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October 4, 2007
A Rocky Mountain Retrospective
"My words aren't going to do justice to the players' actions, this team's actions, this year. They've given so much of themselves. They've bonded so well. They've competed so fiercely."
It may officially be "Rocktober" up and down the Front Range, but today we'll adjust our rear view mirrors and take a look back on the Colorado Rockies' regular season.
A Play in Five Acts
Let's begin with the big picture. The following graph shows three things: the Rockies performance in runs per game, opponent's runs per game, and games above or below .500 from their first game (April 2nd against Arizona) all the way through the thrilling 163rd game against San Diego.
It should be noted that since the graph plots the average runs per game up from the beginning to each point in the season, as the season progresses moving the runs per game lines becomes more difficult. While I'm not usually a big fan of arbitrary "turning points," the twists and turns of the red line above provides us the opportunity to break the Rockies season into five phases.
The Big Picture
In the end the Rockies' 2007 season will likely be remembered for one streak, or perhaps even one play at the plate. But as with most of life--and as shown here--the reality is often more complex. Let's take a step back from that chronology to look at a few of the major themes of the 2007 Rockies, and cap it off with a brief look at the future. To do so I thought it might be instructive to go back to the Rockies team essay in Baseball Prospectus 2007 and follow up on a few of the observations that were made prior to the season.
To start off with, I looked at the Coors Field park effects, as the humidor was the focus of conversation early in the 2006 season. After noting that the park played essentially neutral during the first two-thirds of 2006 and as an extreme hitter's park in the final third (averaging 14.25 runs per game), we noted:
Park factors are notoriously prone to single-year fluctuation [but] it's entirely possible that it will settle down somewhere in between.
In fact, that is precisely what happened; home runs and runs per out ticked up a bit from 2006 but to nowhere near their pre-2002 levels, as shown in the following graph:
Clearly, Coors Field still plays as a hitter's park, and will continue to do so. However, the apparent stabilization in the effect as shown in the graph due to the humidor is good news for Rockies fans as it makes the front office job of assessing the talent a bit easier. It's also interesting to note that my essay mentioned that "no team from an extreme hitter's park has ever gone to the postseason while finishing in the lower half of their league in park-adjusted ERA." That remains true, since the Rockies' team ERA of 4.32 placed them eighth in the NL, and therefore in the top half of the league when park-adjusted.
I then spent some time taking O'Dowd to task for leaving his 2006 squad so obviously vulnerable up the middle offensively, as I went on to note that the probable emergence of Tulowitzki and Chris Iannetta, the signing of Matsui, and the trade of Jason Jennings netting Taveras would help the situation:
All of these moves bode well for the Rockies' chances in 2007, as simply league-average offensive performances up the middle could allow the Rox to improve by a half-dozen games.
That assessment also panned out--the Rox improved from dead last in the National League in VORP up the middle (catcher, short, second, and center field) at -13.1 runs to 72.5, ranking them eighth against an average of 83.3, as shown in the following table:
VORP Up the Middle 2007 Team VORP PHI 215.4 FLO 146.0 ATL 137.4 NYN 136.4 CIN 105.8 LAN 94.2 PIT 88.8 COL 72.5 MIL 66.1 ARI 65.6 SDN 62.3 WAS 41.8 CHN 30.4 HOU 29.6 SLN 27.7 SFN 12.2
That improvement could indeed be said to have added more than a half-dozen games to their win total. When coupled with the fact that they placed first in the NL and second in baseball behind the Yankees in VORP at the corners (third, first, left field and right field) at 149.9 runs, it's clear that the 2007 squad featured a balanced offensive attack, as evidenced by their .264 team EqA, up from .259 in 2006.
The only fly in the ointment was that Iannetta struggled early and saw less and less playing time. Yorvit Torrealba was the beneficiary and "took advantage" by posting a .255/.323/.376, .235 EqA line for the season. Iannetta was finally sent down to Colorado Springs on August 7th, and after being recalled on August 26th he hit .320/.393/.520 in limited action down the stretch. As a result, there's no reason to think that he won't again come into spring training as the likely winner of the starting job.
In addition, I noted that the addition of Taveras "may make Clint Hurdle feel less obligated to bunt, bunt, and bunt again." In fact, although Hurdle's team once again led the league in sacrifice hits, the total went down from 119 to 83.
