Sunday, February 20, 2011

Losing the WAR: Rockies Pitchers

Last time we looked at the worst single-season offensive performances by Rockies players, putting together 13 man team that would give the modern day Pittsburgh Pirates a run for their money.  Today we'll fill out the roster with the 12 worst pitchers in Rockies history, beginning with the worst of the worst.

Starting Pitcher - Mike Hampton, 2002, -1.5 WAR
Other Stats: 7-15, 6.15 ERA, 78 ERA+, 74 Ks, 91 BBs, Silver Slugger Award (best hitting pitcher), $9.5 million salary

Yeah, he walked more hitters than he struck out.  Actually, Hampton was worth -0.6 WAR total if you count his positive 0.9 WAR offensive performance in 2002, but even with that boost Hampton would still crack this list.  I don't know what's more damning for Hampton, that he was a significantly more valuable offensive player than pitcher for the Rockies in 2002, or that he was, at the time, playing with the richest contract ever given to a pitcher.  The Rockies may have only paid $9.5 million for Hampton's considerable talents in 2002, but they continued to play $10+ million a year to Hampton until 2008.  That's a lot of money for a guy who put up a negative WAR in his Rockies career.

Really, there's no question that Hampton deserves to be the "ace" of this team.  No player had a more disappointing career with the Rockies.  After Hampton was signed in 2001 - coming off of a career season for the Astros in 1999 and another solid season in 2000 with the New York Mets - expectations were extremely high for the Rockies.  There was talk of contending for a playoff spot or even a World Series title.  There was talk about the Rockies finally being able to attract high-quality free agents to Denver.  There was talk of the Monforts opening up the checkbook.  And then Hampton struggled through 2001 and collapsed in 2002, and the Rockies traded him in 2003, setting the franchise back five years.

Starting Pitcher - Pedro Astacio, 1998, -0.7 WAR
Other Stats: 13-14, 6.23 ERA, 83 ERA+, 39 HR surrendered (league leader), 17 HBP (league leader)

Pedro Astacio was the best pitcher on the Rockies from 1997 until he was traded in 2001, but the 1998 season was an exception.  Astacio was still figuring out pitching at Coors - evidenced by the 39 homers he surrendered in '98 (and the 38 in '99) - and the Rockies had not hatched the humidor idea.  Add to that some bad luck - Astacio's FIP was 5.24, still bad, but much better than his 6.23 ERA - and Astacio's season looks much worse than it really was.

Despite a rough '98, it's tough to criticize Astacio overmuch because all of those things that went wrong for him in '98 went right in '99 (except the home runs).  He finished 17-11 with a 5.04 ERA, (actually a 115 ERA+) recorded 210 strikeouts, and put up a 4.56 FIP at the height of the Coors Field bandbox era.  In all, Astacio amassed 5.3 WAR in '99, easily compensating for his '98 debacle.  Which really goes to show, it was - and is - far too easy to misinterpret pitching performances by Rockies pitchers.

Starting Pitcher - Jamey Wright, 2005, -0.6 WAR
Other Stats: 8-16, 5.46 ERA, 88 ERA+, 171.1 IP, 201 H, 101 K, 81 BB

Jamey Wright owns the dubious distinction of being one of only 15 pitchers in all of major league history with a career ERA of 5.00 or higher whilst pitching at least 1000 innings.  A part of that comes from pitching for the Rockies for 6 seasons, but Wright has spent 9 seasons on other teams, so it's not all Coors's fault.  Jamey's 2005 was, needless to say, pretty bad, but not spectacularly so.  Really, the Rockies couldn't have expected much more from Wright than what he gave them: over 150 innings of below average pitching, good enough to not be completely embarrassing, but not good enough to actually contribute to a winning team.  At the time the Rockies were still a couple years away from competing, so there was little harm in turning the ball over to Wright every fifth day, especially given his under $1 million salary.

Starting Pitcher - Byung-Hyun Kim, 2006, -0.1 WAR
Other Stats: 8-12, 5.57 ERA, 88 ERA+, 1.55 WHIP, 57 priceless at bats

If Jamey Wright somehow had an unembarrassing -0.6 WAR season in 2005, Kim had an extremely embarrassing -0.1 WAR season in 2006.  His pitching was pretty much in line with Wright's in 2005.  He was, in short, an inning-eater (though, because he came up a closer and because he had a propensity for not throwing a lot of strikes, Kim didn't tend to make it very deep in games), a stop-gap while the Rockies waited for Ubaldo Jimenez and company to vault into the Majors in 2007.  What made Kim embarrassing was his hitting.  Of course, you can't dock a pitcher for being a bad hitter, but I have never seen someone look more lost at the plate than Byung-Hyun Kim did.  He tried to hit like Ichiro, and ended up looking like a 5-year-old using a bat about 12 ounces too heavy.*  Miraculously, Kim hit .160 in 2006, in the best offensive season of his career (his career line: .124/.156/.144).  As a fan who watched many of those 8 hits he collected in 2006, I can safely say that he was lucky.

*This is also a reasonable description of how he looked when he pitched.

