Thursday, May 25, 2006

1993 Expansion

A search through all my sources (limited though they are) was unable to come up for a reason that baseball expanded in 1993. I can find all of the specifics and details, but none of the backroom realities that made the NL (and MLB) decide to expand. I tried googling several different variations of "baseball expansion," but the only interesting thing that came up was my own blog(!). I clicked on the link and was taken to a "file not found" page. Such is my life.
With admittedly nothing but supposition to back this up, I'll put forth these educated guesses as to why baseball voted to expand the NL to 14 teams in 1993:
  • Equilibrium. The AL already had 14 teams, and it would just match. This may seem too simple or straightforward, but it makes sense to me, especially since interleague play was being tossed around as a future possibility, thus an equal number of teams would be advantageous.
  • Expanding markets. Despite worries that baseball was expanding faster than it could be pratically supported, the MLB saw the opportunities created by the growing Latin American market. Whether they took the Asia-Pacific market into consideration is unknown, but this would certainly be a source of new talent in the years to come.
  • Geographical realignment. The original 16 MLB teams were in the northeast and midwest. Baseball has ever since taken gradual steps toward realigning major league franchises with the shifting population of the country, both through relocation and expansion. The Denver market had been attractive for many years, tempting other teams to relocate there. An added benefit would be that a Denver team wouldn't just appeal to the municipal or statewide market, but could represent the entire Rocky Mountain region (as the NFL Broncos illustrate). The same was true in Florida, a state with a whole lot of people served by no major league teams. There was great disagreement over where in Florida to place a team, but it was clear that the Sunshine State would sport a major league team soon, either through expansion or relocation.
  • More money. This one rather explains itself.

Whenever baseball explores expansion (or relocation), a number of groups are formed in suitor cities to lure a franchise. The most recent example would be the relocation of the Expos, which saw baseball wooed not just by Washington, D.C., but by Portland, Charlotte, northern Virginia, and Monterrey, Mexico.
Oilman Marvin Davis had campaigned for a Denver baseball team for years with nothing to show for it. His cause was taken up by the money of Peter Coors and finally managed to get a franchise from the MLB. In Florida, it was Wayne Huizenga, part-owner of the Dolphins and Blockbuster Video mogul, who was able to attract the MLB to the Miami area. The two teams would start play in the 1993 season, bringing the NL to 14 teams, equal to the AL for the first time since 1976. This is what the new alignment would be:

Chicago Cubs
Florida Marlins
Montreal Expos
New York Mets
Philadelphia Phillies
Pittsburgh Pirates
St. Louis Cardinals

Atlanta Braves
Cincinnati Reds
Colorado Rockies
Houston Astros
Los Angeles Dodgers
San Diego Padres
San Francisco Giants

Colorado Rockies
As I mentioned before, oilman Marvin Davis had attempted to secure a major league franchise in Denver for years, unsuccessfully. In 1992, though, Colorado fans could rejoice when the MLB announced that one of the new NL franchises would be in Colorado (later named the Rockies). The ownership group was an unstable mix of money coming and going, guided only by the steady money of Peter Coors. Coors ended up with controlling interest in the club, supporting club president Jerry McMorris. Already plans were set in motion for a baseball-only stadium to be built in Denver. Until its completion, the Rockies would share Mile High Stadium with the Broncos.
The club named Bob Gebhard GM and Don Baylor manager heading into the expansion draft. Before the draft even began, ownership decided to make a splash by signing free agent first baseman Andres Galarraga. Galarraga would provide a steady power presence that would become emblematic of the entire team. They also signed a young amateur named Neifi Perez out of the Dominican. Neifi's defensive brilliance was overshadowed by his inability to hit his weight even in the most hitter-friendly environment this side of the moon. Another shrewd move involved trading the disappointing Kevin Reimer to Milwaukee in exchange for Dante Bichette, who would join Galarraga in the hitting heroics to come.
In the first pick of the amateur draft, the Rockies took prized Atlanta pitching prospect David Nied, a hopeful sign that the organization was looking toward the future. Their second choice was third baseman Charlie Hayes (N.Y. Yankees), a valuable hand and one of the better players ever left unprotected in an expansion draft. Their third pick was relief pitcher Darren Holmes (Milwaukee), who would help form what was, for a short while, a surprisingly good bullpen in Denver.
The rest of the draft was unspectacular, but indeed productive. There were no All-Stars, but it's amazing how many useful and productive players the Rockies took, including 2B Eric Young, C Joe Girardi, starting pitchers Willie Blair and Armando Reynoso, relief pitcher Lance Painter, and a young third baseman out of the Atlanta system named Vinny Castilla. With Castilla, Bichette, and Galarraga, the Rockies already had the heart of what would be a powerhouse offense.
Mile High Stadium's footbal dimensions helped the Rockies set a new major league attendance record in their inaugural 1993, when 4,483,350 tickets were sold, an astonishing 55,350 per game. As mentioned before, the Rockies had assembled a potent offense, but weren't able to get quality starts from anyone but Reynoso. (Nied spent parts of 4 seasons in Colorado before his rising star finally snuffed out). In fact, while the Rockies were among the league leaders in runs scored, they were dead last in runs allowed. Not only dead last, but dead last by a mile. Viz:

