DENVER – The result of every Colorado Rockies game counts… until it doesn’t.
Unfortunately, plenty of fans and analysts around the game seem yet undecided on this issues.
Sure, there has been no effort to move the club (thank God) but the folks in charge of talking on TV and/or voting for awards to celebrate the very best our sport has to offer, use Coors Field as an excuse to underrate players in purple so often that one has to wonder if they just don’t think baseball here is legitimate.
Ironically, this attitude has percolated so resoundingly that some of the most elite talents in the game have been completely overlooked despite having to deal with a dynamic that nobody else does.
Recently, Chad Bettis gave an impassioned plea for a deeper and more nuanced look at the specific challenge of making adjustments when playing half your games at Coors Field and close to half of them in polar opposite environments.
While a handful of guys have come to Denver over the years and experienced some moderate increase in batting average, resulting in one or two suspect batting titles in their vault, far more players have had incredible seasons and even careers washed away in a sea of BS.
It should be noted that while many of these specific moments at hand were the results of voting by the BBWAA, an organization to which I am honored and proud to call myself a recent inductee, they really reflect the disposition of most media and fans alike. In fact, if you took the Baseball Writers out of it and had the general population vote, the dismissal of Colorado players would be far worse.
All of which got us thinking. Who have been the victims of this dismissal the most? Who has seen the harshest nonsense lobbed their way on account of something they had no control over but did everything in their power to control anyway?
So we came up with a list of the Top 10 Most Egregious Moments In Coors Field Narrative History:
DJ LeMahieu/Michael Cuddyer/Justin Morneau
One of the best arguments against everything else you are about to read comes whenever someone points to the objectively absurd number of batting titles the Rockies have taken home.
For the record, they’ve nabbed six of the last 12 and had a run of four straight from 1998-2001: three from Larry Walker and one from Todd Helton.
We’ll get to those two, but it’s the more recent ones that tend to inspire more doubt.
Carlos Gonzalez got the first one in 2010 but his talent was undeniable and he was in the middle of his prime.
Michael Cuddyer’s win is the most suspect because it was easily the highest mark of his career, a full 47-points more than his previous best. He had also been a two-time All-Star in Minnesota and showed a clear willingness in Colorado to sacrifice some power for contact, all of which culminated with his 2013 batting title.
I won’t fight you too hard on Cuddyer, though his whole career again suggests he was just a quality all-around hitter. That same argument shifts into overdrive for Justin Morneau and DJ LeMahieu, though.
Morneau’s batting title in 2014 was actually tied for the third-highest average of his career. As it turned out, .319 was good enough to win his only batting title while his .345 (2010) and .321 (2006) did not warrant such prestige. With two other seasons hitting above .300 – one in Minnesota and one in Colorado – it’s clear the guy was going to take home some hardware eventually.
As was LeMahieu who is now on the verge of becoming the first player in MLB history to win a batting title in both leagues.
It’s hard to argue these players weren’t aided by Coors Field. They were. But they all could also clearly just flat-out hit everywhere.
Troy Tulowitzki – 2007 Gold Glove and/or Rookie of the Year
What happened to Troy Tulowitzki in 2007 may have less to do with Coors and more to do with his rookie status. Nevertheless, the whole thing just reeks.
He should have either won a Gold Glove or been Rookie of the Year in that magical year of 2007. Probably both.
He tied a rookie record with 22 home runs as a shortstop, but his offense wasn’t called into question so much as an entire season that was just not well understood in context.
We’ll dive deeper into this mess when – spoiler alert – we get to Matt Holliday.
Ellis Burks – 1996 MVP (Career)
.344/.408/.639, 211 H, 40 HR, 128 RBI, 32 SBs, 7.9 bWAR
Placed: 3rd, Winner: Ken Caminiti
Something that will become a bit of a pattern here is a clear first-place winner – in this case, Caminiti – but a suspect second place finisher, such as Mike Piazza during the 1996 NL MVP voting.
All the fancy stats see Burks and Caminiti as roughly equal that year (7.6 bWAR for Caminiti) and it’s no surprise that given a virtual tie, the Colorado player would come out on the losing end. A bWAR of 5.4 for Piazza makes you tilt your head a bit.
And really, Burks has had almost his entire career mis-remembered. According to the park-adjusted wRC+, Burks put together eight seasons at 130 or better or approximately 30 percent better than league average. Yet, he received only two votes in 539 ballots for the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2010, the same amount as zero-time All-Star Eric Karros.
As a statistic, wRC+ is notoriously harsh on Rockies’ hitters. For reference, Nolan Arenado leads Colorado this season with a 123 and has surpassed 130 only one time in his career, 132 in 2018. Burks has six such seasons better than that and four of them came after he left Colorado.
He probably would have made the list had his career spanned more than just four-and-a-half seasons in Colorado and, thus, seems to be more generally underrated and under-appreciated than being so specifically because of Coors Field.
Rafael Betancourt’s career
Rafael Betancourt was never the most exciting player, even as a closer. But he was one of the steadiest. Especially in the current atmosphere, seeing the Rockies take a veteran reliever who had experienced success somewhere else and bring him into the organization where he immediately became the most reliable member of their bullpen for years to come is a bit more awe-inducing.
