a roster around, but exactly the kind of player you want to have to fill out a team.  Lansing fell off the proverbial cliff in '98, though, and while he was still a solid defender, his inability to hit made him worse than replacement level for a team in dire need of an identity up the middle and at the top of the lineup.

Third Base - Ian Stewart, 2009, 0.2 WAR
Other Stats: .228/.322/.464, 95 OPS+, -0.8 defensive WAR

The Rockies have never been a great team at third base, but have usually been solid.  Charlie Hayes, Jeff Cirillo, Garrett Atkins.  No one's idea of world-beaters, but good enough to play on a contender.  Stewart, of course, was supposed to be the guy who went out and beat worlds.  A top draft pick, a highly touted prospect (so good that the Rockies didn't pick Evan Longoria when they had the chance), and now a frequent "potential breakout" player every season, Stewart just hasn't put it together, and time is running out.

One of Stewie's biggest problems (besides his work ethic, which many experts have called into question) is his reliance on the long ball.  Stewart is very much a "three true outcomes" player (meaning a large percentage of his at bats end in either walks, homers, or strikeouts) who works the count and waits for his pitch.  The problem is, he's often too patient, taking drive-able pitches, and thus doesn't draw nearly enough walks.

That said, in 2009 Stewart's value was hindered significantly because the Rockies trotted him out to second base in 21 games and the outfield for 9, enough to ruin his fielding WAR for the whole season.  Stewie is actually a decent, if unspectacular, fielder at third - certainly better than his predecessor, Atkins.  What's more, while Stewart ultimately had an unimpressive 2009, Atkins gets honorable mention (and a bench spot) for being even worse than Stewart in this playoff year.  He doesn't edge out Ian for the starting spot only because the Rockies benched him midway through the season, and he didn't really come close to the theoretical 500 PA requirement I made to be a starter on this team.

Short Stop - Neifi Perez, 1998, -1.2 WAR
Other Stats: 162 G, 712 PA, .274/.313/.382, 68 OPS+, -0.9 defensive WAR, 22 Sac Bunts

Better known to Cubs fans as "Ne!f!," Perez was, for a time, possibly the worst player in baseball.  It's truly remarkable that he lasted in the majors from 1996 to 2007, posting a career WAR of exactly 0.1.  He was, in short, replacement level for his career, just as good or bad as any number of minor leaguers.  What makes his longevity even more surprising - or maybe explains it - is his dubious distinction of being one of the few players to face three separate suspensions for testing positive for amphetamines.  Yeah, Neifi is just that kind of player.

Anyway, Perez's 1998 was one of his worst seasons, and yet he played every single game, led the team in plate appearances, and often hit near the top of the lineup (and was asked to give up outs by sacrifice bunting a lot).  What's more, in addition to spotty-at-best offensive ability, WAR believes that Perez was a vastly overrated defender.  His 1998 numbers bear that out.  Even using traditional metrics, its hard to see him as a great shortstop: he committed 20 errors for a fielding percentage of .975.  Not terrible, but far from what you expect out of a guy with a .313 OBP playing at Coors Field.

Left Field - Dante Bichette, 1999, -2.8 WAR
Other Stats: .298/.354/.541, 102 OPS+, 6 SB and 6 CS, 34 HR, 133 RBI

By WAR, this was the worst season of any player in Rockies history.  Not even Mike Hampton's 2002 (we'll get there) could touch Bichette in '99.  At 35 Dante was done - certainly done in the field - his legs gone and his bat slipping.  Still, Dante was a decent hitter late in his career (his 102 OPS+ means he was just above league average), and by traditional numbers like HR and RBI he still looked pretty good.  The biggest issue here was defense.  13 errors in left field is no one's idea of acceptable, leading to an abysmal .952 fielding percentage.  Add to that an utter lack of range (his Range Factor of 1.78 was well below the league average of 1.98) and you've got a recipe for disaster.  Obviously Bichette can still be the cleanup hitter for this all-time worst Rockies team, but he's going to give up just as much as he provides on offense by being a butcher in the field.

Center Field - Cory Sullivan, 2005, -1.1 WAR
Other Stats: .294/.343/.386, 83 OPS+, 83 Ks to 28 BBs, 23 EBH (meaning 88 singles), 64 R

Ugh.  In a long line of no-hit, kind-of-fast, ok defensive center fielders,* Sullivan has the dubious distinction of being the worst.  And that's saying something; not everyone can be worse than Curtis Goodwin.  Sullivan, however, was remarkable because unlike the other "kind-of-fast" players, he wasn't really fast at all.  For his career - which is now almost 500 games long - he has only 32 stolen bases, and he has been caught 10 times.  Not exactly a speed demon (Sullivan's replacement Willy Taveras once stole 68 in a single season).

*To wit: Juan Pierre, Curtis Goodwin, Tom Goodwin, Darryl Hamilton, Willy Taveras, and now Dexter Fowler.**  The Rockies LOVE this type of player, for some reason.