As always happens when discussing the Rockies, some ink had to be spilled on the lot of their pitching staff, particularly the bullpen. In the essay, I was doubtful about their chances to improve on their WXRL of 2.36, given their reliance on veterans like LaTroy Hawkins while seemingly not being prepared to trust Corpas. Things turned out more than a little better than expected, as Corpas grabbed first a primary set-up job and then the closer role, essentially swapping places with Fuentes. Hawkins (21 Pitching Runs Above Replacement) and Jeremy Affeldt (a PRAR of 20) turned in solid seasons in the seventh inning, with a big assist from Herges (PRAR of 20) and a little help from Ryan Speier (PRAR of 8). Even castoff Jorge Julio, despite late-season struggles leading to his being left off the NLDS roster, contributed over 50 league-average innings. Still, their bullpen put up a WXRL of 7.52 as they improved from 23rd to 21st in baseball.
Although not anticipated in the essay, certainly one of the themes of the 2007 season was the improved defense. Indeed, the team committed only 68 errors (the next closest was Baltimore with 79) and sported a defensive efficiency ratio of .703, good for eighth in all of baseball, and up from 22nd (.690) in 2006. Much of that improvement can be attributed to Tulowitzki (45 Fielding Runs Above Replacement), Helton (a 25 FRAR), and, amazingly, Holliday (also 25 FRAR). The latter is especially surprising in light of his player comment, where we said "he's still learning that the shortest route between two points is a straight line." But having watched him live in over 30 games this season, I can attest that, despite the miscue on Monday night, the numbers are no mirage; his routes are much cleaner and his jumps much more quick than in previous seasons.
Alas, the focus of many in the mainstream media is on the Rockies setting a new major league record for fielding percentage, which they did, recording a .98925 mark to best the 2006 Red Sox, who'd finished up at .98910. To put a little context on that achievement, the following graph shows the overall fielding percentage in the major leagues since 1871 and through 2007:
As you can probably tell from the graph, 2007 set a new mark for fielding percentage at .983555, eclipsing the old mark of .98325 set all the way back in 2005. To get a feel for how often the team fielding percentage crown turns over take a glance at the following table:
Team Fielding Percentage Record Holders Year Lg Team Pct 1871 NA WS3 .85027 1872 NA BS1 .87556 1875 NA HR1 .88108 1876 NL SL3 .90198 1877 NL LS1 .90354 1878 NL BSN .91425 1881 NL TRN .91671 1884 NL BSN .92165 1885 NL NY1 .92944 1889 NL CL4 .93604 1890 NL BRO .94030 1893 NL PHI .94378 1894 NL BLN .94440 1895 NL BLN .94569 1896 NL CIN .95119 1898 NL CL4 .95211 1900 NL BSN .95300 1901 NL PHI .95444 1902 NL BSN .95881 1903 AL PHA .96017 1904 AL CHA .96365 1905 AL CHA .96761 1906 NL CHN .96915 1912 NL PIT .97250 1919 AL BOS .97471 1921 AL BOS .97472 1922 AL CHA .97579 1923 AL NYA .97668 1932 AL PHA .97955 1940 NL CIN .98099 1944 NL SLN .98154 1947 AL CLE .98291 1949 AL CLE .98303 1958 NL CIN .98306 1963 AL BAL .98390 1964 AL BAL .98465 1980 AL BAL .98490 1988 AL MIN .98571 1989 AL BAL .98603 1990 AL TOR .98606 1994 AL BAL .98635 1995 AL BAL .98645 1998 AL BAL .98679 1999 NL NYN .98875 2003 AL SEA .98887 2006 AL BOS .98909 2007 NL COL .98925
One of the interesting things about this table is that the Orioles held the mark from 1963 through 1987, and again from 1994 through 1998. The Indians had the second-longest run from 1947 through 1957. The main point here is that fielding percentages rose quickly in the early years of the game, and more slowly in the recent past. As discussed previously in this space, the underlying reasons are the standardization of the game (in this case, through better equipment and better maintained playing surfaces) and the increasing excellence of the players themselves in executing their craft.
Where To Go From Here?
So what's in store for the Rockies going forward? Obviously the Rockies have accomplished what every small- to mid-market team is hoping for: nurturing a nucleus of good young players who mature in concert. With Iannetta and Ian Stewart likely to become significant contributors in the future, there is no reason to think that this current group, augmented with a few capable veterans, can't be a force in the NL West for the next two to four years. Given the outlook of relatively modest payrolls for the future, however, the organization will continue to have to rely on good scouting to execute trades that bring value (witness the Jennings deal), and the farm system will have to churn out productive players in order to replace those who the team can no longer afford.