Friday, May 20, 2011

Defining a Season: 1998-2001

Part two of a series of Rockies-centric posts.
Introduction here.
Part one here.
Part three here
Part four here

1998 Colorado Rockies: 77-85, 4th place, 21.0 GB

If the '96 and '97 seasons were the beginning of the decline of the Blake Street Bombers, the '98 season was the end.  Ellis Burks was traded for a just-as-old, but not-nearly-as-good Darryl Hamilton, Vinny Castilla turned 31, and Dante Bichette's power contined to fade.  Even the outstanding rookie campaign of Todd Helton couldn't lift what proved to be a fatally flawed roster in what ended up being manager Don Baylor's final season.  The '98 season was disappointing, perhaps, because expectations were still high after three straight seasons in which the Rockies were at least good, if not great.  But it was impossible to ignore that a team already in decline had taken a fateful step towards sub-.500 baseball.

Defining Player: SP - John Thomson

I know what you're thinking.  Who is John Thomson?  In 1998, Thomson was the Rockies best pitcher, the only member of the rotation with an ERA under 5.00 (his was 4.81).  While Coors Field didn't do any favors to Darryl Kile and Pedro Astacio, they didn't do any favors to themselves, either.  Despite the still potent - if decreasingly so - lineup, the Rockies rotation in 1998 was inadequate, and Colorado found itself on the losing end of a few too many blowouts.  That the bullpen was, once again, excellent was some consolation, but hardly enough for a team who's best pitcher was, in the end, John Thomson.

1999 Colorado Rockies: 72-90, 5th place, 28.0 GB

As if it wasn't bad enough that the Rockies finished in last place for the first time in 1999, the second-year Arizona Diamondbacks broke their record for fastest expansion team to make the postseason, winning 100 games and the division in only their second season.  Meanwhile the Rockies were a mess.  The once vaunted bullpen began to crack, the remaining Bombers - except for Helton and Larry Walker (who spent a significant part of the season on the disabled list) - lost their clout, and the rotation was, if not terrible, at best mediocre.  Coors Field, meanwhile, continued to inflate offensive numbers to an absurd degree, which excused the horrid offense and deflected blame to a not-as-bad-as-it-looks pitching staff.

Defining Player: SS - Neifi Perez

In many ways, Neifi is the defining player for a whole era of Rockies baseball.  He manned shortstop almost every game between 1998 and his trade in 2001, and at no time was he even a remotely passable offensive player.  In 1999 he had one of his worst seasons, hitting a good-on-the-surface .280, but with only a .307 OBP and .403 slugging percentage.  Neifi's 12 home runs in 1999 would end up being a career high, but even so, his OPS+ was 62.  For that reason, he is the defining player of the 1999 season because he looked like an acceptable player, but wasn't.  He was a sinkhole, an out waiting to happen, an incapable hitter even at Coors Field (where his OBP was a measly .326) whose road numbers were simply awful (.251/.287/.356).  Neifi's empty batting average, his mirage power, and the perception that he was actually good typify the Rockies organization during a season in which the team lost 90 games despite looking like they weren't that bad.

2000 Colorado Rockies: 82-80, 4th place, 15.0 GB

Despite a strong NL West and an offseason during which the team made few significant changes, the Rockies bounced back from their 1999 season with a surprising above-.500 campaign in 2000, giving hope for a post-Bombers future.  This was a fateful season, however, because the rotation was better than mediocre, and the offense worse, and yet the offseason that followed would see the acquisition of Denny Neagle and Mike Hampton.  In reality, the offense needed far more help than the rotation did, but Coors Field made it seem the other way.

Defining Player: SP - Pedro Astacio

Pedro Astacio had a 5.27 ERA in 2000, and his was the second lowest in the Rockies rotation.  His 12-9 record was nice enough, but he surrendered 32 home runs, and gave up almost 10 hits per 9 innings.  What gets lost in those sub-par numbers, however, is his 193 strikeouts against only 77 walks, and the adjusted ERA+ of 110, meaning Pedro was actually 10% better than league average.  Throughout his career with the Rockies, Astacio was a victim of misperception: he always seemed a worse pitcher than he was.  Sabermetrics hadn't yet taken hold in the baseball world at large, and so the Rockies saw what was actually a strength as a weakness.

2001 Colorado Rockies:  73-89, 5th place, 19.0 GB

In many ways, this was the worst season in Rockies history.  After a lot of preseason hype - including some bold proclamations that the Rockies were the team to beat in the NL - and a hot start, the Rockies fell apart.  The chief reason was an offense that sported only two better-than-league-average hitters, Larry Walker and Todd Helton.  Moreover, the expensive contracts for Hampton and Neagle did not pay dividens, as John Thomson lead the pitching staff in ERA and ERA+, and Pedro Astacio was, in many ways, better than both free agents.

Defining Player: SP - Mike Hampton

 Could there be a more perfect symbol for a team with high expectations that didn't work out?  Could there be a better symbol for a team that looked like it could hit, that pitched better than it seemed to do, but was not quite good enough at either?  Hampton was all of those things, with a price tag of over $100 million.  What doomed Hampton, more than anything, is that he couldn't strike anyone out (5.4 SO/9).  At Coors Field, in a part where batted balls turn into hits more than almost anywhere else in baseball, this was a cardinal sin.  That said, Hampton wasn't horrible.  His ERA+ in 2001 was 99, placing him firmly as league average.  But for a supposed ace, the highest paid pitcher in history (at the time), that wasn't good enough.

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