1993 NL Runs Allowed/Game
1. Atlanta (3.45)
2. Houston (3.89)
12. Cincinnati (4.85)
13. Pittsburgh (4.98)
14. Colorado (5.97)

Not only were the Rockies last, they were off-the-charts last. It was like someone had put a Triple-A pitching staff in the major leagues. The numbers were so awful they couldn't be real. And, of course, they weren't . . .

Every major league park favors, to a certain degree, either hitters or pitchers. Rarely is a park perfectly neutral, even for just one year. There is a statistic used to indicate how friendly a park is to hitters (or pitchers). It's called Park Factor. A Park Factor of 100 indicates a neutral park. A park factor over 100 indicates a park that favors offense; a park factor under 100 favors pitching/defense. A baseball field's Park Factor varies slightly from year to year (for a variety of reasons), but rarely moves sharply in one direction without a reason (a team bringing the fences in or out, for example).
Park Factor is measured by determining how many runs are scored at that park compared to other parks in the league. Specifically, you would take the stats of Rockies hitters and their opponents at Coors Field and then compare them to their performance at other parks. It's important to take into account both home and visiting teams. Because if you just measure the home team, then you're not measuring the park; you're measuring the team. People have said that the Great American Ballpark is a great hitter's park because so many home runs are hit there. That's true to some extent. But a lot of homers are hit at the G.A.B. because the Reds have a great offense and a terrible pitching staff. They both hit and give up a lot of homers. What we really want to know is how the Reds (and their opponents) hit at the G.A.B. compared to the rest of the league.
So that's a Park Factor. Most Park Factors from season to season fall between 105-95, within 5% of normal. Every once in a while a park will come along that consistently plays as a hitter's park (or pitcher's park), going even 5% above or below average. Here are some examples from the history of Dodger Stadium, a great pitcher's park:

Dodger Stadium Park Factors:
1963 -- 93
1967 -- 92
1975 -- 95
1986 -- 93
1992 -- 98
1995 -- 91
2005 -- 95
So we see that while the degree changes from year to year, Dodger Stadium is a pitcher's park, sometimes an extreme pitcher's park (more than 5% below average). Let's look at a famous hitter's park: Fenway Park.

Fenway Park Park Factors:
1945 -- 102
1955 -- 109
1965 -- 107
1975 -- 108
1985 -- 103
1995 -- 102
2005 -- 101
Again, the degree changes from year to year, but Fenway Park is a true hitter's park, sometimes to a great degree. It should be said that for a park like Fenway or Dodger Stadium to post factors this significant for such a long period of time makes them stand out; most parks really are fairly close to neutral, and many of the more extreme parks (Philadelphia's Baker Bowl) usually don't last very long. Either that or the team takes steps to correct the disparity.

All of this has been to give you an idea of context in which to place the Ballpark Factor stat. As one last setup, let's take a look at all of the ballparks in, say, the 1985 National League (random choice).

1985 NL Park Factors:
111 -- Wrigley Field (Chicago)
107 -- Atlanta Fulton County Stadium
105 -- Riverfront Stadium (Cincinnati)
103 -- Veterans Stadium (Philadelphia)
100 -- Three Rivers Stadium (Pittsburgh)
99 -- Busch Stadium (St. Louis)
99 -- Jack Murphy Stadium (San Diego)
97 -- Shea Stadium (New York)
97 -- Dodger Stadium (Los Angeles)
97 -- AstroDome (Houston)
96 -- Candlestick Park (San Francisco)
94 -- Olympic Stadium (Montreal)

All of this is fairly normal. Wrigley Field has been, at times, an extreme hitter's park (anything 10% in either direction is very uncommon). But its Park Factor has fluctuated throughout history for a variety of reasons too numerous to mention here. Everything else basically holds true. They didn't call Fulton County Stadium "The Launching Pad" for nothing. Riverfront was generally hitter-friendly. And Dodger Stadium, Shea Stadium, and the AstroDome were all generally pitcher-friendly.

