Positional Case Study: The Colorado Rockies’ Starting Rotation

Ubaldo Jimenez started two Opening Days for the Rockies before he was traded. (via Bryan Horowitz)

Ubaldo Jimenez started two Opening Days for the Rockies before he was traded. (via Bryan Horowitz)

In 2013, I wrote three articles in which I evaluated how a team filled a position over the course of three decades, calling them positional case studies. I looked at Atlanta Braves center fielders, New York Mets second basemen, and San Diego Padres shortstops.

Of the three, the Braves did the best, often filling center field with excellent homegrown players like Dale Murphy and Andruw Jones, and achieving decent results by trade the rest of the time. The Mets used second base as a sort of infield overflow position, a place to stash players who were blocked elsewhere. The Padres were the worst of all: in the course of their search for a franchise shortstop, they traded away two Hall of Famers (Ozzie Smith and Roberto Alomar), and they were significantly hampered by poor talent evaluation and poor drafting, so their shortstops were frequently replacement level or worse.

In the past three decades, however, probably no team has had a more difficult time filling a position than the Colorado Rockies have with their starting rotation. In 16 of their 22 seasons, Rockies pitchers have been last or second-to-last in the National League in runs allowed per game. From the time it was built, their home park has been a pitchers’ nightmare: the walls are really deep, so there’s a ton of ground to cover; the air is thinner, so the ball encounters less air resistance, meaning that breaking balls don’t break as much and batted balls travel farther; and because the air has less oxygen, pitchers tire more easily.

Even after the a humidor was installed in 2002 to keep baseball from drying out and carrying even farther than they had been, Coors Field has been one of the best hitters’ parks in baseball; before it was installed, hitting there was essentially like hitting on the moon. There’s a reason why the locals dubbed it Coors Canaveral.

Here are the pitchers who have started on Opening Day for the Rockies since 1993, along with the way the team acquired them:

Colorado Rockies Opening Day Starters
Pitcher Opening Day Years Acquisition Method
David Nied 1993 Expansion draft
Armando Reynoso 1994 Expansion draft
Bill Swift 1995 Free agent
Kevin Ritz 1996, 1997 Expansion draft
Darryl Kile 1998, 1999 Free agent
Pedro Astacio 2000 Trade
Mike Hampton 2001, 2002 Free agent
Shawn Estes 2004 Free agent
Joe Kennedy 2005 Trade
Jason Jennings 2003, 2006 Drafted
Kip Wells 2008 Free agent
Aaron Cook 2007, 2009 Drafted
Ubaldo Jimenez 2010, 2011 Signed as amateur
Jeremy Guthrie 2012 Trade
Jhoulys Chacin 2013 Signed as amateur
Jorge De La Rosa 2014 Trade

Kyle Kendrick was this year’s Opening Day starter, and if his first two starts were any indication of the season ahead, it will be a roller coaster ride. But for our purposes here, we’ll be focusing on 1993-2014.

From the team’s first season in 1993 through the 2014 season, 132 pitchers have started a game; 20 Rockies have made more than 50 starts with the team. (A 21st, Byung-Hyun Kim, made exactly 50 starts with the team.) Nine of the 20 were originally drafted or signed by the Rockies, six signed as free agents, three came via trade, and two were selected in the expansion draft. The Rockies have tried just about everything.

But the 22 pitching seasons also make clear that certain things work, and certain things don’t. In short:

  • Expensive free agents have been an unmitigated disaster.
  • Breaking ball pitchers, finesse pitchers, and junkballers go to Coors Field to die. Fastball pitchers and sinkerball pitchers do a bit better.
  • With the possible exception of Pedro Astacio, all the Rockies’ best pitchers have been homegrown.
  • The attrition rate of pitchers is incredibly high, and pitching in Coors Field is famously exhausting. Colorado pitchers have a very short half-life. Spending a lot of money on pitching is a recipe for heartbreak.

