Where Have You Gone Matt Holiday?
by Jim Silva
The high point of the Colorado Rockies history, so far, was when Matt Holliday slid face-first into home plate, and came up bloody, in the 163rd game of the 2007 season, to propel the team into the playoffs. They had just won their 90th game, the most wins up to that point in franchise history, and still their second highest win total. They had a superstar shortstop in Troy Tulowitzki who was 22, and a young core of position players, like Tulo, Brad Hawpe, Garret Atkins, and Matt Holliday who were all between 22 and 28, and young pitchers like Ubaldo Jimenez, Jeff Francis, Aaron Cook, Manny Corpas, Jeremy Affeldt, and Franklin Morales, who were all between 21 and 28 themselves. It looked like the post-season run was the start of a new era for the franchise. There have been eight seasons since Holliday’s dash home against the Padres, and the team has only had two winnings seasons and one playoff appearance since then. Tulowitzki is gone, as is everyone else from the team – no surprise in this time of quick roster turnover. So what happened to that promising 2007 Rockies’ club?
Let’s use WAR (Wins Above Replacement) since the value is calculated for position players and pitchers. It is probably a hammer, rather than a pocket knife, but it will give us an idea of where the 16 wins went between the 2007 Rockies and the 2008 Rockies.
Chris Iannetta took over the lion’s share of the catching duties from Yorvit Torrealba in 2008. Iannetta was 25 and put up 3.1 WAR to Torrealba’s -0.6. The previous year, the catching tandem had put up 0.9 and 0.3 WAR (Torrealba and Iannetta respectively), so the 2008 catching position was an improvement. The rest of the infield looked nothing like its 2007 self.
Todd Helton, the closest to a household name on the Rockies turned 34 in 2008 and started to show his age, playing only 83 games due to injuries and posting a 1.0 WAR season, his first sub-2.0 WAR in a full season in his career. That was a substantial drop from his 2007 mark of 4.4. When he was out, the position was primarily manned by Garret Atkins and Jeff Baker who posted WARs of -0.3 and 0.4, numbers that include their time at other positions. Atkins had been the primary third baseman in 2007, in spite of his horror film glove work, and had earned 0.3 WAR (2.9 offensive WAR and -2.4 defensive WAR). With Helton down, and the Rockies tiring of Atkins mockery of defense at third, they moved Atkins to first to cover for Helton and put 22 year old rookie, Ian Stewart at third base. Stewart put up a respectable 1.4 WAR season in 304 plate appearances, so you could argue that third was a bit of an upgrade – about 1.0 WAR – while production at first fell off a cliff.
Kaz Matsui and Troy Tulowitzki combined for 10.2 WAR in 2007 covering the middle of the infield, with Matsui putting up 3.4 WAR and Tulo amassing 6.8 WAR. It was Matsui’s only season with the Rockies and the fans were livid when the Rockies allowed him to sign with the Astros as a free agent. He was one of those players who is often called a spark plug, and the fans had fallen in love. The Rockies replaced him with Clint Barmes, Jeff Baker, Jonathan Herrera, Omar Quintanilla, and Jayson Nix. To complicate things further, Tulo only managed 101 games, as the 23 year old succumbed to injuries – a prelude to a common theme in his career. The young shortstop wasn’t producing at the same rate as his 2007 self when he was on the field posting 0.8 WAR when he wasn’t on the disabled list. Barmes and a few of the other middle infielders covered short in Tulo’s absence. The middle infield, previously the source of excellent offense and defense in 2007, was a mess in 2008. Barmes put up 2.4 WAR splitting time between second and shortstop, Baker and Herrera each put of 0.4 WAR, and Quintanilla posted a 0.5 WAR season.
Matt Holliday, the hero of the 2007 late season run, put up an almost identical year in 2008 in terms of WAR with 5.8 as an encore to his 6.0 WAR from 2007. The rest of the outfield hadn’t exactly been a source of joy in 2007, but it got worse in 2008. The adequate centerfield picture from 2007 featured 25 year old Wily Taveras and Ryan Spilborghs splitting time with each putting up a 1.1 WAR season. Neither put up stellar defensive numbers – negative defensive WAR from both men – but both contributed something offensively – Spilborghs put up a .299/.363/.485 slash line, while Taveras managed a .320/.367/.382 slash line of his own. Spilborghs drew walks and hit some home runs, while Taveras hit for a high average, drew only 21 walks in 408 plate appearances, and slugged an anemic .382. In 2008, both of their games collapsed with Taveras contributing 0.0 WAR and Spilborghs adding 0.1 WAR. Taveras added a few more walks, but his batting average drop of 69 points destroyed his offensive value. Spilborghs put up another good offensive season, but was again a bust defensively (1.4 offensive WAR and -1.5 defensive WAR).