Betancourt, who is seventh in team history with 309 appearances and is tied with Wade Davis (ironies abound) with 58 saves, was only briefly been named the primary closer at any given time.
Jon Gray’s Career
Gray currently has a 4.46 career ERA which is sixth best in franchise history. His 111 ERA+ is the fifth best ever and his two seasons of 138 and 137 are the third and fourth best by that mark for the organization. He is already fifth in the franchise with 670 Ks and could move into second place (Jimenez, 773) as early as next season. He comfortably leads the Rockies in K/9 at 9.402. German Marquez is next at 9.233. Jimenez in third at 8.175.
In a 2019 season where Coors Field has yielded an ERA over 5.00 all year, Gray managed a 3.46 ERA at home.
Most of Gray’s accomplishments still fall into the “good for a Coors pitcher” category, but he has quietly put together the best start to a career here of anyone other than Jimenez and maybe Marquez.
He is on pace to surpass Aaron Cook and Jorge De La Rosa with ease and be the best all-around pitcher in franchise history, yet most of his local and national press tends to focus on the negative.
Some fans have felt cheated by the Jon Gray experience, feeling like they never got the top-of-the-line starter they were promised without realizing that, for the most part and when taken in context, he has been exactly that.
10. Jeff Francis – 2007 Cy Young
34 Games – 215 IP: 4.22 ERA, 4.19 FIP, 114 ERA+ (17-9, Rox win 90)
ERA in wins: 2.18, ERA in losses: 8.24
Placed: 9th, Winner: Jake Peavy
During the 2007 World Series season, Jeff Francis had 22 outings with a game score of 50 or higher, pitched at least five innings in all but two of his 34 starts, pitched at least seven innings 15 times, completed eight innings four times and had one complete game, a six-hit shutout game on August 9 in San Francisco.
At Coors Field, Francis posted a 4.20 ERA, slightly better than his road ERA of 4.24, showing a rare consistency in the most volatile pitching environment(s) in baseball.
For reference, here are the career numbers at Coors Field for the top three in 2007 Cy Young voting, along with their in-season totals:
Jake Peavy – 72.2 IP 5.45 ERA (2007 – 6.1 IP, 6 ER…that was game 163)
Brandon Webb – 87.2 IP, 4.00 ERA (2007 – 18.0 IP 5.50 ERA)
Brad Penny – 65.1 IP, 4.41 ERA (2007 12 IP, 4.50)
Nobody seems to care that Peavy got to throw half his games in a place that turned Drew Pomeranz into a semi-reliable pitcher. His home ballpark in the pitcher’s pavilion that is Petco Park was never mentioned.
The Colorado lefty finished all the way back in ninth behind Jose Valverde of the Arizona Diamondbacks, a reliever who pitched 62 innings, and four spots behind Carlos Zambrano of the Cubs whose 3.95 ERA and 117 ERA+ appear to have been overlooked on account of the Cubs team success.
Francis’ Rockies played in the World Series.
9. Kyle Freeland – Cy Young 2018
33 Games: 202.1 IP, 2.85 ERA, 173 K, 166 ERA+ (17-7, Rox win 91)
Placed: 4th, Winner: Jacob DeGrom
In 93.2 innings of work, the Denver native posted a 2.40 ERA at Coors Field.
We may never see that again.
Through all the elite-level adjustments that must be made, in just his second full year of MLB work, Freeland made quality starts in 24 of his 34 appearances.
DeGrom was a shoo-in, slam-dunk, no-doubt for receiving the award, but Max Scherzer and Aaron Nola put up seasons that more or less matched Freeland’s in terms of production. However, the kid from Colorado was given no bonus points for dealing with the Curse and being on a team that made the postseason.
This came in the same season where Nolan Arenado and Trevor Story had their MVP candidacy framed entirely by their home ballpark.
And while the Cy Young is a regular-season trophy, Freeland also never quite got the credit for the leadership skills that he exhibited not only in out-dueling Jon Lester in the Wild Card game, but also in pitching a gem to clinch the first back-to-back postseason berth in franchise history.
8. Ubaldo Jimenez – 2010 Cy Young
33 Games: 221.2 IP – 2.88 ERA, 214 K, 161 ERA+ 7.5 bWAR (19-8, Rox win 83)
Placed: 3rd Winner: Roy Halladay
Jimenez threw 25 of 33 games at a game score of 50 or higher and had 12 games with a score of 70 or better. His three most exquisite outings came with game scores of 86, 87, and 89. He tossed two complete-game shutouts and a no-hitter, the only one in franchise history.
He kept his ERA under one until it rose from 0.93 to 1.16 on June 11 and his first half was so good that he started the Midsummer Classic for the National League.
Though he slowed in the second half – proving he is a human being and not a robot alien – and the Rockies stumbled out of postseason contention with a terrible final month, Jimenez still threw the most impressive power-pitching season in franchise history.
