Why Can’t the Rockies Put Together an Outfield?

This past Saturday, with the FanGraphs staff in attendance at Coors Field, the Rockies honored their 25th anniversary team, which was selected last December. The pregame ceremony was a chance for fans to cheer franchise favorites such as Todd Helton, Larry Walker and Ellis Burks — and a missed opportunity as well, because given the state of the Rockies’ offense, you might be forgiven for thinking that those old-timers could outplay the team’s current regulars. Save for a four-game sweep during which they piled up 37 runs on the hapless Mets, the Rockies have gone 4-17 since May 29, falling from first place to fourth in the NL West race at 38-42.

I kid about the old-timers, but not entirely. As I sat in the Captain’s Deck in high right field, viewing the sprawling expanse of grass while chatting with my colleagues, I conceded for the umpteenth time that I simply don’t know why the Rockies can’t assemble a productive outfield. I’ve puzzled over it at Sports Illustrated. I’ve puzzled over it on a weekly basis in my FanGraphs chats. Now I’ve puzzled over it in person, and I still have more questions than answers.

The current unit, which primarily consists of Gerardo Parra in left, Charlie Blackmon in center and Carlos Gonzalez in right, entered Wednesday hitting .274/.326/.437, which wouldn’t be awful if it were produced at sea level, but their 90 wRC+ ranks 14th among NL outfields. Because of the club’s home park, there’s a lot of air in those raw numbers; the Padres’ outfield is at 96 wRC+ based on a .251/.312/.397 line. The Rockies look even worse when defense is brought into the equation, as that trio — plus Noel Cuevas, David Dahl, Ian Desmond and Mike Tauchman, the others they’ve used — has combined for -6 UZR (10th in the league), and lest you think they’ve been shortchanged by that metric, their -26 DRS is dead last by five runs. It’s UZR that’s included in our version of WAR, and even with that more favorable number, their 0.6 WAR is last as well. (All stats through Tuesday unless otherwise indicated.)

It’s unfair to say that the outfield is the Rockies’ only problem, as the team has been outscored by 48 runs (they’re actually three wins ahead of both their PythagenPat and BaseRuns projections). While they’re third in the league in scoring (4.72 runs per game), that’s a function of altitude; their 84 wRC+ is tied for last in the NL with the Marlins and Padres, and on the other side of the ball, their league-high 5.33 runs per game allowed boils down to a 110 ERA-, the NL’s fourth-worst mark. Nonetheless, Colorado’s outfield has been an ongoing problem, one that, judging by the litany of posts cited in the second paragraph, has maybe kept me awake for more nights than it has Rockies GM Jeff Bridich.

Bridich took over from Dan O’Dowd in late October 2014, inheriting a 96-loss team but a young and reasonably productive outfield of Corey Dickerson, Drew Stubbs and Blackmon, who had just completed their age-25, -29, and -27 seasons, respectively. Let’s go to the big board:

Rockies Outfield and First-Base Regulars, 2015-2018
Year LF CF RF 1B
2014 Corey Dickerson (2.8) Drew Stubbs (2.7) Charlie Blackmon (1.3) Justin Morneau (2.3)
2015 Brandon Barnes (-0.6) Charlie Blackmon (2.5) Carlos Gonzalez (2.9) Ben Paulsen (0.9)
2016 Gerardo Parra (-1.9) Charlie Blackmon (4.7) Carlos Gonzalez (2.6) Mark Reynolds (0.3)
2017 Gerardo Parra (0.8) Charlie Blackmon (6.5) Carlos Gonzalez (-0.1) Mark Reynolds (0.8)
2018 Gerardo Parra (0.2) Charlie Blackmon (0.8) Carlos Gonzalez (0.8) Ian Desmond (-0.2)
Each figure in parentheses is a player’s WAR all positions, not a split. 2018 stats through June 26.