In right field, Brad Hawpe contributed power (25 home runs) and the ability to get on base (.381 OBP) to post a 2.8 offensive WAR season, which would have worked out great had he been a designated hitter. Unfortunately for the Rockies, he contributed -3.4 WAR in right field wiping out his offensive value, for an overall WAR of 0.0. It wasn’t that Hawpe was dropping fly balls in right – the culprit was his shocking lack of range. He just wasn’t getting to balls that most right fielders were catching. His range in 2007 was 1.83 per nine innings as compared to a league average of 2.18. In 2008 it was even worse. Hawpe’s range was 1.50 with league average coming in at 2.12. That represents a substantial number of outs that Hawpe was turning into hits – a little more than one every other game. Over 162 games that really adds up, and it is hard to contribute enough offensively to make up for that kind of statue-like defensive. From 2007 to 2008, the Rockies saw a drop in WAR from their everyday right fielder from 1.5 to 0.0.
At almost every position, the starters experienced regression. Defensively, the Rockies went from first in the league in fewest number of errors and fielding percentage to 6th and 5th respectively. Their offense went from 2nd in the NL in runs scored to 8th. Their non-pitcher OPS+ dropped from 104 to 96 – in other words they went from slightly better than league average to slightly worse than league average after adjusting for the park differences. Clearly the guys who weren’t pitching had some hand in derailing the club, but what about the pitchers?
The 2007 rotation consisted mainly of Jeff Francis, Aaron Cook, Josh Fogg, Jason Hirsch, and a combination of 5th starters, with the most promising being Ubaldo Jimenez. Fogg and Hirsch were there to eat innings – the former was out of baseball three years later and Hirsch would not appear in the majors again after 2008 – but the other three were being counted on as the backbone of the Rockies starting five for now, and for years to come. Cook put up six consecutive seasons in Colorado with ERA+s above 100, making him one of the most successful starting pitchers in Rockies’ history. Francis was considered the ace of the rotation, but only managed two seasons where his ERA+ bested 100. Jimenez was probably the most spectacular arm in the rotation. From his rookie season (when he was 22) through his age 26 season his ERA+ was above 100. In 2010 he almost became the first Rockies pitcher to win 20 games falling one short, and putting together an ERA of 2.88 – unheard of for a starting pitcher in Coors Field.
Francis earned 3.9 WAR in 2007, Cook added 2.2, Fogg and Hirsch were each right around 1.0, and the combination of Jimenez and Rodrigo Lopez (who chipped in 14 starts), added 1.8 WAR to the mix. In 2008 there was a bit of a shakeup in the rotation – Hirsh went down early with a shoulder injury, Fogg left to pitch for the Reds. Francis fell off and only put up 1.5 WAR, but Cook won 16 games and jumped to 4.3 WAR. Jorge De La Rosa took Fogg’s spot and contributed 1.0 WAR essentially matching Fogg’s 2007 output. Mark Redman, Geldon Rusch, and Livan Hernandez made a mess of one rotation spot with WARs of -0.8, -1.2, and -1.2 respectively. Ubaldo Jimenez started his run of good pitching for the Rockies putting up a 3.8 WAR season as a 24 year old. There was a drop off in one rotation spot, but for the most part the starters pulled their weight.
Manny Corpas had been a revelation in 2007, supplanting closer Brian Fuentes and nailing down 19 saves while compiling an ERA of 2.08 for a 2.9 WAR season. The Rockies bullpen had depth and versatility. Fuentes saved 20 games himself with a 3.08 ERA, contributing 1.1 WAR. They could also run out Jeremy Affeldt, Latroy Hawkins, Matt Herges, and Franklin Morales – all of whom posted WARs of over 1.0. The bullpen was the Rockies’ secret weapon that became not-so-secret during the off-season when writers were looking for the cause of the Rockies’ 14 game improvement. So did the pen collapse in 2008 dragging the Rockies down with them?
The 2007 relief corps was one of the best the Rockies ever managed to field. 2008 saw Manny Corpas regress – a WAR of 0.8 – but Brian Fuentes picked up the slack with a WAR of 2.1. Jeremy Affeldt was replaced by Jason Grilli who put together a 1.4 WAR season. Taylor Buchholz went from a 0.9 WAR 2007 to a 2.0 WAR 2008. Herges and Morales both dropped off with WARs around 0.0. Ryan Speier and Luis Vizcaino pitched in 86 games between them and put up 0.7 and 0.1 WAR seasons respectively. The bullpen was not bad, but they certainly weren’t nearly as deep nor nearly as dependable as they had been in 2007.
It is easy to blame the pitching in Colorado when things go south, but really it was more the offense and defense that dropped off. The Rockies’ pitching almost never looks very good when you look at raw stats because they play half their games in the launching pad of Coors Field. The pen wasn’t “lights out” in 2008, but it featured a good closer, and two good setup men. The rotation was solid. Tulo and Helton’s lost seasons, the loss of Matsui, and the inevitable glove failures of Atkins and Hawpe were what brought the Rockies down. Atkins and Hawpe were both excellent trade bait after 2007 and Matsui could have been signed to play second – he went to Houston for $5.5 million which is less than what he made for the Mets the season before joining Colorado. The failure of the Rockies’ management to try to improve after a great season was probably caused by failing to look at what the stats really showed. Hawpe and Atkins weren’t stars. Is it a coincidence that the Rockies best defensive team ever was also the most successful team ever? Defense actually matters; especially, it would seem, in a ballpark as huge as Coors field. This isn’t the last time you will hear that on Red Seam Dreams.