**No, Dexter Fowler can't hit.  He can't.  This is an argument you won't win.  In over 1000 PAs in his career, Fowler's slash line is .259/.351/.401.  At Coors Field half the time (his road slashes: .220/.308/.334; translation: yikes!).  That's not cutting it.  Look, I get that he has an awesome name, and that he's super fast, and he's probably the coolest player on the Rockies (except maybe Ubaldo), but that doesn't change the fact that he's basically another iteration*** of the Rockies center-field prototype.

***OK, I'll concede that he has a chance to be better because he's 24.  These things aren't predictive, but his top comp at age 24, according to baseball reference, is Lou Brock.  Then again, some of his other top comps include Felix Pie and Jermaine Allensworth.  So, yeah.  There's that.

I bring up the speed issue because that's really Sullivan's biggest problem.  He fits the mold of a certain type of player, but doesn't actually do the things those players do.  So, for example, he hits a lot of singles, but he doesn't steal bases or stretch extra base hits enough to really make up for his lack of power.  He doesn't score many runs, in part because he often hits at the bottom of the lineup, but also because he can only ever get himself to first base.  He also strikes out a ton, and rarely walks.  His biggest strength, in many ways, is his skill as a bunter.  Plus, he's an overrated defensive player (career -1.8 WAR in the outfield).  Sullivan, for his career, is below replacement level (-1.2 WAR total).  How do players like him stick in the Majors?  We'll never know.

Right Field - Brad Hawpe, 2008, -1.7 WAR
Other Stats: .283/.381/.498, 121 OPS+, 134 Ks to 76 BB, -4.1 defensive WAR

Dante and Brad are on this list for the exact same reason.  Only, Dante was, early in his career, a passable defensive outfielder.  This was never true of Hawpe, who has always been a first baseman playing right field.  2008 was his worst defensive season (at a stunning -4.1 WAR, or over 40 runs!) by far, and his defense alone earned him his spot among the worst Rockies of all time.

Let's not let Hawpe off the hook offensively, however.  In 2007 Brad was a monster at the bat, setting career highs in home runs, RBI, runs scored, BB, OBP, SLG, and OPS+.  In 2008 he regressed hard, his offensive WAR dropping from 3.2 to 2.4.  That's not a ton, but it's still nearly a full win.  Throw in a truly horrid defensive season, and you have a recipe for disaster.  Also, I still blame Hawpe for blocking Seth Smith - an infinitely more talented player - throughout his early career, and starting in 2008.  Hawpe's illusory value as a hitter is at least partially responsible for stunting Smith's development to the point that he may never realize his potential.  That and Jim Tracy being a terrible* manager.

*By all accounts Tracy is great in the clubhouse, well-liked, and good at getting the best effort out of his guys, for what that's worth.  But tactically...  Ew.  And he does seem to have an irrational dislike of certain players (Chris Ianetta, Seth Smith) and an irrational love for others (Spilly, Jason Giambi).  Plus, he's going to pitch Ubaldo Jimenez's arm off within the next two seasons.  Mark my words, Ubaldo will be done as an effective pitcher by 2013.  And that really upsets me.

Given Hawpe's age in 2007 (28 years old), you might think the Rockies could have seen some drop-off coming.  Traditionally players peak around 27 or 28, and even younger defensively.  But the Rockies held onto Hawpe, who promptly fell off of a cliff in 2010.  Add him with Garrett Atkins to the "players the Rockies maybe should have gotten rid of sooner" trio.  The final member of the trio?

Bench, Outfield - Ryan Spilborghs, 2009, -0.7 WAR
Other Stats: 393 PA, .241/.310/.395, 1 amazing walkoff grandslam, 77 OPS+

OK, yes, Ryan Spilborghs hit a walkoff grand slam against the Giants in a key moment in the playoff race in an extra inning game that - to top it off - I attended (which is remarkable because I don't live in Colorado anymore, and didn't at the time; that was I think the only home game I made it to in 2009).  So that goes in his favor.  On the other hand, he was a miserable defender, and put up an OBP of .310.  .310!  As a Rockie!

Spilly has been a passable fourth outfielder throughout his career, but in 2009 and 2010 (now that he's over 30) he has suddenly found himself playing 130+ games a season.  Problem is, if you take away his 2.1 WAR 2007 (in his age 27 season, also known as his prime), he's a career below replacement level player.  He also has, as any Rockies fan with a sense of aesthetics can tell you, below replacement level facial hair.

Bench, Outfield - Darryl Hamilton, 1999, -1.0 WAR
Other Stats: .303/.374/.389, 76 OPS+, -0.8 defensive WAR, 4 SB and 5 CS, 91 G, traded mid season

Look who it is!  Another no-hit, kind-of-fast, ok-at-defense center fielder!  Hamilton was perhaps the worst of the bunch, lasting only one season (that his, half of '98 and half of '99) before getting traded.  The best part?  The Rockies got Hamilton for... Wait for it... Wait for it... Ellis Burks!  As in, the best center fielder in Rockies history (at least before Cargo, who will likely settle in RF anyway).

