Baseball Toaster Bad Altitude
Not Good to Be King
2008-05-23 21:40
by Mark T.R. Donohue

I planned to check the Rockies score as soon as I got back from work this evening and then write a post off of that. Trouble is, Colorado and the Mets went into extra innings tonight. Having already committed to write about the game, I suppose I'm now obligated to watch it. I hope that it doesn't go 22 innings.

While we're waiting to see, let me go back to my original idea for this post. While the most obvious culprit for the Rockies' miserable start this season is a pitching rotation that sucks out loud, anyone who watched the team carefully late last year and stuck with them so far for this one can see more differences. They make more miscues on defense. The bullpen has far less of a defined hierarchy and fewer pitchers who can be reliably depended upon to perform their defined role. While the September '07 edition Rockies weren't the sort of team that exhibited especially notable patience at the plate, except for a few holdouts like Todd Helton and Brad Hawpe, they at least showed a little progress in that regard. Early in this season the Colorado hitters have gone right back to getting themselves out quickly in counts, in the fashion that has somehow plagued this organization for years. Hitting at Coors Field, who wouldn't be in a hurry to get the ball into play?

More than anything else, the thing that must bewilder the new-model fans who hopped on board last fall about this Rockies team is the way that the situational hitting has completely vanished. Last year's run was remarkable for all of the players who stepped up their play when the team needed it most. Kaz Matsui, Yorvit Torrealba, and Troy Tulowitzki were the three least imposing non-Taveras hitters the Rockies had in the everyday lineup, and each of them came up with gamebreaking hits repeatedly. Hawpe, whose struggles against lefties are famous, came up with multiple big hits off of southpaws. Helton, whose power was supposed to have left him, hit home runs. It was like that. I'm in some small way all playoff runs are memorable for people who are fans of that team but what stands out, I guess, about this Rockies team is the amazing speed with which all of the on-field reminders of that run dissipated. What happened to that wondrous defense? It's gone, thanks to injuries and owner penury. What happened to all the clutch hitting? That's a trickier question.

Some statheads say that there's no such thing as clutch hitting, that there's no correlation between a hitters' stats in the clutch this year and the next. That's as may be, but I don't think the important question is whether the consistent ability to knock runs in when they matter exists statistically or not.  For one thing, I don't think a definition for "clutch" can be picked arbitrarily. Just "close and late" situations doesn't cut it. Clutchness is more ineffable than that. The stathead would respond that this is romantic nonsense, and that anything that can't be measured (at least as far as the game of baseball is concerned) doesn't exist. This is kind of where I draw the line on the Moneyball vs. Scout's Honor debate. I side with the numbers geeks, mostly, but I still like to believe there's a certain amount of honor, manhood, American values, cojones, and justice at play when it comes to how a baseball game's winner is determined. You can't attribute everything to brute math with a helping of random chance. You might as well sit at home simulating seasons on your computer instead of buying tickets and getting sunburned.

So, if I prefer to believe that last year's Rockies World Series run wasn't just a freaky outlier, a coin flip coming up heads ten times in a row, how do I account for the complete disappearance of killer instinct in this year's club? It can't all have gone with Matsui, Josh Fogg, and Jeremy Affeldt, right? I can't account for it. You'd think if anything the Rockies would be more successful hitting in important points of the game now, having experienced such a run of success. They ought to be loose. But rather the Rockies are as tight when there's runners on and the game to be decided as I've ever seen them. They continue to be so in extra innings tonight, as the game I'm watching as I write this creaks into the thirteenth.

Maybe they can't handle the greater exposure and the heightened expectations. Maybe Tulowitzki is the guy who would have gotten them out of their early-season funk, only now he can't because he's hurt. Perhaps getting pounded by Arizona so many times early on and then seeing the Diamondbacks sprint out to a huge division lead collectively disheartened them.

I'm going to go see if the Rockies pull this one out tonight. I'm kind of hoping they do. I've been too hurt to care whether they won or lost for many weeks now, and this is a very good sign that the healing has begun.

Comment status: comments have been closed. Baseball Toaster is now out of business.