Thursday, March 09, 2006

Musings on the Rockies

So here's the deal with the Rockies. They play in a large stadium at a very high altitude. It was assumed batted balls would travel farther there when they were thinking of making a park, so they made the outfield large to cut down on home runs. When the Rockies first started out as an expansion team, their lineup was pretty talented for a new team. In Colorado they scored tons of runs and won many high scoring games. The lineup with guys like Castilla, Bichette, Galaragga, Walker, Ellis Burks, and some fillers slugged like crazy. They had some pretty successful years the first few years. Soon, however, those guys priced themselves out of the Rockies' means with their incredible numbers and moved on. The Rockies signed less accomplished hitters and a funny thing happened. The lesser guys continued to put up big numbers, but the Rockies won less. So management said the secret to winning in Colorado (as if it were some unfair ballpark) was strong pitching, since their hitting was always going to be good, it seemed. So they got a lot of high priced pitchers with low ERAs: Hampton, Neagle, Saberhagen, Darryl Kile, mostly pitchers on the bad side of 30 or who had been in very good pitching parks and had low strike-out rates. Those guys got creamed in Colorado. Darryl Kile was really the posterboy of the new realization that curveballs did not curve that much in Colorado. That, combined with the fact that fly balls went farther, was responsible for the increased offense in Colorado. So the rockies tried to get pitchers who threw sinkers, kept the ball on the ground and in the park, but that didn't work either. It was soon realized that the real reason offense increases in Colorado is because the ballpark is enormous, so there's a huge amount of ground to cover to field batted balls. That makes the batting average on balls in play extremely high, so really the pitchers who should have the most success are pitchers who strike out a lot of the time. Basically it took the Rockies 10 years to realize what they needed were actual good pitchers.

Other trends were seen as well in this time. For one, the Rockies hitters all performed terribly on the road, really terribly, all of them. Some people pointed at the road numbers of Rockies hitters and said that their sluggers really weren't that good, but this wasn't really true either. The Coors Field effect makes hitters worse on the road because they get used to offspeed pitches not moving as much at home. Apparently it's easier to get used to the flat pitches at Coors than it is to adjust on the road. This has been kind of seen as an unavoidable thing though. Hitters are going to be good at Coors, bad on the road, and vice versa for their pitchers; unfortunately, the Rockies hitters are much worse on the road than their opponents but when their opponents come to Colorado, they kill the ball. For pitchers, not only is their stuff worse at Coors, but the thin air makes them less able to go deep into games, causing them to break down over the course of the year and have the bullpen used more than normal. That's pretty much what baseball fans have read about for the last five years or so. There was also a short-lived theory that if the Rockies got really, really fast outfielders, they could cut down on hits, but really really fast outfielders usually don't do much for you since their hitting is so much worse than average.

Here are some new truths about the Rockies, mostly from Baseball Prospectus-type people. Firstly, the Rockies' "successful seasons" were re-examined. It was shown recently that those "Blakestreet bombers" teams of the mid-90s that scored so many runs actually won more because they had phenomenal bullpens instead of because they scored so many runs. Their starting pitching wasn't that bad either; it was just hard to see originally since their ERAs were all skewed and people only looked at ERAs until recently. This lent further evidence to the theory that the Rockies need great pitching just to break the .500 mark. Another thing that has always been seen but has only really been recognized recently was the fact that no matter what kind of team the Rockies had, they always won at home. Always. And they were always godawful on the road. Very strange, because everyone's all worried about how the Rockies give up too many runs at home, but they win at home every single year. Their home winning percentage over their entire existence is staggeringly high considering their overall record. I remember reading that and thinking, damn that's weird, so what is their problem, why don't they win?

One of the stats BP uses a lot is EQA (equivalent average). It's basically a formulaic stat that is adjusted to look like a batting average so everyone besides stat heads feels more comfortable about it. It's an offensive stat that corrects for things like ballpark and league averages. An EQA number is applicable to any time essentially. You can compare any two players from any two times or any players from different leagues and ballparks. When you're building a team that plays in a weird home park, you still just have to look at the averages of your team's production over the entire season and disregard the weird home/road splits because you can't control those things. But looking at the Rockies' EQA team numbers of history over the full seasons, the truth of the Rockies is finally seen: the Rockies hitters suck!!! They've only had average EQA numbers once or twice in their history. Even leading the NL in runs and average every year, their hitting should be much better than that. They had average lineups in the mid-90s, but it was just not known really that the average Rockies team should be totalling 1000 runs a year. That's pretty understandable. I would have never thought the park effect was so important that it gives a team an extra 200 runs on the year playing there, but that's what happens. The pitching, on the other hand, has also not been that bad, which makes sense, because all the Rockies have done in their history is let big hitters go and sign pitcher after pitcher. They're doing a fine job with the pitching. The equivalent ERA numbers have been very good some years. What they need is offense, and what they have never had is hitters who get on base. Why no one ever thought of getting guys who walk a lot for Colorado just seems silly after hearing about this. Taking a Red Sox or A's approach to offense would set every offensive record in the book in Colorado, and they'd finally be competitive and also a helluva lot more exciting, since no one really cared about watching Mike Lansing and Preston Wilson swing for the fences at home.

That's what really struck me. The Rockies have had it completely backwards for years, and I've never seen one thing mentioned about it before this year's BP. They're going to win at home regardless, but they need some real good hitters on the team so they can not get killed as much on the road.

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