Now that I've gone this far just as a set up, let me reveal to you the park factors for the Colorado Rockies in their first years of existence:

Colorado Rockies Park Factors:
1993 -- 121
1994 -- 117
1995 -- 128
1996 -- 129
1997 -- 123
1998 -- 120
1999 -- 128
2000 -- 130
2001 -- 121
2002 -- 120
2003 -- 112
2004 -- 118
2005 -- 112

This is what we call "eye-popping." Mile High Stadium (and later Coors Field) were the Barry Bonds of ballparks. At their peak, they increased offense by 30% -- 30%! That means that a weak-hitting team that scored 3.5 runs per game would now be a fine-hitting team scoring 4.55 runs per game. An offense would get an additional run per game based 0n the ballpark alone. ACCH!
We often talk about statistics being placed in context. Nowhere is that more true than at Coors Field. You just can't take anything at Coors Field at face value. For the rest of this entry, always remember the factors listed above whenever I quote the gaudy offensive stats that the Rockies piled up over the years.
What's really even more amazing is how even today people are fooled by Coors Field. Everyone knows that Coors Field increases offense, but it still doesn't stop some harebrained commentator from thinking that Vinny Castilla is going through a hitting "renaissance" in 2004 -- a renaissance that just happens to coincide with his return to the Rockies.
It's simply the thin air at the high altitudes of the Rocky Mountains that enables balls to soar and offers less air resistance to make those breaking balls break. It was no baseball secret -- the Dodgers' farm system at Colorado Springs had forever produced great-looking hitters who became surprisingly normal at lower elevation (Greg Brock, anyone?).
If you take nothing else away from this entry, it is to distrust any hitting stats compiled at Coors Field -- and by the same token, give those poor pitchers a break.