Starting Pitcher - Josh Fogg, 2006, -0.4 WAR
Other Stats: 11-9, 5.49 ERA, 89 ERA+, 1.55 WHIP, 1 absurd shutout, 93 K, 60 BB, 206 H, 172 IP

Josh Fogg was a thoroughly unremarkable pitcher throughout his Rockies career.  He became a fan favorite in 2007 thanks to a smattering of lucky performances against big name pitchers, earning himself the nickname "Dragon Slayer."  In reality, he was a player who never seemed to be trying all that hard, and who never, in his entire career, managed an ERA+ better than 97 (his 2007 number).  Even so, his pitch-to-contact style - as evidenced by his combined 153 walks and strikeouts in 172 innings in 2006 - led to an improbable shutout.  Against the Seattle Mariners, Fogg pitched a two-hitter, walking one and thus facing the minimum 27 opponent batters thanks to three Mariners double plays.  Needless to say, his game score of 83 was by far his best in an otherwise uninspiring season.

Mop-up / Spot Starter - Jose Acevedo, 2005, -0.9 WAR
Other Stats: 2-4, 6.47 ERA, 1.59 WHIP, 74 ERA+

The Rockies have become somewhat famous for their reclamation projects.  Fogg, Kim, and Jorge De La Rosa (especially De La Rosa) have earned Bob Apodaca a reputation as something of a miracle worker.  The thing is, the Rockies take a flier on about 5 pitchers a year who they hope they can transform from mediocre to passable, or passable to good.*  The reality is, for every De La Rosa or Jason Hammel that Apodaca does manage to set right, there are a dozen Jose Acevedos who never make it.  Which is fine, because they don't really cost anything.  The problem with Acevedo in particular, however, was that he stuck around long enough to put up miserable numbers in 2005.  Not surprisingly, '05 was Acevedo's last season as a Major Leaguer.

* This year's project is John Maine, a former Met who was excellent in 2006 and 2007, good in 2008, and then completely fell off of a cliff.  Keep your eye on him, though, because he's got as much raw talent as anyone 'Dac has had to work with in a long time.

Relief Pitcher - Mike DeJean, 1999, -1.0 WAR
Other Stats: 2-4, 8.41 ERA, 56 G, 61.0 IP, 83 H, 13 HR, 32 BB, 31 K, 1.89 WHIP

No, that's not a typo.  Mike DeJean pitched his way to a 8.41 ERA over 61 innings in 1999.  He really did surrender 13 home runs while facing 288 batters.  DeJean is a case study for evaluating relief pitchers, because while his 1999 is unfathomably bad - and, really, it's tough for relievers to pick up even this much in the way of positive or negative WAR because they pitch so relatively few innings - DeJean was actually a good pitcher for the Rockies in 1997, 1998, and 2000.  What's more, he pitched well for a few other teams before returning to Colorado for some solid performances in 2005.  The moral of the story?  Even one transcendently bad season for a relief pitcher does not mean that pitcher is bad.

Relief Pitcher - Gabe White, 2001, -0.4 WAR
Other Stats: 1-7, 6.25 ERA, 67.2 IP, 18 HR

White was unlucky enough to surrender 18 homers in 2001 against only 290 batters faced.  I say "unlucky," because throughout most of his career White did much better than that.  Indeed, like DeJean White had more good seasons than bad, though because many of his teams used him as a lefty specialist, he rarely accumulated much more than 0.5 WAR in either direction.

White - like Astacio - is the rare player on this list who would make the "best Rockies ever" team, too.  In 2000, the year before his homer-happy debacle that earned him this spot, White put up a career-high 3.3 WAR, finishing 11-2 (out of the bullpen!) with a 2.17 ERA.  That's pretty good, and goes to show how misleading the small sample sizes of relief pitchers can be.  In 2000, for example, White surrendered 5 homers in 83.0 innings, struck out 82 and walked only 14.  In 2001, he gave up 18 (as listed above), struck out 47 and walked 26.  So, three times more homers, about half as many strikeouts, and nearly twice as many walks.  Did he change that much?  Was he burnt out after a busy 2000?  Was he just unlucky in 2001?  Was he exceptionally lucky in 2000?  It's hard to say; probably the answer is some combination of the four, but we don't have enough data to reach a conclusion.

Relief Pitcher - Matt Herges, 2008, -0.4 WAR
Other Stats: 3-4, 5.04 ERA, 93 ERA+, 46 K, 24 BB, 1.60 WHIP, 64.1 IP

Herges, or as a friend calls him, "Hergie Pie," is the definition of a journeyman, barely-above-replacement pitcher.  Taking away his exceptional (for him) first and second full seasons with the Dodgers, he was worth 0.4 WAR over his career, bouncing around so much that he actually ended up playing for every single team in the National League West, as well as the Marlins, the Indians, and the Expos.  While there is little worth mentioning about Herges, it is significant that he did not start his Major League career until he was 29 years old, but managed to last until he was 39.  Unfortunately, the Rockies have him his biggest payday of his career after a solid campaign in the miracle 2007 season, floating him $2 Million for his services in 2008.  Like just about everyone else with the team, he couldn't replicate his 2007 success, and the Rockies were stuck with a (relatively) expensive below-replacement-level, 38-year-old pitcher with the dubious distinction of being mentioned in the Mitchel Report.  Fun.

