Friday, August 05, 2005

Escape from Coors

The Giam-BEE-no! Leave it to the hottest hitter in baseball to pick up the Yanks when they really need it. Not to take anything away from Alexander the Great, whose home run tied the game and made it possible for Giambi to see the pitch that won the game.

There’s plenty to yap about following this game: the win in a must win, Giambi continuing to look like an MVP (and earning his paycheck), A-Rod coming through in the clutch (though, according to my brother, it wasn’t clutch because there weren’t two outs), Tom Gordon not having two days in a row off since July 18th and 19th…but I’m going to write about the issue I’m concerned about: Shawn Chacon.

We need only one look at Chacon’s money pitch, his sharp hook, to explain his failure in Colorado. How many curveball pitchers have thrived there? How about Mike Hampton, who was 15-10 with a 3.14 ERA for the World Series losing Mets in 2000? He goes to Colorado, and amasses a 14-13 record with a 5.41 ERA. Two and a quarter points over his previous year. And it’s not like he eloped to the AL or anything.

Or what about Darryl Kile (R.I.P.), who was a lights-out 19-7 with a 2.57 ERA for the Astros in ’97. His 1998 debut with the Rockies: 13-17 with a 5.20 ERA, to be followed by a 8-13, 6.61 season. You could even count in Shawn Estes, who had his worst year (5.84 ERA) in Colorado – though he doesn’t exactly have a track record of quality seasons (’97 with a 3.18 ERA in San Fran).

Funny thing about Hampton, Kile and Estes: they all had career highs in home runs allowed during their respective tenures in Colorado. Hampton had 31 in ’01 and 24 in ’02, compared to his previous career high of 18 with Houston in ’98. In fact, ESPN’s Tim Kurkjian wrote an article recently about Hampton and his escape from Coors.

Kile gave up 28 and 33 homers during his two years in Colorado, though his trend continued subsequent to his escape to St. Louis (but his ERA dipped back to top of the rotation levels). Estes allowed 30 dingers in ’04, besting his career high by nine.

Last year, Joe Kennedy made Rockies history by becoming the first pitcher to start over 20 games and have an ERA below four (Armando Reynoso had a 4.00 ERA in 30 starts in their inaugural year, ’93, and Marvin Freeman had a 2.80 ERA in 19 starts in ’94).

No, Coors Field is no pitcher’s park. It can actually be construed as some kind of pitcher’s purgatory, where they are sent to pay for all those hanging breaking balls. Because when you hang one out in Colorado, well, it keeps hanging all the way to the seats.

In his early years, Chacon looked like he would fall victim to the perils of Coors Field. He debuted in ’01, going 6-10 with a 5.06 ERA in 160 innings. He allowed 26 long balls that year to go along with 157 hits and a monstrous 87 (!!) walks (1.53 WHIP). However, he did manage 134 strikeouts, which would be great, except that it meant that when the ball was being put in play, it was falling in for base hits.

It was downhill in ’02, as Chacon started less games (27 in ’01, 21 in ’02), hurled less innings (119.1), worsened his strikeout to walk ratio (67 Ks, 60 BBs), and maintained his 1.53 WHIP. Oh, and he allowed 25 homers, only one less than the previous season.

Then came ’03, where he started off the year as the hottest pitcher in the majors, going 4-0 with a 1.04 ERA in April. And while he had subsequent months of mediocrity, he entered the All-Star break making the team with an 11-4 record and a 4.27 ERA. Too bad he didn’t win a game for the rest of the year, starting only six games after the All-Star break and amassing a 5.63 ERA. Good news: he only allowed 12 homers that year over 137 innings.

2004 wouldn’t help Chacon’s status in Colorado, as he made a move into the closer role. He managed to save 35 games, but blew nine, and had an ERA over seven. He had as many strikeouts as walks (52), and allowed a homer ever five and a quarter at bats. Oh, and that whole more hits than innings pitched thing (1.95 WHIP) didn’t help him any.

So it came as no surprise that there were plenty of cynics when Chacon donned the pinstripes. See, in New York, we’ve grown accustomed to seeing household names out on the mound, even if they’re replacements (read: Al Leiter). So when a guy like Chacon comes over, there isn’t going to be anyone that’s overly enthused about him.

Count me as one of the minority. I remember it hazily: coming home after seeing Devil’s Rejects, my buddy Andy called and asked who we gave up in the trade. I immediately shut him up, saying that I didn’t know who we got, and I didn’t want to know until I got home.

When I saw it was Chacon, I cracked a smile. When I saw that we gave up nobodies, it was from ear to ear. Ever since his name was mentioned in trade rumors, I’ve been high on Chacon. Maybe not mile-high, but pretty high. This is a guy who flashed his ability earlier in his career, but was gobbled up by the Coors monster. I just figured that a jump to a pitcher’s park would be the boost he needs to become a No. 3 starter.

And that he just might be. True, he’s only had two starts, but they’ve been two relatively effective starts. He’s pitched six in both, and allowed only two runs total (both last night). There’s just one thing troubling me about Chacon…

He still has allowed as many hits as innings pitched (12), and he’s walked five. Now, the hits don’t bother me too much, as long as they’re scattered. Actually, it’s the walks that concern me more. Chacon is no strikeout pitcher, but he’s going to have to improve upon his strikeouts to walks ratio. If he’s going to be a fly ball pitcher like he was in Colorado (which is a sure recipe for disaster out there), he’s going to have to let other guys put the ball in play. Play your strengths – not allowing guys to make solid contact – and downplay your weaknesses – overpowering guys for strikeouts.

Because if Chacon keeps nibbling, he’s going to issue a lot more free passes, and enough walks will move any pitcher into Bronx Meltdown mode. I’d like to see this 27-year-old kid hurling in the years to come, and it looks like that could become a reality. But, he still has some way to go before he can become a facet in next year’s rotation.