In this analysis of Rockies pitching staffs, I am relying on data from baseball-reference.com. I will be looking at the five most frequent starters in a given year, rather than the five-man rotation the team broke camp with or fielded in the first week of the season.

The first three years

The inaugural staff in 1993 was made up of four expansion draft selectees: David Nied, Armando Reynoso, Butch Henry and Willie Blair. A fifth, Kent Bottenfield, came via a midseason trade which sent Henry to the Expos. Of the five, only Nied was on the staff in 1994: Bottenfield and Blair both went to the bullpen and Reynoso missed most of the season due to an injury. That was also the last full season of Nied’s career: he missed the 1995 season with an injury and retired after the Rockies granted him free agency.

The 1994 staff featured two pitchers who would see a good deal of service with the team for the next few years, Ritz and Marvin Freeman. Ritz was another expansion draftee, and Freeman signed as a free agent. Their rotation-mates were converted reliever Greg Harris and future reliever Lance Painter; both had ERAs over 6.00 in 1993 and 1994.

In 1995, the Rockies signed free agent Bill Swift, who had finished second in the Cy Young voting with the Giants in 1993. Swift was the first major free agent pitcher the team signed; Freeman was a journeyman innings-eater, but Swift was a real name. He struggled mightily, however; he was 33 when the Rockies signed him and past his prime. His 4.94 ERA in 1995 was his high-water mark in Colorado. He managed only 83.2 innings with a 6.13 ERA in 1996 and 1997, and his career was over after a final miserable year in Seattle in 1998.

The other starter in 1995 was Bryan Rekar, whom the Rockies had actually drafted in 1993, their first amateur draftee to see major innings as a starter. He was decent as a 23-year-old rookie, with a 4.98 ERA that was virtually identical to Swift’s, but unfortunately he was also similar to Swift in 1996 and 1997, with an 8.51 ERA in 67.2 innings before the Tampa Bay Devil Rays selected him in the expansion draft.

Within the first three years of the club’s history, the team had pitched expansion draftees, amateur draftees, trade targets, and both journeyman and big-ticket free agents, and nothing had worked. In large part, the park was to blame, but the team would try to get increasingly sophisticated in its attempts to crack the code of what would work best — or what would be harmed the least — by the uniquely perilous atmosphere in Denver. Over the next 20 years, they would relearn the same lessons: draftees may not necessarily be more successful than free agents, but their innings are a whole lot more affordable.

A lack of pitching success didn’t completely hobble the team, as the 1995 Rockies secured the first-ever National League Wild Card slot before losing to the eventual World Champion Atlanta Braves in the Division Series. Third baseman Vinny Castilla, first baseman Armando Galarraga, left fielder Dante Bichette and right fielder Larry Walker all blasted more than 30 home runs as the Blake Street Bombers gave the young franchise a memorable identity.

Baby Steps and Disastrous Overspending

The 1996 pitching staff featured Reynoso, Ritz, Freeman and two more draftees, Mark Thompson and Jamey Wright. Thompson was selected in the second round of the 1992 draft, before the Rockies had ever played a game; Wright was taken with the Rockies’ first-round pick in 1993, a round before they took Rekar.

Thompson was ineffective, compiling a 6.11 ERA in 282.2 innings with the team from 1994 to 1998. Wright was a bit better: a 5.57 ERA in 541.2 innings from 1996 to 1999. His stat line over those four years was ugly — more walks than strikeouts, and an almost unbelievable WHIP of 1.68 — but he managed to escape with his head intact and fashioned a decent career. This past offseason he signed a free agent contract with the Texas Rangers, seeking to pitch his 20th season in the big leagues.

Led by pitchers like Wright, the early Rockies did not focus on flamethrowers. That would change in 1997, when the Rockies found their first fireballer, Pedro Astacio. They obtained Astacio from the Dodgers in a midseason trade for Eric Young, whom the Rockies had taken from the Dodgers in the expansion draft five years earlier.