Now Burks was 32 at the time, but he went on to have productive seasons in 1999, 2000, 2001 and 2002.  And, what's more, Hamilton was also 32, so it's not like the Rockies were getting younger.  Hamilton, meanwhile, was flipped in '99 for Rigo Beltran (who pitched 12 innings for the Rockies and gave up 15 runs) and Brian McRae (another no-hit, kind-of-fast center fielder who played for the team for about a week).  So, yeah, Darryl Hamilton was a go-between in the classic "trade Ellis Burks for nothing" move.

Anyway, Hamilton was Cory Sullivan before Cory Sullivan was Cory Sullivan.  At least, to his credit, he did have a few good seasons early in his career.  As a Rockie, however, he was less that replacement level, and he especially stands out because the Rockies gave up one of their best players for him.

Bench, Infield - Walt Weiss, 1994, -0.7 WAR
Other Stats: .251/.336/.303. Wait, look at that again.  A .303 SLG.  In Colorado.  That's all you need to know.

Walt Weiss once hit a ball out of the infield in the air, but the wind was blowing out at 30 MPH that day.

Weiss owns the dubious distinction of "leading" the NL with his bafflingly low .303 SLG in 1994.  That Weiss couldn't hit for power, at least, was made up for by his inability to hit for average, his mediocre defense, and his complete lack of speed.  He did, at least, have a pretty good eye, and rarely struck out.  So there's that.  But everything else about him - throughout his career - screamed "bench player."  And yet, he was a starter for no less than nine teams, once made the All-Star game, and won the Rookie of the Year in 1988.  Weiss did have good seasons - and even played decently well for the Rockies from 1995-1997, but '94 was one of his worst seasons.

Bench, Infield - Garrett Atkins, 2009, -0.2 WAR
Other Stats: .226/.308/.342, 64 OPS+, 9 HR in 399 PA, $7.0 Million salary.

Ironically, Garrett's worst season was also his highest-paid one.  Despite only really playing half a full-load - thanks to a mid-season benching - Atkins accumulated -0.7 WAR offensively and was, in fact, one of the inspirations for this series.  In all, I couldn't elevate him over Stewart because he didn't play enough, but his 2009 remains one of the worst performances in Rockies history from a player who everyone expected much better from.  Atkins was only 29 in 2009, and was coming off of a challenging 2008.  But in '08 he still hit 21 homers and posted an SLG of .452, ending up with a 1.0 WAR.  His complete and total collapse was surprising to say the least.  Hell, it's worth taking a look at his career arc, by WAR:

2003 and 2004: -0.7 WAR (September callups)
2005: 1.5 WAR
2006: 6.4 WAR
2007: 2.9 WAR
2008: 1.0 WAR
2009: -0.2 WAR
2010: -1.0 WAR (with Baltimore)

Atkins went from MVP votes in 2006 to not-good-enough-to-start-for-the-Orioles in 2010.  Wow.

Bench, Catcher - Kirt Manwaring, 1997, -2.1 WAR
Other Stats: .226/.291/.276!!!!!!! 375 PA, 1 HR, 10 GDP, 38 OPS+, -0.2 defensive WAR

Actually, those stats don't even capture the worst part of Kirt Manwaring's 1997.  Let me run another set of numbers by you, so you can compare them with Manwaring's.

.297/.386/.535, 120 OPS+, 17 HR in 298 PA, +0.2 defensive WAR, 1.8 total WAR.

That was Manwaring's "backup," Jeff Reed.  Reed had the single best season of his career in 1997, outperforming Manwaring in every conceivable way.  And yet the two split time close to evenly all season.  Indeed, Manwaring had 77 more plate appearances than Reed, despite an OBP and SLG below .300!

To top it off, the Rockies actually contended in 1997, finishing 83-79, only 7 games back of the Giants.  Larry Walker won the MVP with his best season, and the team was really only a couple pieces and parts away from a playoff appearance.  One of those pieces was Jeff Reed, who languished on the bench while Kirt Manwaring put up what has to be the single worst offensive season in Rockies history.

I know what you're thinking: if Manwaring was that bad overall, what did his splits look like?  I'm glad you asked.  Away from Coors, Kirt's line was a shocking .198/.279/.222.  That, my friends, is pitcher territory.  In theory, Manwaring was a terrific defensive catcher, and while WAR doesn't like him in 1997, evaluating catcher defense is notoriously impossible.  Even if, however, we give Manwaring the benefit of the doubt...  Even if we throw a full win at him on defense, he'd still have one of the worst seasons in Rockies history.

The only thing keeping Manwaring out of the "starting lineup" for this team is his lack of playing time.  If you are so inclined, though, you can slot him in instead of Girardi.

That wraps up our look at the worst position players in Rockies history.  Next up, the pitching staff.  You'll never guess who the "ace" is. (Hint: he's a better hitter than Kirt Manwaring).

No comments:

Post a Comment