Baseball Toaster Bad Altitude
Momentum Maintenance
2007-10-08 06:00
by Mark T.R. Donohue

Look, I would love to take a day off today. It would be totally justified. It's sort of a holiday. The Rockies certainly aren't agitated with the four-day break between series, particularly since it's entirely possible that Aaron Cook and Jason Hirsh could join the team in time for the beginning of the NLCS. Hirsh has quite possibly lost his role with this team with Ubaldo Jimenez and Franklin Morales' emergences, but a healthy Cook would certainly be an improvement over Josh Fogg as a Game 4 starter.

I don't think that taking my eye off the ball for even one morning would be a good idea, though. Four days is an eternity in baseball time. It only took four days for the Phillies' and Cubs' seasons to fall apart. So we're going to do our best, whatever it takes, to keep the aura of Not Losing Pretty Much Ever surrounding the Rockies hovering nearby until Thursday. They're going to need that and more since Game 1 brings Brandon Webb, the only guy to beat Colorado since September 15th.

You might presume that since the Rockies starters and bullpen were able to hobble the mighty Philadelphia offense without too much exertion the pathetic Diamondbacks offense should present them no problem. Not so much. Arizona doesn't score runs in bunches very often, but they seldom don't score at all, and their Angel-like balanced hitting doesn't have an obvious Achilles heel the way the Phillies did (strikeout lefties). I think it's going to be vitally important for Arizona to win both of the first two games in Phoenix. The atmosphere at Coors Field is such that if the D-Backs leave the opportunity open for the Rockies to run the table at home and prevent the series from ever returning to Chase Field, the odds are pretty good that that's exactly what will happen. Denver isn't a good baseball town but it is a great sports town and the fans here only took one weekend of playoff atmosphere to figure out what they need to do to work their heroes into the proper frenzy state. Phoenix on the other hand is just not a good sports city -- too few of the people living there are actually from there. I honestly think Phoenicians (like St. Petersburgers) get more excited for spring training than they do for regular-season Diamondbacks baseball, and despite a vastly better performance record since their expansion year, the Arizona MLB club has struggled just as Colorado has to build a genuine, persistently attentive fanbase.

What is my big piece of evidence for this? Well, this year the D-Backs changed their uniform colors from their old unique (but hideous) teal-and-purple scheme to a more utilitarian black and red. Teams do this all the time these days, particularly teams without a lot of history. When the Padres moved into PetCo Park they went from navy and orange to sand and seafoam blue. Here is the thing though. Watch a Padres game on TV, and they'll be lots of people in the stands wearing the old hats and the old jerseys. Watch the Diamondbacks, and everyone's in red, if they're wearing any Arizona gear at all. Was the organization just that successful in getting 100% of its fanbase on board with the new design? Did they have a big bonfire where everybody brought their Luis Gonzalez and Curt Schilling jerseys from the World Series season and tossed them into the flames in exchange for Carlos Quentin bobbleheads? I don't think so. I think for all intents and purposes Arizona is only vaguely conscious that this is the same franchise. They've completely rolled over their fanbase, such as it is. Either that or even their most devoted fans hated those ugly sleeveless monstrosities.

Of course, the new Arizona uniforms aren't any better. They're using a very slightly different red, somewhere between the Angels' and Astros' alternate jerseys, but not quite different enough -- it just always looks like the tint on your TV is messed up when you're watching them. And the off-black alternates look about as attractive (and comfortable) as parking-lot blacktop. All this, and the "DB" patch on their sleeves, as we've observed before, looks kinda dirty.

Am I in any position to make fun of the Diamondbacks' jerseys, as a Rockies fan? Well, in the land of the expansion teams, the team that at least has a fairly respectable-looking home jersey is king. I'll take the Rockies' purple pins over the Marlins' garish silvery logo, all Arizona's shirts old or new, and (it practically goes without saying) every design the Devil Rays have ever tried. For reasons of superstition the Rockies are locked into wearing their black alternates until their fortunes turn, but even those wouldn't be so bad if it weren't for the silver piping on the sleeves, and at the very least they've stopped wearing purple undershirts beneath.

