Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Defining a Season: 2007-2010

Part the last of a Rockies mini-series of posts.
Part three is here.  Part two is here.  Part one is here.  The introduction is here.

2007 Colorado Rockies: 90-73, 2nd place, 0.5 GB, Wild Card, Lost World Series

The Rockies 2007 season is best remembered for the absurd late-season run of 14 wins in 15 games to close the regular season.  By sweeping the first two rounds of the playoffs, the Rockies ultimately won 21 of 22 before being swept by the Boston Red Sox in the World Series.  Because of that flukey run, however, it's easy to forget that this Rockies team was actually solid top-to-bottom all season.  Indeed, the Rockies underperformed for much of the year, and that they needed such a winning streak just to make the playoffs was not indicative of their quality season-long.  There truly was no weakness on the 2007 Rockies roster: the rotation, bullpen, and lineup were all solid, if not spectacular.  Nevertheless, the transition from under-performance to playoff darling was fueled by two out-of-nowhere players.

Defining Players: SPs - Ubaldo Jimenez and Franklin Morales

These two pitchers' careers went in opposite directions after the miraculous 2007 runs, but that only masks how fundamentally similar their mutual arrival on the scene was during the Rockies World Series season.  If anything, Morales was the better of the two in 2007, starting 8 games and putting up a 3.43 ERA (compared to Ubaldo's 15 starts with a 4.28 ERA).  Regardless, both players were a surprise to people outside of the Rockies organization, young guns who came from nowhere to lead - or at least serve as 2/5ths of a dominant rotation - the Rockies into the playoffs.  In a sense, their careers since 2007 are also perfectly indicative of the Rockies: Morales's failure to harness his awesome stuff speaks to the 2008 and 2010 additions of the team, while Ubaldo's better command and work-horse mentality indicative of the 2009 campaign.

2008 Colorado Rockies: 74-88, 3rd place, 10.0 GB

The 2008 season was extremely disappointing for the Rockies, both because they had just made the World Series the year before, and because the NL West was as weak as it had ever been (the Dodgers won it with a 84-78 record).  It's hard to say exactly what went wrong in '08.  A number of offensive players took small steps backwards and the rotation was just a touch worse.  Above all, the late run that saved '07 from the same fate failed to materialize, with the team all but collapsing down the stretch.

Defining Player: SS - Troy Tulowitzki

After nearly winning both the Rookie of the Year award and the Gold Glove (but losing out on both) in his 2007 campaign, Tulo suffered as bad a sophomore slump as a great player can.  His batting average fell from .291 to .263, his OBP from .359 to .332, and his SLG from .479 to .401.  In all, his value to the team was so much less in '07 that a not-insignificant portion of the Rockies failings can be pinned on him.  Add to that an injury that cost Tulowitzki much of the '08 season, and it's not hard to see how 90 wins became 74 for a team that was never quite great in the first place.

2009 Colorado Rockies: 92-70, 2nd place, 3.0 GB, Wild Card

The '09 Rockies were eerily similar to the '07 version.  After a slow start, a solid rotation and reasonably deep lineup woke up under new manager Jim Tracey - after Clint Hurdle, who had been at the helm since 2002, was fired - and eventually rode a late-season charge into the playoffs.  The trade of Matt Holliday the previous off-season proved a stroke of genius, netting both the young and improving Carlos Gonzalez and excellent closer Huston Street in exchange for a player who was destined to leave Colorado after '09 anyway.  While Gonzalez would share time in the outfield with Brad Hawpe, Seth Smith, Dexter Fowler, and Ryan Spilborghs, Street was the anchor of another excellent Rockies bullpen.  Beyond the solid performance from the pitching staff and the Holliday-less outfield, bounce-back seasons from two key Rockies both lead the way, and were symbolic of the season as a whole.

