Write Derek at drksmart @ gmail.com
Write Phil at phil.bencomo @ gmail.com
by Alex Ciepley
After a disappointing series finale with Houston, in which the Cubbie bats decided to skip school and hang out with the bad kids, the Cubs get ready for a four-game set with the Colorado Rockies.
In order to get to know our mile-high brethren a bit better, Derek and I asked a few questions of Brandi "Rox Grrl" Griffin, who pens Purple Row.
Alex: Smarty-pants like Dayn Perry over at Baseball Prospectus have been saying for a while now that the Rockies need to stop obsessing about playing at home in Colorado (where they are 134-120 since 2002) and start worrying about winning on the road (where they've been 84-180 since '02). What's your take on the thin air conundrum?
Rox: Gee, will you look at that. You know, after watching the Rockies for all of these years I never really noticed that they've sucked on the road while performing decently at home. Wow. What a revelation! I bet Dan O'Dowd hasn't noticed that either. Somebody better go tell him, this could really save us.
Okay, sarcasm aside, first, I hope yours isn't one of those sites that takes a look at a Rockies player's home/road splits and says, "Well, obviously he's benefiting from playing in Coors," without also saying, "Well, obviously his road stats are hurt because he plays half his games in Coors," because even smarty-pants like Dayn Perry should know that there is usually a discernible negative discrepancy of what should be expected by said player.
Why? There are a couple of theories such as being unable to reacclimate to the sharper breaks of sea level pitches in time, or one that blames fatigue from playing at altitude creating a nasty effect physiologically similar to jet-lag, but regardless of which theory is correct there will always have to be an assumption that the Rockies hitters will play with an extra handicap whenever they go on the road. Is this fair? Probably not, but they can tweak even bigger unfair advantages for our team out of Coors Field if they do one thing: shorten the fences.
You heard me right. They need to create a pitchers' nightmare such as has never been seen before or will be hereafter and they need to make flatlanders cringe whenever they hear that their team will visit the Hell in the Sky stadium that we should have. In fact, I think I will form a huge corporation, Hell in the Sky Tea Cozies, just so I can get dibs on naming rights next time they're up for bid. Ha-ha, just look at all those flatlander fans crying then. "That isn't baseball!" they will lament, and we will laugh in devilish glee. The fences don't have to be shortened by much, but right now with the vast outfield spaces Coors is actually keeping some of our long drives in the park, clogging our basepaths and making us waste time with the Aaron Mileses and Desi Relafords of the world. Regardless of what happens to the field however, we need big sluggers at every position and we have some coming up, but I'll get to that later.
Why is it so important that the Rockies have power at every spot? Going back to the question of how to win on the road, once we're away from home these players won't need to hit as well as non-slugging players to keep us competitive. They can suffer from the same road-lapse and see their average and OBP drop like rocks but as long as they hit it out occasionally (Vinny Castilla was always way too maligned by the smart set--since what he brought to the club, even last year, good defense and that one dimension on O works very well with our team) we should pick up more wins afield than we are now (like that's going to be a hard bar to cross) and while at home we'll just outgun everybody. If we're within a few games of .500 on the road, then the home advantage should take care of the rest to put us in a spot for a postseason run.
Yes, that's similar to the Blake Street Bomber game of yesteryear, but I also think we need to be a little smarter about the pitching staff this time around. The starting rotation should be made up of five young and cheap pitchers who we don't expect to stay after their arbitration days, because let's face it, what pitcher would? But the key to our success will be having a bullpen made up mostly of the same type of pitcher, with two or three premium power relievers thrown in as mainstays and as the true stars of the staff. We can't waste roster spaces on LOOGy's. We need the endurance of swing men or fifth starters because frequently at home starters will need to be pulled early because of the shellacking they take. Plus, while we're on the road we can sneak them into the rotation to prevent fatigue.