Are we going to see some legitimate analysis of the Rockies and the Diamondbacks now? The national baseball media, bless their hearts, managed to make both of the division series about the teams that lost and not the teams that will be playing to represent the National League in the World Series. Is it any wonder Arizona-Colorado is already being predicted to smash every record for lowest-rated postseason series in the history of the universe? Well, of course not, by relentlessly skewing their coverage towards the Phillies and Cubs TBS gave people who weren't already fans of one or the other of those teams little reason to watch. This is a bummer, because there aren't two more likable teams to be found in baseball -- reasonable payrolls, fresh-faced young players who love the sport and their teammates, highlight-reel defensive plays guaranteed every game. The Rockies don't run as much as they did before Kaz Matsui and Willy Taveras both pulled up with hamstring injuries (and they're better off for it), but you'd be hard-pressed to find two more smallball-loving managers than Clint Hurdle and Bob Melvin. Colorado once again lapped the field in the NL in sacrifice bunts and Arizona finished second in stolen-base percentage. Every big-city sports columnist in this country is contractually obligated to write at least one piece a season lamenting the lack of strategy in today's game, and yet now that they have two guys who obsessively clip and quote those columns managing in the NLCS and all they can think of to say is why anyone would possibly want to watch these two "unappealing" teams.

I'm sorry, that sound you hear is me bashing my head repeatedly against my desk. I should really know better by now about a lot of things. If I eat an entire large order of cheese sticks from Blackjack Pizza in one sitting, I'm going to get really sick. I still do it, though. I should also know that the only thing that comes of reading the "sportswriting" of certified menace to society Bill Plaschke is a sharp buzzing pain in the temples and a sudden desire to spread misery in the world. Well, it's too late now, I already have a Bill migraine and you're all going to have to have one now too. After getting Dodgers GM Paul DePodesta fired for not playing enough smallball, Plaschke is now campaigning to have Bill Stoneman of the Angels dismissed for playing too much. (If the Diamondbacks win the World Series, it will be interesting to see how Bill fits that into his demented baseball cosmology -- maybe he'll claim the Angels didn't play too much smallball enough.)

Just once, I'd like to see a concession column from a local team's beat writer that doesn't do the pat-on-the-back "the better team won" thing but totally goes all Dennis Green on the winners. I haven't seen a single article about the Rockies are a bunch of AAA losers who are too dumb to know they're not supposed to be winning all of these ballgames. I guess, once again, that would necessitate learning some of their players' names, which our traditional print media has done such a lovely job of avoiding up to this point. I can understand Ubaldo Jimenez sneaking up on people -- he'd barely pitched in the majors until this season and it wasn't really until the stretch run that he started consistently performing in the manner that wins ballgames rather than merely keeps you within hailing distance in them. But with #26, the worst actor amidst stiff competition in the Rockies' TV commercials, the lefthander who'll wonder ya from British Columbia -- in other words, the Francis Channel -- I don't know what the deal is there. Jeff Francis is the real deal. You know how Jamie Moyer was able to handcuff the Rockies the other night with a fastball weaker than your 15-year-old cousin's? You know how he did that? Francis at age 26 has the smarts of a 40-year-old veteran, and his pure stuff's not that bad either. He's legit. He's not going anywhere, and unlike some of the more recent arrivals from Dan O'Dowd's first-class farm system, he doesn't have a violent delivery that's going to make him an injury risk year-in and year-out.

This is good news, because the difference maker in the series with Arizona is going to be whether the Rockies can beat Brandon Webb or not. Webb is a bad, bad man and when he's throwing his sinker for strikes there is simply no way to game plan against him -- you can not swing and strike out, or you can swing and dribble the ball to Stephen Drew. Drew, by the way, would surely be receiving crazy attention for his composure and skill as a rookie shortstop were he not now preparing to face off against Troy Tulowitzki, who's made us throw out all mentions of his rookie status and just start comparing him to every other shortstop in the modern game, if not in history. It was only this season that Matt Holliday jerseys started outnumbering Larry Walker shirts as the #2 most popular at Coors after Todd Helton's. Next year I predict Tulowitzki will blow Walker, Holliday, and possibly even Helton out of the water. Rockies fans have been rocking and rolling since the final regular-season series against... the Diamondbacks but they find an entire other gear for when Tulowitzki is up during a rally, or after one of his dazzling fielding plays. Tulowitzki would have made a hell of a QB; he can seemingly release the ball accurately from any arm angle and the ballistics processor in his brain that instantaneously calculates perfect situational trajectories ranging from on-a-rope level to fungo-bat bloops is exceptional.

