Rockies hitters have always had a hard time producing above-average seasons once context is applied. As a team, the club has never compiled a season with a 100 wRC+. Outsized park factors continuously knock their stats down a few pegs, as do the adjustments hitters have to make to differing altitudes when the team hits the road. Even with that as a backdrop though, Dante Bichette’s 1999 season was an outlier for the ages — one that is not only historically notorious by itself, but helped the Colorado pitching staffs have one of the worst, if not the worst season in franchise history.
Bichette, who came to the Rockies in a trade requested by manager Don Baylor and executed hours after their 1992 expansion draft, was a fixture in the Colorado lineup for the franchise’s first seven seasons. He ranks fourth in the club’s annals in games played, and the only outfielder who has played more games than him in a Rockies uniform is Larry Walker. He ranks 10th in club history in wRC+ (minimum 1,000 plate appearances) and provided a bevy of memorable moments as one of the original Blake St. Bombers.
In 1999, he produced like he did in his other six seasons in Colorado. For the seventh straight season, he posted a wOBA of .365 or better. In fact, his .376 wOBA was the third-best mark of his career, topped only by 1995 and 1996. But the run environment in 1999 was off the chain — it was one of just three seasons in Major League history in which the average runs scored per game topped five. And Coors Field was one of the parks at the top of the run-scoring food chain. Looking at the “basic” park factor on our Guts pages, we see that while the 122 park factor at Coors Field wasn’t its all-time high, it’s right up there. Of the 560 parks factored since the Rockies’ advent in 1993, Colorado parks represent the top 20, with 1999 ranking sixth. Certainly it was the highest of 1999, as the next-highest factor was 18 percent lower (Royals, 104).
As a result, that .376 wOBA only earned Bichette a 98 wRC+. This gives Bichette the dubious honor of being one of just two players since 1947 to post a .370 wOBA or better and a wRC+ of 100 or lower (Jeff Cirillo on the 2000 Rockies being the other).
Still though, a .376 wOBA should be worth something, right? Well, usually it is. From 1947 through 2011, players who posted a .370-.380 wOBA averaged a 4.29 WAR. Bichette clocked in far below that number, at a whopping -1.8 WAR. It was not only the worst mark of his career, but it may in fact be the best-worst season ever, as only one other player in history (Brad Hawpe, 2008, another Rockie) has posted a negative WAR when also producing a .370 wOBA or better. This is not a phenomenon isolated to just wOBA either. Bichette slugged .541 that season, again the third-best mark of his career. He was also the first player since ’47 to turn the plus-.500 SLG, negative-WAR trick in history, and it has only been repeated once since — by Mike Jacobs in 2008. The reason for this, as you may have surmised, is terrible defense.
|Adam Dunn||2008||CIN, ARI||-30.7|
|Gary Sheffield||1993||SDP, FLO||-32.0|
We see Hawpe’s 2008 season on the list, and that season seems the most similar to Bichette’s 1999 campaign. Where it differs however, is that while Hawpe posted a similar wOBA and Fld score, he produced that wOBA in a different offensive environment, and as a result his wRC+ was a much more robust 121, giving him at least something on which to hang his hat. Bichette…doesn’t.
Even by standard measures, Bichette was never a great defender. While he was fleet of foot — he stole 152 bases in his career at a decent but not optimal 67 percent clip — his play with the leather was substandard. His 50 errors with Colorado are 21 more than any other Rockies’ outfielder, and the only Rockies’ outfielder to log at least 1,000 innings in the green pasture and turn up with a worse fielding percentage than Bichette is Quinton McCracken. His 13 errors in 1999 are something that no outfielder not named Vladimir Guerrero has been able to top since 1993.
In a big outfield like Colorado’s though, the balls one doesn’t get to are frequently more damaging than the ones that a fielder misplays, and that is why Bichette sinks to the bottom in TZ. He primarily manned left field once the Rockies signed Larry Walker, and exclusively patrolled left in 1999. In most ballparks, right field is considered the tougher of the corner-outfield spots to play, but that may not be true of Coors Field. The left-center gap is not only far deeper, but right field also has the park’s highest fence, which gives outfielders the freedom to cheat up a little, knowing that they can play a ball off the wall on a bounce to cut down a runner. It was for this reason that the team chose to make Carlos Gonzalez solely the left fielder this season.
No matter which field is tougher, Bichette’s play that season helped make it a nightmare for Rockies’ pitchers. Not that he was the only culprit. While Bichette was by far the worst defender, this was a truly terrible defense. Sixteen players on that team accrued 100 or more plate appearances, and 14 of them had a neutral or negative TZ. Their -87 TZ was easily the worst in the game in ’99 and the worst in team history. Since ’93, there have only been eight teams who had worse seasons defensively. As a result, even though that year’s squad — led by Pedro Astacio — posted the sixth-best K/9 in team history, they couldn’t keep runs from scoring. The team’s 67.90 LOB% was 28th in the league that season, and is the third-worst mark in Rockies’ history. They also set the franchise lows in several categories (and yes, that’s including this season):
Now, to be clear, it wasn’t completely the fault of Bichette and his fellow defenders. Any time you’re walking more than 11 percent of the batters you face, you’re going to be in hot water. But they certainly weren’t helping. This was the worst BABIP season from the franchise who since its advent has the highest BABIP in baseball. For their part, the Rockies seemed to realize that Bichette was nearing his end. After the season, they traded him to the Reds for Jeffrey Hammonds and Stan Belinda, and the next season the team’s pitching and defense rebounded.
Dante Bichette was not a bad player. Since ’47, 917 players have logged at least 1,000 PA as outfielders, and Bichette’s career 11.3 WAR is better than 476 of them, or to put it more plainly, his career places in the top half of all outfielders in the Integrated Era. But in 1999, he managed to turn in one of the craziest seasons in baseball history, one that helped opposing hitters consistently carousel around the bases. Only 16 qualified players since ’47 have compiled a worse WAR than did Bichette in ’99, and the best wOBA of those 16 seasons was .303. That Bichette could compile such a profoundly negative season with a .376 wOBA speaks to a perfect storm of a high-offense environment, beefy park factors and abhorrent defense that we are unlikely to ever see again.