If you look at our lone playoff year in 1995, in a strike shortened season we had eight pitchers with nine starts or more and eleven with five or more and only one (Kevin Ritz) had more than twenty, something like seventeen had more than 30 IP. This sharing of the load is rarely credited with aiding our success that year but I think it's vital for any successful Colorado team, by using a lot of young pitchers with options wisely, the team might be able to utilize the minors as a de facto R&R camp and then as they approach free agency, spin them off for more prospects like those that are coming up.
Derek: Cub fans have had experience recently with feeling insecure when their team's bullpen gets involved. What's it like knowing during every game, no matter how good your pitching staff might be, that there's practically no safe lead to be had in your club's home park?
Rox: The insecurity of which you speak creates extra tension late in games where at most sane places there would be none. This, in turn, makes the Rockies an exciting and unusual product in MLB. I live for this insecurity, I love it. It's great. Now if you can excuse me for a moment while I reach into my purse for my nerve medication, I'll get back to your next question.
Alex: What do you think of newbie Clint Barmes so far?
Rox: Clint Barmes got off to a hot start certainly, better than we could have expected. Pitchers have caught up to him though, and they're throwing him a lot of junk high in the strike zone with the first pitch, taking advantage of two of the qualities that led him to that start, one an excellent batting eye that you won't see strikeout a lot with a judicious approach in selecting which pitches to hit early, and two, a strange cautiousness when he's behind in the count that leads him to make less effective swings than when he's ahead, trying to avoid striking out. So as pitchers get strike one, he gets defensive and is more likely to make an out when he makes contact. Since they figured it out about two weeks ago, he's slumping mildly. He's also smart though, and a remarkably effective learner at the plate who should make the necessary adjustments soon. He's clearly the BEST SHORTSTOP IN THE NATIONAL LEAGUE AND SHOULD BE VOTED FOR THE ALL STAR GAME FREQUENTLY AND OFTEN! STOP THE NEIFI INSANITY! VOTE FOR BARMES! VOTE FOR BARMES!
Derek: Your boys are off to a very rough start this year. Despite that, what reasons do you see to be hopeful, if not for this year, for the next few years to come?
Rox: Cubs fans are fond of the saying, "Wait 'til next year," but go up to a Rockies fan and you will hear "Wait 'til two... er, maybe make that even three years from now" as a more apt expression of when we feel our team will be competitive again. As far as our hopes for the future, we actually like this plan a lot better than the last 58 or so we tried in the Dan O'Dowd tenure as it finally seems we're focusing on building a franchise that can maintain its viability for a long time rather than a shoot for the moon (and miss) sort of set up where we lack flexibility or direction.
Our confidence lies in the drafting and grooming of prospects able to hit it for yard both home and away, and in endurance cogs in the pen and the rotation who can eat up innings with pitches that try to minimize the damage that could be caused by opposing lineups. Our farm system has strong power hitting prospects at every position save catcher at the moment, and some of these have the potential to be among the best players in baseball (Ian Stewart, Chris Nelson) while others may turn out to be two-dimensional Vinny Castilla types, but like I said, on our team that type plays very well.
Right now, we're watching the first wave of our future team come in to shape and of the players you'll see over the weekend the ones we're highest on who we'll keep for the next wave are Barmes, Brad Hawpe, and Sunday's starting pitcher, Jeff Francis. However, also watch out for Cory Sullivan, who should play some games in the outfield and Garrett Atkins at third. The only disappointing rookie of our massive youth infusion has been our catcher, JD
Closser who might not make it to Chicago before being sent back to AAA to "regain his confidence."
Cub Town: What's your prediction for the Cubs-Rox series?
Rox: Cubs win, Cubs win, Cubs win...
Rockies win! Yaaayyyy!!!
Seriously, I think our best chances are on the bookends and especially the Sunday game when our young phenom Francis takes the hill. Although, as you can see from his home (24.2 IP,1.30 WHIP)/road (27.0 IP, 1.89 WHIP) splits, he definitely benefits by playing at Coors. :)