Do I think the Rockies are a better club than Arizona? Yes, I definitely do. There's no comparison between the lineups, the Rockies defense is historically good (I'm not talking about the fielding percentage record here, I'm talking about the fact that they've managed to climb into the top half in defensive efficiency, which given the vast gaps in the Coors Field outfield is something some statheads have long thought a logistical impossibility) and Arizona's merely above average, the Colorado bullpen is deeper and left handed-er, and after Webb the Rockies will have the advantage in starting pitching for every other matchup. However Arizona simply will not go quietly -- indeed, it is their chief strength -- and since the Rockies became The Team That Never Loses (TM Jayson Stark) they haven't really encountered any teams that feel they have an equal claim to destiny. Arizona's negative run differential is something that has been much discussed, and when we discuss "the better team in 2007" I am not sure which is the more valid argument -- that Arizona, despite their underlying statistics suggesting that they shouldn't have, played winning baseball all year anyway, or that the Rockies by going on the longest winning streak of the season when their playoff fate depended on it rendered their lousiness in April and late June irrelevant.

Here is the thing I am sure of -- both of these teams are getting better with each additional game they play. They're not going anywhere in the NL West in the near future, although Arizona might have to go through a shakedown season or two until they're able to turn over their creaky starting pitchers. While no one has written that article claiming the Rockies are frauds playing over their heads, no one has quite come up with a coherent explanation of why they're for real. The overall tone seems to be that no one understands quite what is happening, and for the most part I have to include myself in that. And I've watched this team all year.

However: Ubaldo Jimenez pitched in a handful of major-league games last September and that was it for his experience. Franklin Morales didn't even get a cup of coffee before he got thrown without ceremony into the middle of Colorado's rotation this year. Brad Hawpe didn't get to hit against lefties at all his first two seasons, and after struggling against them all year the light flipped on for Brad in September. Kaz Matsui used to be a Japanese shortstop and only now in the supportive, low-wattage Colorado atmosphere has he become a real-deal American second baseman. It takes time to make the transition to the majors. It just does. Baseball Prospectus loves to poke holes in bad GM's game plans by throwing out strings of minor league lines at you, but I have always been the most doubtful of that aspect of the sabermetric revolution. I think there's an essential difference between the majors and everywhere else, and I don't think every minor leaguer with good numbers is capable of making the leap. I'm also certain that a painful adjustment period is a guarantee for any talent short of Albert Pujols or Jon Papelbon level, which is to say almost everyone. Maybe the best example of this is the team that the Rockies are preparing to play this week. Arizona has so many blue-chip hitting prospects they don't know what to do with all of them, but they finished 13th in the league in OPS. Next year, they won't.

You don't usually see "the light" flip on for an entire clubhouse all at once, and seldom in September with two weeks left, and extra seldom does it result in a 14-1 run leading to an out-of-nowhere playoff appearance. But maybe that's what happened for the Rockies, maybe they're exactly as good as their record for the season suggests, and they're going to mess up the Diamondbacks and give the AL champs all they can handle.

Or maybe they aren't. This has been a magical fall, but one casualty of the Rockies' run is my confidence in my skills as a prognosticator. I wrote the Rockies off... hmm... approximately 14 times this season. I will not write them off a fifteenth time, but nor will I offer any strongly worded guarantees about what will happen next. I'm as in the dark as I was in the top of the second inning Saturday night.

2007-10-08 08:37:46
1.   kinbote
great piece. when you compare the two teams position-by-position, the rockies come out way ahead. obviously, brandon webb is a potential difference-maker, as are some of the arizona youngsters who haven't quite broken out yet in the playoffs. regardless, i'm a huge rockies believer at this point. after foolishly picking philly to win the nlds, i'm rooting for the rockies to go all the way.

now, if only there were a way the dodgers could beat them NEXT year . . .