With the realignment of the NL into 3 divisions in 1994, the sophomore Rockies were lucky to end up in the 4-team NL West. They improved to a respectable 53-64 record (3rd place), but it was mostly irrelevant with the strike ending the season.
Then the 1995 Rockies shocked everyone by taking the first-ever NL Wild Card in 1995. In the strike-shortened season, The Rockies' 77-67 record may not have been great, but it was just good enough to edge Houston by 1 game and make the playoffs. The Rockies were the quickest expansion team to make the playoffs by far -- doing it in just their 3rd season of existence.
How did the Rockies make it? Everyone pointed to their powerhouse offense. But you, of course, have learned to be skeptical of Colorado offense. The 1995 Rockies scored an absurd 6.74 runs per game at home -- that's not absurd, that's just sick. On the road, though, the Rockies scored 4.17 runs per game -- tied for 11th in the league (of 14 teams). Now every team performs better at home than on the road, so we can give the Rockies a bit of a break. But the home/road splits go to show you just how much of the '95 Rockies' offense was an illusion.
The other side of the coin? Colorado pitchers (and defenders) allowed 6.81 runs per game at home, which is somewhat akin to having me and my friends as your pitching staff. On the road, though, Colorado pitchers allowed a bare 4.07 runs per game -- second only to Atlanta in the entire NL. So welcome to Bizarro World: everyone sees a team driven by a great offense and hampered by a bad pitching staff. The reality is a very strong pitching staff and a decent offense. The rest is just context -- statistical "noise," as it were.
On its face, though, the '95 Colorado offense was impressive. GM Gebhard had taken fine players in the expansion draft (Galarraga, Joe Girardi, and Vinny Castilla) and managed to trade for Dante Bichette. He found the last piece of the puzzle in free agent right fielder Larry Walker. Walker was a great hitter in Montreal, so when he moved to Colorado he became a monster. Bichette led the team with 40 HR, Walker swatted 36 and both Castilla and Galarraga topped 30. Although he didn't play the whole season, outfielder Ellis Burks still managed to hit 14 HR and would add another piece to the powerhouse lineup in the future. Don't misunderstand me; I'm not saying that this was a bad lineup that just looked great. It was a decent and sometimes genuinely good lineup, but none of the players were as good as their Colorado stats indicated.
But who were these good pitchers laboring in obscurity to put the Rockies into October? The staff ace was Kevin Ritz, obtained in the expansion draft. Ritz posted a 4.21 ERA, excellent in Denver, with 120 K in 173,1 IP. After Ritz, the Rockies had a terrible time getting a group of 5 starters together. Either because they couldn't pitch or because their ERAs made it look like they couldn't pitch, no one stayed in the rotation for long. Only Ritz and veteran Bill Swift (4.94 ERA in 105.2 IP) threw more than 100 IP on the whole team. So if that was the starting rotation, who was out there keeping this team in contention.
Say hello to the brilliant Colorado bullpen, the unsung heroes of 1995. Closer Darren Holmes (expansion draft, remember) notched just 14 saves but managed a brilliant 3.24 ERA in 66.2 IP. Setup man Curt Leskanic managed a 3.40 ERA and fought his way through 76 games and 98 IP, a necessity considering the starting rotation. The best of them all may have been Steve Reed, who posted a 2.14 ERA at Coors Field (?!) in 84 innings of work. Add in Bruce Ruffin (2.12 ERA), and you've got the perfect corps of firemen and ace closers to keep a rickety rotation stabilized.
All in all, GM Gebhard had done a wonderful job of building a good team quickly. It's hard to imagine given the subsequent downfall of the franchise, but the Rockies did almost everything right in building their 1995 team. They got a great haul of regulars and role players in the expansion draft and made some key trades to fill some holes. This meant that they didn't have to go often to the free agent market and when they did, they could afford an elite talent like Walker as well as some valuable parts such as Burks and Ruffin.
It was the high point for the franchise, without question. They went into the NLDS against the Braves and lost in 4 games. Unfortunately, it was a sign of things to come.
The team fell back only slightly in 1996 and 1997, finishing both years a respectable 83-79. 3rd place in the 4-team NL West. But in 1998, the team finished 4th in what was now a 5-team division (ahead of only the expansion Diamondbacks), a finish that cost Don Baylor his job. In 1999, even the Diamondbacks passed them, and the Rockies finished last, with a 72-90 record. Veteran Jim Leyland had left Florida to take over the 1999 squad, and it became clear that managing a losing team with a pretty hopeless future wasn't high on his list of priorities. He was gone after just one season.
So what happened to the 1995 team? The simple answer is that management failed to see through the illusion of Coors Field. They thought the hitters who put up great stats really were great. They failed to see through the high ERAs to find the quality pitchers they had and ended up cycling through pitchers like crazy, looking for a solution.
To be fair, Coors Field offered a challenge to a baseball organization like no other ballpark. What sort of pitchers would perform best in a homer-happy ballpark that takes the edge off of your breaking balls? What pitcher wouldn't completely lose confidence after a couple 8-run outings in Denver? So it's certainly understandable that Rockies management has faced unique challenges. But it becomes less and less of an excuse as time goes on; they've had 13 years now to try and figure out something, and you get the sense that they're no closer to "solving" Coors Field than they were when they first moved in.
Hitters like Galarraga, Burks, Bichette, and Castilla stayed and racked up mind-blowing numbers. But as our home/road comparison showed us, their contribution was not nearly as big as their raw numbers would indicate. Without a solid pitching staff (like the one they had in 1995), they couldn't contend. Which is of course, exactly what happened.
Not that they didn't try. We must be fair to the Rockies' upper management, becuase they did get pitchers -- good pitchers -- to come to Denver. But when the likes of Darryl Kile and Pedro Astacio, both formerly strong pitchers, got tagged with a 5.00+ ERA, it became more and more difficult to get free agent pitchers to come to Denver and risk their livelihood.