Lefty Specialist - Mike Munoz, 1995, -0.7 WAR
Other Stats: 2-4, 7.42 ERA, 73 ERA+, 37 K, 27 BB, 9 HR, 43.2 IP, 64 G

Munoz wins the "most unexpected member of this team" award, at least for me.  Perhaps because I was still an optimistic young fan in 1995, far too young to really know much of anything about baseball except that I loved the Rockies and that they were making the playoffs in their third year of existence, I didn't ever consider that maybe some of the players might not be all that good.

Munoz had a better year with Colorado in 2004, but throughout his career he was always a LOOGY (Lefty One Out GuY).  Anyone who appears in over 450 games, but pitches 364 innings is probably facing one or two batters at a time most nights.  And that was Munoz.  The result is that, sometimes a LOOGY has a bad season because of a few bad outings, or because he just happens to miss the strike zone on a few key pitches.  Despite the small sample size and pitching in the inagural season of Coors Field, however, it would be impossible to leave Munoz's '95 off of this team.  For a LOOGY to accumulate -0.7 WAR - in a shortened season no less - is impressive.  In a bad way.

Setup Man - Todd Jones, 2003, -1.4 WAR 
Other Stats: 1-4, 8.24 ERA, 61 ERA+, 39.1 IP, 61 H, 8 HR, 2.01 WHIP

-1.4 WAR in less than forty innings!  I had an unofficial rule that pitchers had to reach 50 innings to be considered for one of these spots (to weed out some of the -0.2 WAR in 10 innings kind of guys), but Jones easily earned this spot despite his midseason release and subsequent signing with Boston.  Jones was a "veteran presence" guy gone wrong for Colorado.  Once upon a time he was a good closer for the Detroit Tigers, but by his mid-30s he was - or looked - done as a Major League pitcher.  Coors Field proved too much for him, and he, to top it off, something of an ass, known for his homophobia, his bigotry, and his general closed-mindedness.  On a team built - for better or worse - around character, Jones did not fit in.  For some reason the Sporting News gave him a column late in his career,* and the writing was (or is, it seems he may still have this gig), well...  It was subpar.

*Indeed, his column began as he was on the Rockies, and while it was called "the closer," he never played that role in Colorado.  Somehow he miraculously became a passable closer again from 2005-2008.

Closer - Shawn Chacon, 2004, -1.7 WAR
Other Stats: 1-9, 7.11 ERA, 70 ERA+, 35 Saves in 44 Chances, 1.94 WHIP

And at least we reach the end.  Assuming this team somehow ever had a lead going into the ninth inning, it would be almost certain to squander it, thanks to Shawn Chacon.  The Greely native was the Rockies golden-child, becoming the first Colorado pitcher to make an All-Star game in 2003.  Thanks to injuries, and in an effort to preserve his arm, the Rockies moved Chacon to the pen in 2004, slotting him in as their closer.  The results were disasterous, and Chacon was gone from the Rockies by mid 2005, traded to the Yankees for Ramon Ramirez.  Of course, Ramirez was later flipped to the Kansas City Royals for Jorge De La Rosa, so it's not all bad.

Anyway, despite his solid 2003, Chacon never really demonstrated that he had the talent to pitch at the Major League level.  Rockies fans and ownership was overly-optimistic about him from day one, and while he may have stuck - had he not faced injury trouble - as a four or five starter, he was overmatched as an ace.  He was also overmatched - or at least misplaced - as a closer, struggling to handle the role, especially in a ballpark as unforgiving as Coors Field.


Ironically, the Rockies probably have a much better "worst ever" team than most franchises thanks to their relatively recent entry to the league (the same reason they have a much worse "best ever" team).  Even so, the team we've assembled in these last two posts would be absolutely dreadful.  There are a couple good hitters who can't field and a couple good fielders that can't hit, but mostly it's players who can't hit, field, pitch, or do much of anything else on a baseball field.  Or, at least, players who couldn't do much of anything for a particular season.

Baseball-Reference WAR (as opposed to Fangraphs WAR; we used BR in these posts) is calculated to a standard of 52 wins.  That is, a replacement level team should win roughly 52 games (and lose 110).  This Rockies team, as a whole, is a -21.5 WAR team, meaning they would go about 30-122, a .246 winning percentage.  I also played around with a lineup tool that estimated the offense would produce roughly 750 runs.  Given that total, we can estimate - in order to finish 30-122, that this team would surrender roughly 1300 runs.  Or, in other words, the average score of a Worst Rockies Ever game would be 8 to 4.5.  Eight!  If that seems high, take a look at the pitching staff again, and remember that it has a pretty much terrible defense - especially in the outfield - to back it up.  Eight runs a game might even seem low.

Fortunately, the real Rockies are much, much better than this.  And, even more fortunately, the season is about to start.

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