2007-10-08 09:43:21
2.   Bob Timmermann
It's time for the NL West to take its rightful place as the king of all divisions!

It had four winning teams out of five, including the top two winning teams in the league.

If Cook and Hirsh came back whose spots would they take?

2007-10-08 09:53:46
3.   Mark T.R. Donohue
Hirsh would pitch out of the bullpen and Cook would presumably take Josh Fogg's #4 spot in the rotation.
2007-10-08 12:33:56
4.   tj5825
Can't wait for the games. I'm going to the game on Friday here in Phoenix (wearing my Rox jersey with the same BBQ stain its had since the Sunday game against the D-backs...but I'm not supersitious!).

Mark, your opinion here... on most days I'd take Cook in a hearbeat over Fogg...but...could Cook be rusty? Could Fogg have another lights out game we know we can have?

Go Rox!

2007-10-08 12:44:46
5.   dzzrtRatt
2 Maybe if we changed it to "West Coast-Style Baseball" instead of the NL West, we'd get more respect a la Bill Walsh.

I do think the superior pitching in the NL West gave the AZ and COL hitters an edge. They're used to seeing pitching at the level of Cole Hamels and Carlos Zambrano night after night. I'd take the last-place Giants' starting 5 over Philly's or the Cubs, not to mention the Dodgers and Padres. Chicago and Philadelphia really had no front line starters after their aces were done. Their bullpens were also nothing special.

2007-10-08 12:52:45
6.   Mark T.R. Donohue
4 Cook is going to make a start in the Arizona Fall League before returning, so the Rockies should have a pretty good idea.

Fogg has pitched effectively in relief before; like a lot of strict sinkerballers, Cook takes a loooong time to warm up and would not be a good relief option.

If Cook gets tagged in the AFL, they just leave him off the NLCS roster... if he pitches six solid innings, I think he's a better option than Fogg.

2007-10-08 13:57:00
7.   moomacher
So the rotation as I would line it up:

Game1: Francis
Game2: Ubaldo
Game3: Morales - I was at game 2 in Philly and he looked really rattled. Pushing him back to a home start would be much better.
Game4: Cook/Fogg -

2007-10-08 16:11:19
8.   tj5825
1. - In regards to the Webb comment, haven't the Rockies done fairly well against him this year (relatively speaking)?

Also, do we know where Cook will be playing in the AFL? Love to go catch that game if its in area.

2007-10-08 17:11:28
9.   Mark T.R. Donohue
Cook will start Wednesday for Peoria as the Javelinas visit the Surprise Rafters. 12:35 local time (which is not the same as Colorado time because Arizona doesn't do the Daylight Savings thing).
2007-10-08 17:16:50
10.   Mark T.R. Donohue
Indeed Webb did not have a good year against the Rockies -- in six starts he posted a 1-3 record, 5.77 ERA, and Colorado hit 4 of the 12 homers that Brandon allowed all year. Brad Hawpe, Todd Helton, and Kaz Matsui all have 1.000+ OPS's vs. the D-Backs' ace.

But, Webb's best performance against Colorado this season is the one freshest in Rockies fans' minds, the shutdown start against them the last Friday of the regular season. It's the only game the Rockies have lost since September 15th and it was a hugely disheartening, powerless-to-stop-it loss that I'm still kind of stunned Colorado shook off so quickly.

Cooler weather helps Webb as well, although I suppose not so much in Phoenix.

2007-10-08 23:12:01
11.   das411
"they haven't really encountered any teams that feel they have an equal claim to destiny"???

Dude, the Rox just swept one of those!!

2007-10-09 00:21:58
12.   Mark T.R. Donohue
11 No way, dude. It was the Mets, not the Phillies, who were the team of destiny in the NL East. It was just the bad kind of destiny.
2007-10-09 12:19:10
13.   scareduck
The Rocks have better pitching and perhaps the most fearsome young hitting in the league. Rockies in six. Bank on it.

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