When we talk about teams not taking advantage of the best seasons of their stars, there’s no better example than Mike Trout and the Angels. You could make a 90-win team by simply building a .500 team around Trout, and yet the Angels have been able to do this only once with their center fielder. But they’re hardly the only team to fritter away the prime of top talent. Enter the Colorado Rockies.
The Rockies can hardly be called a grand failure on the field, having won 87 and 91 games in 2017 and ’18, making the playoffs in consecutive years for the first time in franchise history. But you could also argue that it’s a team that you can say underperformed those win totals, especially last year. The 2018 Rockies won 91 games, but that was with two legitimate Cy Young and MVP contenders; after successfully doing the hard part and finding legitimate stars, they’ve repeatedly failed to put a halfway competent team around those stars.
To illustrate this, here is team WAR from 2017, 2018, and 2019 (through July 29) outside of a team’s top two position players and top two hitters. As noted above, the Rockies have done as good job finding high-end talent as any team in baseball.
|Franchise||2019||2019 Rank||2018||2018 Rank||2017||2017 Rank||Average||Total Rank|
To make things a little easier, I’ve highlighted the playoff teams each year in orange. For 2019, I used the teams that would make the playoffs today because of, well, that whole not having a time machine thing.
Except for the Rockies, not a single team that was below-average in secondary talent using this definition made the playoffs. Relative to a league-average team, the Rockies have essentially given up 5 and 1/2 wins a year when it comes to this secondary talent, and an amazing 20 wins a year compared to the Dodgers.
In 2017 and ’18, this failing wasn’t enough to keep them out of the playoffs. But it was enough to cost the team the 2018 NL West title, forcing them into a risky Wild Card game. When the highs aren’t quite so high and lows even lower, it’s enough to push the Rockies out of the playoffs. Colorado’s secondary talent has combined for 2.5 WAR compared to the league average 10.7 WAR. With those eight wins, the team would be in the top wild card spot by a half-game right now. Instead, they’re 50-57, only closer to the playoffs than the Pirates and the Marlins in the National League.
Here’s another way to think about how the Rockies have failed to put together a complete team. For each season, I’ve added up each team’s replacement-level contributors.
Only the Orioles have gotten as much sub-replacement play as the Rockies. As you may have noticed, the Orioles are not a contender.
Coors Field provides some unique challenges for a franchise to deal with. The difficulty of playing in Coors, however, should be a reason for a front office to be more creative, bring in more people with outside-the-box ideas. Not only do the Rockies not think outside the box, they’re run like an ultra-conventional team from 1988, not like a franchise that absorbed lessons from baseball’s advances in the last 30 years. Teams care about things like getting on-base, and now have a better understanding of sunk costs, meaning that players at the bottom of the league don’t typically retain starting jobs for three years straight. Nor should it be the other teams that find the Corey Klubers and Max Muncys, and rarely the Rockies. The Rockies are failing not because they can’t develop talent, but because too often, they’re unable to find talent that’s simply below-average rather than sub-replacement.
In the end, Coors Field didn’t force the Rockies to make confusing signings of players like Gerardo Parra and Ian Desmond, nor did it force them to keep playing those players long after it was obvious they were non-contributors. Coors Field didn’t force the Rockies to only casually pick up a role player or two during two consecutive trade deadlines. Coors Field didn’t make the Rockies ignore their offensive problems offseason after offseason. And Coors Field didn’t make the team’s plan for rebuilding the bullpen “Let’s throw money at every veteran reliever we’ve heard of.”
I’m far from the only one to have noticed this; I’ve had discussions about this inside baseball on more than one occasion. And Ken Rosenthal got a pretty choice quote in his column today at The Athletic.
“The well-run teams are realistic and have a good feel for their talent and how it stacks up to their competitors,” one executive said. “The poorly-run teams do not.
“The Rockies are a great example. They thought they were building off a 91-win team (last season) without appreciating how fortunate they were and that their true talent was well below that.”
With the amount of young talent Colorado developed in the mid-2010s, there’s no reason why the Rockies couldn’t have become the mountain version of the Cubs or Astros. Instead, they’ve ridden this wave to nowhere, and are at risk of squandering the best run of player development in the team’s history. There’s still time to salvage this era, but it’s going to require a front office willing to make hard choices and ownership that’s willing to shell out cash for top free agents rather than overpay one-win players. The general manager attacking critics isn’t going to turn around this franchise.
Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.