A Look At The Rockies

Although I am a Yankees fan first and foremost, it’s fun to wistfully imagine what it would be like to be a Colorado Rockies fan right now. As I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, one of my closest friends from college is a native Denverite, and he provides a convenient outlet for my Rockies-related enthusiasm. And one of my favorite pastimes – one that actually makes me feel warm and fuzzy about baseball instead of critical and cranky – is trying to convince him that the Rockies are in wonderful shape for the next few years.

Think about it. The Rockies finally have good starting pitching, boasting a deep staff that includes Ubaldo Jimenez, Jorge de la Rosa, Jeff Francis, and Jhoulys Chacin. Prospects Christian Friedrich and Tyler Matzek are on the way. None is 30 years old, and all but Francis and de la Rosa are under club control for a while. As always, the Rockies can hit. Troy Tulowitzki, Carlos Gonzalez, Ian Stewart, Dexter Fowler, Seth Smith, Brad Hawpe, and Chris Iannetta comprise a young and potent core of position players. All but Hawpe are under 30 years old, cheap, and under club control. And good. They’re all good. I don’t know for sure if this is the best time ever to be a Rockies fan, but if it’s not, it’s just around the corner when Friedrich and Matzek arrive.

Of course, the Rockies are “just” 25-22 in the NL West behind the overachieving Padres and the pretty average Dodgers. While reasonable folks would suggest that injuries and bad luck have a lot to do with this, others – like the Denver Post‘s Dan Kiszla – are pinning more than a little blame on Todd Helton. In a nutshell, Kiszla argues that the Rockies should relegate Helton to the bench in favor of Jason Giambi, primarily because the latter provides more power and about as much on-base ability as the former. It’s a quick read, so check it out if you want to familiarize yourself with the nuances (there aren’t many) of his argument.

I think this is a terrible idea. Kiszla is right that Helton’s slugging has dropped dramatically since last year, but it’s not quite as simple as that. I won’t bore you with more charts or mind-numbing statistical stuff that gets people like me excited, but if you keep peeling back the layers, you’ll see that Helton hasn’t declined as much as it initially appears. He’s walk and strikeout rates are the same as last year’s, he’s hitting more line drives and more fly balls than last year, and his contact rates are normal. The only thing that’s changed is his HR/FB, which has plummeted to a career low. I’m sure some of that is due to the aging process, but given that he’s playing half his games in Coors Field, and all his other rates are right in line with 2009 when he slugged .489, I think Helton is just experiencing some good old fashioned bad luck.

Like Dan Kiszla, I’ve just focused more on what Helton can’t do than what he can. And what Helton does is get on base as well as anyone in baseball. Which, as we know, is the whole point for a hitter. He’s got a .392 OBP, a figure that Kiszla acknowledges as “nice” but then dismisses because Giambi’s OBP at the time was only slightly lower (it’s since dropped to .355). Kiszla then kind of insults Helton, calling him a “late-inning defensive replacement” because he’s “a first baseman who hits singles and scoops double-play throws.” I hope it’s obvious that this a gross misconstruing of the facts, because while it’s true that Helton has shown little power, he is absolutely a wonderful defensive first baseman and he walks a ton. His declining power makes him an imperfect player, but he’s still quite useful.

Kiszla also ignores a reality to which I have prolonged, agonizing, and scarring exposure, and that is the pathetic nature of Jason Giambi’s defense. With no DH, Kiszla is advocating putting Giambi in the field the “lion’s share” of the time. As someone who watched Giambi play the field for seven years – when he was younger and fresher, let us not forget – I can confidently say that Rockies fans will rise in open revolt if Jim Tracy heeds Kiszla’s advice. Giambi is the worst defensive first baseman I have ever seen, and it’s not even close. He’s stiff, he has no range, he can’t jump, he can’t scoop balls out of the dirt, and don’t even ask him to throw the ball, because it will end up in the outfield or the stands. He’s abysmal. Nice guy, good hitter, crippling defender. I think even the questionably-intelligent Tracy is smart enough to realize this.

If we’re looking for reasons for the Rockies’ disappointing (and really, it’s still May) start, I think we’d be better served to shift our eyes to second base. Rockies second basemen have compiled a .238/.288/.372 line, which is unacceptable even accounting for the light-hitting nature of the position. The Rockies are talented enough to win the division even with Clint Barmes’ and Melvin Mora’s ineptitude, but it would go a long way towards improving the team’s chances if they upgraded. And really, finding someone who can improve upon the position’s current performance shouldn’t be all that difficult. If I were running the team, I’d vigorously shop Brad Hawpe to some American League contenders. It makes a ton of sense. His contract expires at the end of the season, so there’s little long-term risk in acquiring him. He’s an awful outfielder, so he can DH. He’s an above-average hitter. If Hawpe plus a decent prospect can bring back an average second baseman, I think that deal has to be made.

In any case, that’s the Rockies’ real problem right now. It’s not that Helton isn’t hitting for power. It’s that the team has had some injuries and they’re getting no production from second base. Barring catastrophic or freak injuries, I think the Rockies will win the division regardless. But if they can yield a competent second baseman by dealing from their surplus of quality outfielders, that would go a long way towards sealing the deal. Plus it would get Dan Kiszla off Todd Helton’s back.

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