Astacio was almost certainly the Rockies’ best pre-humidor pitcher, a mainstay of the rotation from 1998 to 2001. With a 8.1 K/9 and a 2.58 K/BB ratio in his five years in Colorado, he was a far cry from Ritz, Freeman and Wright. He was also the first pitcher to reach 100 decisions with the franchise, an emotional plateau in its own right. In all, Astacio finished with a 5.43 ERA and 102 ERA+ in 827.1 innings with the team, sixth in franchise history, ahead of Wright and just 24 innings behind Ubaldo Jimenez, the best pitcher in team history.

(Ritz and Freeman had their moments. Freeman’s 1994 season, in which he put up a fluky 2.80 ERA in 112.2 innings, was worth 4.5 WAR. The following year, Ritz amassed 4.5 WAR by throwing 173.1 innings with a 4.21 ERA. These were clear outlier seasons in their overall careers, but the Rockies were the beneficiaries of their luck.)

In 1997, the Rockies debuted draftee John Thomson, a sinkerballer who threw 611 innings in Colorado from 1997 to 2002, finishing with a 5.01 ERA and 104 ERA+, very similar to Astacio. Rule 5 draftee Bobby M. Jones also debuted the same year; he made 44 starts for the team before Colorado traded him to the Mets in 2000 for Masato Yoshii.

In 1998, the Rockies made their second big free agent acquisition after Swift, bringing in Darryl Kile right after he finished fifth in the Cy Young voting with Houston. According to the Associated Press, his three-year, $24 million contract made him the fourth-highest-paid pitcher in baseball. But Kile struggled to throw his big curve ball in Denver, and he more than doubled his ERA, from 2.57 in 1997 to 5.20 in 1998. Sadly, he was even worse in 1999, as his ERA balooned to 6.61. The team added one other free agent in 1999, Brian Bohanon, a journeyman who was slightly below league average for the next three years in Colorado.

In 2001, the team made its most disastrous free agent signing of all: Mike Hampton, who signed for eight years and $121 million. Just two seasons later, crippled by the weight of his deal, the Rockies traded him and $11 million in cash to the Marlins in return for four players. That same year, they also signed 32-year old free agent Denny Neagle to a foolishly large five-year, $51.5 million contract. Much like his big-ticket predecessors, he wasn’t much good, pitching just two and a half seasons before injuries wrecked his arm, and his Rockies career is unfortunately best remembered for its ignominious end.

Building from Within

The next four seasons saw the debuts of four Rockies draftees who would each spend many years with the team. In 2001, it was Shawn Chacon and Jason Jennings; in 2002, it was Aaron Cook, and in 2004 it was Jeff Francis. Those four were mainstays for much of the rest of the decade, surrounded by poor-to-middling free agents like Darren Oliver, Byung-Hyun Kim, Denny Stark, Shawn Estes and Josh Fogg.

The best that you can say about these fill-ins is that they cost a lot less than Neagle, Hampton and Kile had, while their performance was scarcely worse. Trade acquisition Joe Kennedy actually had the best year of his career in a Rockies uniform in 2004, but turned into a pumpkin the following year and was shipped out of town at the deadline.

By the latter half of the 2000s, the Rockies’ staffs were beginning to look different, thanks largely to one man: Ubaldo Jimenez. The Rockies signed him in the Dominican Republic shortly after his 17th birthday, and he spent the next decade of his life with the organization, helping the team secure its first World Series berth and pitching very effectively.

In 2010, he had the best season ever submitted by a Colorado Rockies starter: 221.2 innings pitched with an almost unfathomable 2.88 ERA and 3.10 FIP, good for 7.5 WAR. He finished third in the Cy Young vote that year, but it’s hard to imagine what he might have done if he’d been pitching in Felix Hernandez’s home park.

In 2008, Jimenez was joined by Jorge de la Rosa, another wild strikeout pitcher, and in 2009 Jason Marquis showed up and had an All-Star season of his own. (Though he was known for his fastball, Marquis never had big strikeout numbers, and his 4.8 K/9 in 2009 were reminiscent of an earlier era of Rockies pitchers. Still, for that year, it worked.)

