|ESPN.com | Baseball Index | Peter Gammons Bio|
Rockies searching for answers
By Peter Gammons
Special to ESPN.com
DIAMOND NOTES: April 27
The players said the right things, saying they blamed themselves and their lack of performance. But after enduring two five-game losing streaks and owning the worst record in the National League, the firing of Rockies manager Buddy Bell on Friday was hardly a surprise. GM Dan O'Dowd had wanted to give Bell at least a third of the season, but when the Rockies returned home Friday after being phlegmatically swept in Cincinnati, O'Dowd could wait no longer.
"Buddy was my choice to manage this team," said O'Dowd. "So this is a reflection on all of us. Clint Hurdle has seen more games in Coors Field than anybody in the organization. He understands the ups and downs of playing here."
Hurdle, who was a strong candidate for the Arizona job prior to the Diamondbacks hiring Bob Brenly and was strongly considered by Astros GM Gerry Hunsicker to replace Larry Dierker, fits several replacement criteria. But when O'Dowd underlined understanding the Eight Miles High games in Coors Lite, he turned to the logical question:
"We're still trying to figure out what plays in this park," says O'Dowd. "Believe me, we're trying. We've got some very good players here, some good young players, and we've got a legitimate prospects club in Double-A (Carolina). But it's not easy winning here. That's our job to figure out."
There are a number of circumstances that made Bell's tenure hazardous. After signing pitchers Mike Hampton and Denny Neagle to huge contracts prior to the 2001 season with the idea of closing in on an $80 million payroll, the team ran into financial concerns that prompted payroll cuts that have pared down the payroll into the mid-$50s. Their ERA was the worst in the NL, they were near the bottom in homers, on-base percentage, GIDPs and most errors and were 0-6 in games started by opposing left-handed pitchers.
And that's all in a 22-game stretch. What O'Dowd, Hurdle and the Rockies organization has to figure out is what flies in Denver, other than home runs. No one else has. Since coming into existence in 1993, the Rockies have never won 84 games in a season.
"That park beats everyone down," says one former Rockies manager. "You see pitchers beaten down by groundballs skipping through the infield, balls falling in that huge outfield, pop flies carrying out (of the park) and breaking balls not breaking. You see hitters hammer all those pitches that don't break in Coors then not be able to adjust and hit breaking balls on the road." Which is why O'Dowd and his staff are instituting a system that simulates breaking balls for special BP at home, before going on the road.
They'd tried winning with bashers, like Dante Bichette, and won no more than 83 games. O'Dowd has tried a transition towards speed and athleticism, and they still haven't won 84 games. And the home/road OPS splits the previous four years read .929/.688, .932/.700, .901/.772, .941/.730.
Just look at what's happened to Hampton. On June 1 last season, he was 7-2, 2.68 (which, going back to 1997, made him 70-33). Since June 1, Hampton is 7-16, 6.94, and this season is walking more than seven batters per nine innings, compared to his previous NL career average of 3.53.
Check the accompanying box (above) on active pitchers before and after their arrival in Colorado. How happy is Pedro Astactio to have his home park be Shea Stadium? Or Darryl Kile and Busch Stadium? Is it just a matter of finding groundball pitchers who change speeds backed by quick, athletic defenders?
Or will anything work? Could they pull a Big Dig and depress Coors Field below the ground? Maybe then the Colorado Rockies will get over the 83-win hump.
Soriano a star in the making
"I'm not sure there's a limit to his talent," says Jason Giambi of Soriano. "He could hit 40 homers and steal 40 bases. He might even be able to do 50/50. It's scary."
"He brings enormous energy to this team," says Yankees manager Joe Torre, who admits that he was reluctant to put the 24-year-old Soriano into the leadoff spot based on his career .294 on-base percentage (.304 last season).
"I said from the start of the season that our lineup might be a work in progress. After the first time around, if Nick Johnson is hitting ninth, he's the leadoff hitter. But Alfonso has a tremendous capacity to learn and adjust. He's smart about what he wants to do. He also has great hitting instincts."
Through Friday night's game in Seattle, Soriano's on-base percentage in the leadoff spot was .400. But, of course, he's also hitting .382, second in the league, and his 1.039 OPS ranked in the AL's top 10.
"With Alfonso, it's not a matter of worrying about walks," says Yankees hitting coach Rick Down. "It's a matter of his being patient enough to wait to get good pitches to hit and not chase balls out of the strike zone. He's improved a great deal in a year, and he's going to improve a lot more. He's got great hands and ability to generate tremendous batspeed through the hitting zone. He can hit the ball out to any part of the park." And, as Oakland pitching coach Rick Peterson observed, "he is a very good breaking ball hitter. He's just scary."
Ricciardi, now the Blue Jays GM andlike everyone from the Oakland organization a proponent of on-base percentage, nonetheless believes we can get too hung up on those particular numbers.