Defining Players: SS - Troy Tulowitzki and 1B - Todd Helton

Both Tulowitzki and Helton has miserably disappointing seasons in 2008, but both bounced back to produce well-above league-average campaigns in '09.  While the rest of the lineup and pitching staff improved incrementally from their under-performances in 2008, it was Tulo and Helton's giant leaps forward that propelled the team back into the playoffs.  Helton's .325/.416/.489 slash line harkened back to the good old days of his early career, while Tulo's .297/.377/.552 showed that Tulo might end up being more than just a great fielder with a decent bat.  Indeed, Tulo eclipsed 30 homers for the first time in 2009, becoming not just the leader on the field for the Rockies (a role he shared, by default, with the veteran Helton), but securely becoming the leader in the lineup as well.

2010 Colorado Rockies: 83-79, 3rd place, 9.0 GB

It's easy to forget how much better a season 2010 was than 2008 for the Rockies, because the narrative that has been constructed is that they were parallels.  The narrative goes like this: coming off of an improbable last season charge to make the playoffs, the Rockies followed it up in the next season by promptly collapsing and failing to compete.  But the '10 Rockies did compete, only falling apart late in the season, echoing 2007 in the reverse by losing 13 of their last 14.  Before that collapse, the team had been a very respectable (and competitive) 82-66, well within reach of the 91 wins that would have won them the wild card.  The problem was, beyond the continued excellence of Tulowitzki and the emergence of Carlos Gonzalez, the offense lacked a single other player who put up a 100 or better OPS+.  The offense wasn't bad, per se, but it just wasn't good enough, even with an excellent pitching staff and a near Cy Young season from Ubaldo Jimenez.

Defining Player: C - Miguel Olivo

Like the team he played for, Olivo actually started well in 2010, making a strong case for an all-star berth.  Like the team he played for, however, Olivo ended up not having enough offense.  By the end of the season his OBP - his longtime nemesis - rested at .315.  That was a career high for Olivo, but not good enough for an every-day Major League player, even a catcher.  His 27 walks were also a career high, but it bears remembering that he drew the vast majority of those in the first half of the season.  Perhaps the most damning moment for Olivo in 2011, however, has nothing to do with him, but with the front office.  After extending Chris Iannetta in the offseason, Olivo's hot April, combined with some early-season struggles from Iannetta, resulted in 'netta's demotion to AAA and Olvio's promotion to full-time starter.  That itself was not the cause of the Rockies shortcomings in 2010, but it certainly did not help.


Trying to determine a defining player for a single season is, ultimately, an exercise in futility.  But it doesn't look like it.

The reason it doesn't look like it is simple enough: we love to construct narratives.  It's how we understand what goes on around us, how we make sense of a complex and often confusing world.  It's a lot easier to remember, in short, a season as a failure or a success, a disappointment or a surprise, than to remember the exact won-loss record, the number of games back, the statistics of each and every player.

In trying to find a player whose individual narrative either matched up with or underscored the narrative for the entire Rockies team, I did exactly that: I looked through the won-loss record, the number of games back, and the statistics of each and every player.  But then I turned it into a narrative, and that's where the futility comes in.  Ultimately, how can I do justice to Miguel Olivo's 2010, or Todd Helton's 2006, or Andres Galarraga's 1994?  Sometimes I listed statistics, but only to illustrate a point: the players I selected were, in some sense, a microcosm of a team's successes and failures.  But in other ways they were no such thing: they were merely grown men playing a game for a lot of money, men who undoubtedly care about winning, but whose narratives are far less intense than those of a fan.

In the end, though, it's impossible to escape narratives, and undesirable to boot.  Ironically, even the most sabermetrically-minded baseball fan is doing little more than building narratives.  Are his narratives more quantitative?  Sure.  Are they more objective?  Probably.  But they are narratives just the same, built of words and sounds and ideas and stories, even if those stories are contained in season-long numbers and fancy statistical acronyms instead of anecdotes and clutch homers.

Of course, I've been more stat-head than story-head in this series, but that's exactly the point.  The stats tell a story, too, and an interesting one.  Silly though it may be to pin a whole season - for better or worse - on a single player, doing so might just give us a certain insight, or help us better enjoy a sport we already love.

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