After Baylor's firing in 1998, GM Gebhard got the axe following a disappointing last-place 1999. Despite a promising start in 1993, Gebhard went to the panic button too soon and too often, making regrettable deals such as one for the non-productive Mike Lansing. And despite the signing of free agent Kile, the '99 team allowed an ungodly total of 1028 runs. The last team to allow so many runs were the 1930 Philadelphia Phillies, a terrible team in the other lively-ball era. Incidentally, the Phillies at that time were playing in the Baker Bowl, one of the few permanent major league stadiums to rival Coors Field in terms of offense. The 1930 Bowl's Park Factor was 109, although it usually stayed above 110.
The only good news to come out of Colorado in the late 90's was first baseman Todd Helton. Despite the fact that his arrival meant the departure of fan favorite Galarraga, Helton soon became a franchise player, and is the undisputed best Rockie ever. Helton debuted in 1997 and won the everyday first baseman's job in 1998. Since then, he's posted a career hitting line of 337/433/607 with 271 career HR and 3 Gold Gloves. While that may make him look like the second coming of Willie McCovey, the truth is much more modest. However, even judging by park-adjusted metrics such as Win Shares, Helton has put together one heck of a career that may merit Cooperstown induction, Coors Field or not.
In 2000, managerial reins were handed over to Buddy Bell. The team finished 82-80 and bounced back to respectability. Manager Bell was in favor of a trade that would have sent Helton to Detroit in exchange for Tigers 1B Tony Clark, one of Bell's favorites from his days as Detroit skipper. The trade never happened, which is a shame, because I'm sure Rob Neyer could use the material for another book of blunders.
The 2000 season was an improvement, yes, but not a significant one. Along with the offense, Bell got good starting pitching from the likes of Astacio and Brian Bohanon and was served by yet another surprisingly good bullpen, anchored by Jose Jimenez, Mike Myers, Mike DeJean and Gabe White.
But the Colorado management made a classic mistake. Fans and sportswriters were optimistic about the finish and convinced themselves that the Rockies could be contenders in 2001. The mistake management made was to believe it, too, thinking they were much closer to contending than they actually were. You may not have heard of most of the people mentioned in the last paragraph, because their major league success was temporary. The 2000 Rockies' success was temporary, too, but the front office had neither the insight to see it nor the willpower to believe it.
So the Rockies went on an orgy of spending in 2001, deciding that they could buy the pitchers to get them to October. They started with Mike Hampton. Hampton had achieved stardom with the Houston Astros, and then in one memorable season with the Mets. As a free agent, Hampton's services were in high demand. Hampton succeeded despite a rather low strikeout total and a high number of walks allowed. This would be a red flag for any GM about to sign him to a blockbuster deal, but especially for someone about to throw down as much money as new GM Dan O'Dowd was.
O'Dowd signed Hampton to an 8-year contract for $121 million dollars with many perks and deferred payments and that would keep Hampton on the payroll for many years to come. The deal was looked down upon; it looked like the Rockies were willing to pay any exorbitant amount to entice a pitcher to Denver, and it looked like Hampton would go anywhere for the right price. Hampton didn't help matters when he claimed that he chose the Rockies because he liked the Denver school system for his children.
But O'Dowd didn't stop there. Having apparently invested in a grove of money trees, O'Dowd pursued free agent Denny Neagle. Neagle took home about $8 million per year over his 4 seasons in Colorado. His best year was a 5.26 ERA in 164.1 IP in 2002. His worst year was 2004 -- when he made $9 million and never threw a pitch in the majors. And whereas Hampton was still fairly young (28) at the time of his deal, Neagle was already 32 and well past his prime years when the Rockies locked him up. The money tied down to these two would severely hamper every move the Rockies made for years to come. But the move that tied up the most money was made in 2003, when the team signed Helton to a lucrative long-term extension. The idea was that they would keep the franchise player in Colorado for all of his productive years. But the reality was that although Helton played well, he is now eating up %25 of the team's payroll all by himself. In hindsight, the team would rather spend that Helton money elsewhere. But you can't un-sign a contract (the Players' Union gets pretty uptight about that).
The first year under Neagle and Hampton resulted in a last-place finish in the NL West at 73-89. The club posted the same record in 2002, but managed to finish 4th thanks to the strugglging Padres. Apart from Helton and the aging Walker, there was very little reason to get excited about the Rockies. The crowds of 80,000 at Mile High Stadium soon have become a distant memory as Coors Field continues to grow emptier and emptier.
Ever since then, the story of the Rockies has been an attempt to get out from under the contracts of Hampton, Neagle, Helton and other ill-fated signings such as Preston Wilson. Although Helton's still there, they were able to trade away Hampton and Wilson's contracts. The Rockies had a stroke of luck (so to speal) when Denny Neagle's arrest for solicitation gave them an excuse to void his contract.
The Rockies of today are committed to building from within with a strong group of young players. While they do have a lot of young players, it must (unfortunately) be pointed out that none of them are great and only a few of them are good. There's still a chance that promising young pitcher Jeff Francis will figure out Coors Field, although 2002 Rookie of the Year winner Jason Jennings still hasn't. Left fielder Matt Holliday appears to be a fine hitter at Coors and away, although the same can't be said for infielders Clint Barmes and Garret Atkins.
The Rockies have more help on the way, and at least they aren't tossing away money on free agents anymore. They should be able to field an adequate team of rookies in the future; they might even make it to .500 for the first time since 2000. But if the Rockies actually want to win, they're going to have to get good pitching and good hitting (away-from-Coors good hitting). And to do that, they'll have to figure out exactly what it takes to win at Coors Field. And, not to sound too pessimistic, but I don't think they're much closer to figuring that out than they were in 1993.

Total Ballclubs by Donald Dewey & Nicholas Acocella
Total Baseball Encyclopedia 2004 Ed.

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