The aforementioned trio had collectively picked up the slack for Gonzalez (-0.3 WAR) and Michael Cuddyer (1.3 WAR in just 45 games), both of whom made multiple trips to the disabled list, with the former undergoing in-season finger and knee surgeries. Blackmon made the NL All-Star team for the first time based on a decent first half (114 wRC+, 1.6 WAR) but was below replacement level in the second. After the season, Cuddyer departed via free agency, and the Rox lost 94 games in 2015; Stubbs was squeezed off the roster in midseason by CarGo’s rebound and Blackmon’s move to center, but Dickerson was limited to 65 games due to injuries. Neither Brandon Barnes nor anybody else the Rockies tried in left could keep his head above replacement level.

Even with a productive trade of Dickerson to the Rays (for German Marquez and Jake McGee), the January 2016 free-agent signing of the light-hitting, two-time Gold Glove-winning Parra to a three-year, $27.5 million deal created a logjam that was further exacerbated by the midseason arrival of Dahl, a 22-year-old top prospect who hit for a 113 wRC+ with 1.3 WAR in 63 games. Parra was dreadful, hitting just .253/.271/.399 (58 wRC+) with nine walks in 381 PA over 102 games, additionally missing nearly eight weeks with an ankle sprain and taking up first base duties — where his bat was even more of a drag on the offense — late in the year. Even so, Blackmon’s breakout and a young rotation featuring rookies Jon Gray and Tyler Anderson, Tommy John surgery returnee Tyler Chatwood and veteran Chad Bettis, all worth at least 2.0 WAR, helped the team improve to 75-87.

Somehow, both Parra and Gonzalez have remained in the mix ever since, regardless of production or the team’s rebuilding plan; my annually incorrect prediction for the latter to be dealt, freeing the Rockies of whatever remained of his seven-year, $80 million deal is part of my ongoing bafflement. The pair has stuck to their spots even with the arrival of Desmond via a five-year, $70 million deal that made little senes at the time and even less since. Dahl missed all of 2017 (save for 82 minor-league PA) due to a stress reaction in his rib cage, while Desmond, a shortstop-turned-center-fielder, was, if not sub-Parra (sorry) then at least quite bad (69 wRC+, -0.9 WAR) in 2017. He missed time due to both a hand fracture and a calf strain, and split his 95 games primarily between left field (66 games) and first base (27 games). Despite so many obstacles, Blackmon’s stellar season (fifth in WAR, and first with 387 total bases and a .331 batting average) and more strong work from the young rotation (as well as a veteran bullpen) helped the team to 87 wins and an NL Wild Card berth.

While they spent big this past winter when it came to free-agent relievers (Wade Davis, Bryan Shaw, and McGee), the Rockies not only stayed out of a deep pool of affordable first-base options (Matt Adams, Yonder Alonso, Lucas Duda, Adam Lind, Logan Morrison, Carlos Santana), they dealt a blow to 23-year-old third baseman-turned-first baseman Ryan McMahon’s chances of breaking through by re-signing Gonzalez via a one-year deal for $5 million plus incentives. McMahon, who ranked 83rd among FanGraphs’ Top 100 Prospects list, with a 50 future value, did make the team out of spring training, but has received just 95 PA in 47 games, with 10 starts at first base, five at third, and four at second. He’s been yo-yoed around the infield, the bench, and Triple-A Albuquerque, starting more than three games in a row just twice, so it’s hardly a surprise he’s scuffled (.211/.283/.337, 51 wRC+).

Desmond, again, has been lousy (.217/.299/.438, 84 wRC+), as has Gonzalez (.274/.327/.443, 89 wRC+), while Parra’s hitting a very thin .303/.340/.424 (92 wRC+). Dahl, who began the season in the minors to shake off the rust, played only semi-regularly for five weeks between being called up in late April and suffering a broken right foot at the end of May; his 96 wRC+ (.275/.309/.484) is actually second among this crew behind that of Blackmon, who has fallen off from 141 last year to 111 this year.