"There are special players like Soriano or Nomar Garciaparra and Shannon Stewart that are simply great talents," says Ricciardi. "The key is that they don't swing and miss often. If you try to change Nomar, you're crazy, because he's a great hitter. If players do make contact, they can improve just by learning the strike zone."
Shea Hillenbrand is a good example. If the Phillies would stop reminding the world of what Doug Glanville can't do and emphasize that he can make contact and use his speed, he could and would be a much better player.
Torre points to Soriano's postseason performance last season, with crucial homers against Seattle and Arizona, and believes he is a player with magical moments who will perform best against good pitchers. "In time," says Giambi, "Soriano will be regarded as one of the most exciting, talented stars in the game. Hey, he's already close. It's sure fun watching him every day."
Oh, Soriano is leading the league in errors and he sometimes is overaggressive, but Torre doesn't leash him. "With the players we have and the talented kids we have like Soriano and Johnson, we have to give them room to develop," Torre says. "By the end of the season, see what we have."
What we see is that with the Yankees, they play for October, and with what's developed between last April (.279 BA, .278 OBP, .672 OPS) and now makes one wonder just what Alfonso Soriano will be come this October -- not to mention October of 2004.
Around the majors
"He'll even talk about Jeff Weaver, but the price will be very, very high," says one AL GM. "And Weaver's not cheap, either." The Tigers ace's four-year deal doesn't buy out arbitration, and goes from $2.35 million this season to $6.25 million after his first four big-league seasons and $9.65 million through five years.
Anyway, he is spotting and elevating his fastball up and in on left-handed batters, and has the soft screwball change he first threw when he burst onto the scene in New York in 1998. "That pitch is devastating," says Podada, "when he has the feel of it."
"I'm told that Jamie Moyer had the same thing a couple of years ago and it just went away after a couple of weeks," says Mulder. "I'm being very cautious. Art Howe and Billy Beane have told me that they won't let me go out there until I have comlete confidence in every one of my pitches. I appreciate that. It's a long season."
"We need Mark in September and, hopefully, October," says Beane.
"They play the game so well it's awesome," says Scott Hatteberg.
"They play great defense, they have speed and use it, they play the gaps offensively and defensively, they get great situational at-bats from every spot in the order from one to nine, Ichiro and Mark McLemore bring them unusal energy and they play the game perfectly from the seventh inning on," says one A's official. "They're a pleasure to watch."
Kerrigan keeping his head up
As for his Red Sox, Kerrigan naturally watches every move by Pedro Martinez and is proud "of the way they're taking pitches and getting such good at-bats. Dwight Evans has done a tremendous job. Johnny Damon has brought a lot. But it's also an entirely different team with Nomar (Garciaparra) and (Jason) Varitek in there."
Kerrigan is enjoying watching National League baseball, and, as usual, has fascinating observations. "Brandon Duckworth has (Greg) Maddux mechanics, he's something to see," says Kerrigan. After watching the Padres' Brian Lawrence beat Philadelphia, Kerrigan called Lawrence "the second coming of Rick Reuschel. Same delivery, same pitch selection."
This and that
"The two things we're still working on," says Alderson, "are calling the low strike and not letting the strike zone move too far outside. But they're getting better on them, as well."
In the end, the low strike is far more important to the majority of hitters than the high strike. Once the strike zone is called at its top and bottom, it further benefits a pitcher like Mike Mussina, a master of adjusting hitters' sightlines. Mussina might use either side of the plate for three straight pitchers, but he will do so to three different levels to keep the batter's eyes moving up and down.
You heard it here first
As the Diamonbacks watch Junior Spivey -- who, incidentally, was considered so little a part of Arizona's plans that he's on the cover of the Diamondbacks' Triple-A Tuscon team's schedule -- continue to play brilliantly, they now expect Erubiel Durazo back within two weeks and could have Matt Mantei back by early June. Not only that, but while they ponder dealing Brian Anderson to give him a fresh start (he was apparently offered to the Dodgers for Omar Daal), left-hander Chris Capuano is 3-1 at Tuscon and is becoming a closely watched prospect.
The clubhouse also was not thrilled with John Rocker being allowed to refuse a minor-league assignment and be called back after spending a couple of days with Tom House. Then after wallowing around in center field and twice falling down on Ichiro triples last Sunday, Carl Everett was moved to right field, and is not happy about it. "It's not my fault that we're losing," said Everett. What a surprise that Everett doesn't aknowledge any responsibility.
"We haven't played particularly well behind (Juan)," says MacPhail. "But the fact that he's allowed 10 unrearned runs means we're trying to get him to calm down and stay focused when things don't go his way." MacPhail also says, "we've got some young players who may be able to come up in the next couple of months and help us."
Mark Prior got hit hard this week, which the Cubs people wrote off as poor pitch selection, but MacPhail says, "that's part of the learning process." Third baseman David Kelton and first baseman Hee Seop Choi are starting to hit, and now that he's getting healthy, the Cubs expect the same from second baseman Bobby Hill.
ESPN.com: Help | Advertiser Info | Contact Us | Tools | Site Map | Jobs at ESPN.com