In 2009, the Rockies got Jason Hammel in trade for a minor league farmhand; after three years of pretty good work, they flipped him for Jeremy Guthrie, who had an awful year in Colorado but rebounded the following year in Kansas City. Also in 2009, they called up Jhoulys Chacin, whom they had signed as a 16-year old in 2004, and he quickly became their best homegrown pitcher since Jimenez.

No Easy Answers

But they hadn’t cracked the code. In the 2010s, the Rockies have had more pitching trouble, as a number of top pitching prospects have struggled in the minors and majors, including draftees like Tyler Matzek and Christian Friedrich and young trade acquisitions like Alex White, Drew Pomeranz, Tyler Chatwood and Jordan Lyles.

Top prospects Eddie Butler and Jon Gray continue to lurk on the farm, but Butler hurt his shoulder last year, and — well, prospects are volatile. (“Imagine if H.P. Lovecraft were a Colorado Rockies fan and you have some idea of the result,” wrote John Sickels. ‘Rotator cuff inflammation’ is a phrase pregnant with eldritch, daemonic insinuation.”)

Obviously, the book hasn’t closed on these guys: Matzek and Lyles were just 23 in 2014, and their league-average results demonstrate a great deal of promise for the future. And Pomeranz looked good for the A’s last year. But the newest youth movement has not yet yielded major success in Denver. Still, they have all been team-controlled and cheap, unlike Hampton, Neagle, Kile and Swift, which makes the high attrition rate a lot more affordable.

The Rockies deserve a lot of credit for trying a number of different strategies. They have approached a nearly insurmountable obstacle — the thin mountain air — with a lot of creativity. But they’ve continued to flail, and it is hardly comforting that two decades into their existence, they have finished last in the National League in runs allowed per game in each of the last three seasons, just as they did in their first five. Thanks to Jimenez, the staffs did a lot better in the late 2000s, finishing eighth in R/G in 2007, seventh in 2009 and ninth in 2010. But that relative success was short-lived and hard to duplicate.

In late March, Ken Rosenthal wrote that the Rockies believe that many of their pitching woes were due to organizational dysfunction and the poor pitch-calling of catcher Wilin Rosario. “No one would dare suggest that the Rockies have figured out how to pitch,” Rosenthal wrote for Fox Sports, “but at least now the Rockies are more cohesive, more functional.”

There are other ideas for how to optimize the Rockie rotation, as Mike Petriello suggested recently: they could try splitting their rotation into home and road personnel, and he concluded that they might be able to improve their on-field results by a win. He also noted that they briefly tried a four-man rotation in 2012, so they’re clearly open to experimentation. But as he finally concludes, “Thinking outside the box is great, but talent trumps all.”

Unfortunately, when your home field is a mile high, it’s always an uphill struggle.

Alex is a writer for The Hardball Times.
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Ullu Ka Patta
9 years ago

If ever there were a city that needed an indoor stadium, it’s Denver. It’d be sad, since Coors field is such a nice place to see a game, but I think the physics of it are just insurmountable, unless you built a stadium that let you control the air pressure. Think – even if you cracked the code for figuring out the ideal Coors Field pitcher and didn’t just run into a guy like Ubaldo who managed to dominate everywhere – half of his games are going to be somewhere other than Colorado, presumably in places where that skill set is no longer ideal, and another big part of the problem is learning that your pitches behave differently home vs. away.

Unless you actually built a staff out of Home Pitchers and Away Pitchers, and did not mix the two unless absolutely necessitated by the schedule…

Wannabe Rockies Manager
9 years ago

I’ve always wondered if a team could go to (9) one-inning pitchers. Carry 12 guys who throw 1 inning in 3 of every 4 games. Perhaps they’d need a 13 man bullpen which would limit flexibility, and I’d be worried about the frequency of pitching 3 of every 4 days so often, but as we’ve seen, nothing else has worked thus far. Maybe guys could throw 2 or even 3 innings if the pitch count is low. I just wonder if shorter outings in the tiring, thin air is the solution.