Add it all up and during Bridich’s tenure, the Rockies’ outfield has combined for a 98 wRC+ and 16.9 WAR over 3.5 seasons; the latter figure ranks 23rd in the majors. What’s more, nearly all of that positive value belongs to Blackmon:

Rockies Outfielders by WAR, 2015-2018
Rk Player PA Bat BsR Fld WAR
1 Charlie Blackmon 2371 71.7 7.5 -18.1 14.6
2 Carlos Gonzalez 1955 3.8 0.2 11.3 5.9
3 David Dahl 317 1.5 1.9 0.4 1.1
4 Corey Dickerson 217 8.3 -1.0 -3.5 0.9
5 Raimel Tapia 172 -5.9 2.1 -2.7 -0.2
6 Brandon Barnes 366 -17.9 2.4 4.1 -0.4
7 Gerardo Parra 943 -23.8 -6.8 4.7 -0.6
8 Ryan Raburn 163 -8.9 0.5 -0.9 -0.6
9 Ian Desmond 322 -14.1 0.0 -0.4 -0.7
100 plate appearance minimum

That’s the strict split showing only the players’ time as outfielders. Meanwhile, at first base — another nut Bridich clearly can’t crack — the team has netted -0.6 WAR (28th in the majors):

Rockies First Basemen by WAR, 2015-2018
Rk Name PA Bat BsR Fld WAR
1 Mark Reynolds 1006 3.6 -5.2 -2.7 1.0
2 Justin Morneau 174 1.6 1.1 -0.7 0.5
3 Wilin Rosario 182 -1.1 -1.5 -2.8 -0.3
4 Ian Desmond 335 -3.8 -0.2 -1.8 -0.1
5 Ben Paulsen 358 -9.1 0.4 -0.4 -0.5
100 plate appearance minimum

Between first base and the corner-outfield spots, the Rockies have netted just under three wins at three positions over three-and-a-half seasons — the three positions on the left side of the defensive spectrum, where finding guys who can hit should be as easy as tying one’s shoes. Yes, injuries and rebuilding have been factors in the Rockies’ woes here. Yes, the size of their outfield (an estimated 97,300 square feet, second in the majors) might reasonably make defense a higher priority than elsewhere. But still, to not only get replacement-level production for that span, but to get it from some of the team’s highest-paid players, is almost a death sentence for contention. The ongoing presence of the great Nolan Arenado and the development of the young pitching are just about all that mitigates that.

So where do they go from here? Dahl might not be back until August, but giving McMahon a shot at regular play and using Desmond, the lone righty among the aforementioned principals, as a roving platoon player might be a step in the right direction. Desmond has a 62 wRC+ against righties during his Rockies tenure, compared to 108 against lefties, while Parra (63 in 173 PA) and Gonzalez (36 in 206 PA) have become total pushovers against southpaws. Upgrading both corners as soon as possible would be ideal, but the reality is that the inventory of righty-swinging corner outfielders who are pending free agents is thin (the Marlins’ Cameron Maybin and Blue Jays’ Steve Pearce and come to mind), and 13-man pitching staffs don’t leave much room for platooning. An inexpensive lefty such as the Blue Jays’ Curtis Granderson (130 wRC+, $5 million salary) would be a godsend relative to the in-house options besides Dahl, and a trade using Parra or Gonzalez as ballast so that they take on a significant chunk of salary would work, too.

Before they can do that, however, the Rockies have to admit that they have a problem, one that may well keep them from a playoff spot. (Their odds have gone from 18.8% in the preseason to 4.2% entering Wednesday.) Based on Bridich’s track record, I’m just not sure they’re capable.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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4 years ago

Several “misses” by Bridich thus far, particularly as stated in this piece.

He should have traded CarGo after his huge second half in 2015, and stayed away from Desmond entirely.

Hard to imagine Nolan Arenado sticking around under the current circumstances.

Free Clay Zavada
4 years ago
Reply to  BobbyJohn69

Take a barely above average hitter in 2016 (well below average the year before) and move him to first base…what could go wrong?