Really, his entire career has been underrated with 2010 as the standout among the rest. While Roy Halladay and Adam Wainwright were both deserving in their own right, both were likely given extra credit for being 20-game winners, a valuation that looks even more suspect by modern standards, especially when you consider Jimenez won 19 ballgames.
Over in the AL, Felix Hernandez won the Cy Young Award with only 13 wins that year.
Because he’s not a freak like Francis or Freeland, Jimenez allowed fewer runs on the road. Still he tamed Coors to the tune of a 3.19 home ERA and actually had a better winning percentage in Denver (9-2 versus 10-6 away) probably because opposing pitchers could not deal with the environment as well as he could.
Jimenez’ combination of conquering Coors, dominating on the road, keeping runs off the board and missing bats is a standard that every pitcher in purple is still chasing to this day.
A difficulty with each of the last three entries is that they can all be justified in a vacuum. Francis, Freeland and Jimenez all had fantastic years but not campaigns so incredible that they could not be denied.
Plus, you can quite easily make a case for the players who finished in front of them. Except Valverde. That never sat right.
The problem is, of course, that we don’t live in a vacuum. We live in a world of constantly compiling data and evidence and when you look at these placements in context with the position players yet to be discussed, it becomes clear that the logic is inconsistent.
Some fans or analysts might even be inclined to flip this entire list around because this part of the dynamic is so infuriating. Sure, every hitter who puts up a great season here has their numbers called into question and doubt but at least they’re talked about.
The pitchers are largely ignored. And when it comes time to give the same amount of energy to the Coors conversation but in a positive framing around what a pitcher had to overcome?
To put it another way, if the hitters are truly mirages, the pitchers are miracle workers.
7. Dante Bichette – Entire Career
14 Years – 1,704 Games: .299/.336/.499, 274 HR, 401 2B, 152 SBs, 107 OPS+
The biggest victim of the Coors Field Creation myth.
Dante Bichette was just a damn good hitter. That’s it.
But more than that he was a consistent hitter. He posted a wRC+ of above average (100 or more) 10 out of 12 seasons once he had broken into the league and an OPS+ above the average in 11 out of 12 seasons.
For his entire seven-year stint in purple, he averaged a 112 OPS+ and in one year with the Angels, one with the Brewers, and parts of seasons with the Reds and Red Sox at the end of his career, he remained a reliable bat in the lineup without the aid of altitude.
Sure, he almost always hit better at home. Most guys do. But a career .730 road OPS ain’t bad.
1995 was tempting to isolate considering he led the league in hits (197), home runs (40), RBI (128), and total bases (359) and placed second in MVP.
However, both bWAR and fWAR hated his defense and he, bewilderingly, failed to top 2.0 in either metric because of it.
This isn’t really about defense, though.
Somehow, Bichette seems to have become the poster-child for the false notion that an average hitter can become a great one simply by stepping into the batter’s box at 5,280 feet above sea level.
The truth is, he was never an elite hitter except for that one season. But he was certainly never average or mediocre. He was consistently good-to-great and while some of his raw numbers might have been slightly inflated, to think of him as somehow a product of his environment rather than a product of his hard work, dedication, skill, and mental approach is one of the more dubious of allowing the Coors narrative to cloud your judgement.
The more we look into the next few cases, the more Bichette’s situation frustrates.
6. Nolan Arenado – 2016/2017 MVP
.294/.362/.570, 41 HR, 133 RBI, 6.6 bWAR – .309/.373/.586, 37 HR, 7.1 bWAR
Placed: 5th/4th, Winners: Kris Bryant/Giancarlo Stanton
Winning only matters when other teams do it.
Nolan Arenado not having an MVP on his mantle yet can be chalked up mostly to floating priorities. In 2016, Arenado had better offensive and defensive numbers than the players that finished second, third, and fourth but Daniel Murphy, Corey Seager, and Anthony Rizzo were all given credit for being on winning teams.
He was also far better than Bryant that year (and every year) in the clutch but those sort of nuanced details don’t get time to breathe when suffocated under all the talk about the park.
In 2017, the electorate had a change of heart about what mattered. Arenado put up an even more impressive number but a few other players joined him in that category. While Arenado’s Rockies raced to the National League Wild Card game, he finished behind Stanton, Joey Votto, and Paul Goldschmidt while the former two sat on the couch in October watching the latter two play postseason baseball.
Nobody is more randomly penalized for playing at Coors than Arenado, especially in the seasons in which he has excelled on the road as he did in 2017.
His career wRC+ and OPS+ ratings, as discussed above in the Burks section, are just brutal and it brings into focus the silliness of acting like a ballpark has the exact same impact on a player like Arenado as it does any other random replacement level guy.
He is one of the best clutch hitters of the last decade. He is one of the most consistent power presence and run producers that third base has ever seen. Well shy of this 30th birthday, Nolan Arenado is already arguably one of the greatest third basemen of all time.
And he would be no matter where he played so there is no need to filter all of his stats through a fun-house mirror.
We will dive even deeper into the home/road/hangover dynamic, the shortcomings of the advanced stats, and the most eye-popping moments in the history of the Coors Field Narrative when we unveil our Top 5 in Part 2.