With O'Dowd out as general manager, Rockies move in new direction
For just the second time in their 22-year history, the Colorado Rockies have a new general manager. Jeff Bridich, who has been a part of the Rockies' front office since December 2004 and was the senior director of player development, was promoted to the GM position on Wednesday following the simultaneous resignations of Dan O'Dowd and chief baseball officer Bill Geivett.
O'Dowd had occupied the general manager position since September 1999, making him the fourth-longest serving GM in the majors at the time of his resignation, behind only Brian Sabean, Billy Beane, and Brian Cashman. However, in August 2012, Geivett, who had been the club's assistant GM since 2005, was promoted to vice president of major league operations, effectively making the two co-general managers. That gave Geivett an active, daily role in the management of the team, complete with an office in the home clubhouse of Coors Field.
At the time of that radical realignment in the front office, one suggested by O'Dowd, the Rockies were in the midst of the worst season in franchise history, and O'Dowd was taking drastic measures. The most prominent of these was dubbed “Project 5183,” after the elevation in feet of Coors Field. Under Project 5183, the team employed a four-man rotation with strict 75-pitch limits for its starting pitchers and assigned tandem starters to work long relief. At that time, O'Dowd also increased the role of the bullpen coach, giving the team co-pitching coaches, and added a “director of pitching operations” to the front office, effectively an executive pitching coach.
All of that meddling prompted manager Jim Tracy's resignation after the season, and Project 5183 was abandoned before the 2013 season began under rookie manager Walt Weiss. Meanwhile, Geivett took on increasing prominence in the team's fortunes, with owner Dick Monfort assigning blame for the team's continued struggles to Geivett in a radio interview this July. “He's responsible for the major league team,” Monfort explained.
That team compiled its fourth straight losing record in 2014, finishing no higher than fourth and a minimum of 18 games out of first place in each of those four seasons. The Rockies had a longer period of futility under O'Dowd from 2001 to 2006, but it was during that period that O'Dowd built the team that would post winning seasons in three out of four years from 2007 to 2010, making the playoffs twice and winning the franchise's only pennant in 2007.
In the wake of that success, O'Dowd convinced Monfort to commit $237.75 million to the franchise's fragile cornerstones, Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez. Yet, despite ownership's growing financial obligations, including a franchise-record payroll in 2014 that approached $100 million, the Rockies' success proved fleeting, and with each successive losing season, O'Dowd's radical ideas only appeared more desperate.
With Bridich — a Harvard-educated 37-year-old from the team's player development department — the Rockies return to a more traditional, lone-general manager structure. Bridich's challenges are the same as those that were facing O'Dowd and Geivett, primarily how to overcome the apparent handicap of playing half of the team's games in Denver's thin air and how to keep the team's two superstars healthy. The answer to the latter could involve making one or both of Tulowitzki or Gonzalez someone else's mixed blessing, initiating a rebuild this offseason with a blockbuster trade. The answer to the former, however, should include learning from O'Dowd's many failed attempts and approaching the challenge from a completely different direction.
O'Dowd spent most of his tenure in Colorado trying to figure out how to build a pitching staff that could win at altitude. Those attempts stretched from trying to build a staff of changeup specialists with the disastrous Mike Hampton and Denny Neagle contracts of December 2000 to the truly desperate Project 5183. However, a simple look at the team's performance at home versus on the road over the course of its existence suggests that O'Dowd was attacking the exact opposite of the problem. The Rockies haven't struggled because of the performance of their pitchers at home, but because of the performance of their hitters on the road.
Consider this: In their 22 seasons, the Rockies have gone 958-792 (.547) at home but 683-1,069 (.390) on the road. They have a winning record at home in 15 of those 22 seasons, but have had a winning record on the road just once, when they went 41-40 outside of Denver in 2009. In the last two years alone, the Rockies have gone 90-72 (.556) at home and 50-112 (.307) on the road. From that alone, one can easily conclude that the Rockies' problem is not playing at altitude, but playing outside of it.
So what happens to the Rockies to turn them from a playoff team at home to the 1962 Mets on the road? It's not the pitching; it's the hitting. Over the course of team history, the Rockies have allowed an average of 470 runs per season at home and 375 on the road, a difference of roughly 11 percent of the team's total runs allowed, commensurate with Coors Field's park effects. Indeed, according to independent studies by sabermetricians Craig R. Wright, conducted during his brief tenure in the Rockies' front office under O'Dowd in 2000, and Russell A. Carleton, conducted for his essay on the team in Baseball Prospectus 2014, Coors Field actually heightens the impact of good pitching relative to the park's run-scoring environment, rather than neutralizing it, as O'Dowd's many experiments suggest he believed.
In contrast to that, the Rockies have averaged 495 runs scored per season at home compared to a mere 313 scored on the road, a difference of 23 percent of the total, more than twice that of the gap in runs allowed. In 2014, the gap was even greater. The Rockies allowed 444 runs at home compared to 374 on the road, a difference of nine percent of the total, and scored 500 runs at home compared to a mere 255 on the road, a difference of 32 percent of the total, or roughly three and a half times the difference in run prevention.
To my knowledge, the Rockies have made no attempt to try to understand or address that discrepancy, which I am hardly the first to call attention to despite writing about it at length in Baseball Prospectus 2011 and on multiple occasions in this space since. Ultimately, the solution to those struggles may have more to do with the quality of the Rockies' players than their individual tendencies, but even if the solution is that simple, Bridich has his work cut out for him.
The Rockies are not without their assets. Beyond Tulowitzki and Gonzalez, sophomores Nolan Arenado and Corey Dickerson took big steps forward at the plate in 2014, and soon-to-be-24-year-olds Tyler Matzek and Jordan Lyles established themselves as competent major league starters. The team also has some high-end talent in the low minors in outfielders Raimel Tapia and David Dahl, third baseman Ryan McMahon and lefty Kyle Freeland, the last their top pick in this year's draft, but it will be at least a couple of years before any of them reach the majors. Meanwhile, the team's top pitching prospects coming into 2014 had disappointing seasons.
Overall, the Rockies' short-term outlook is bleak, particularly with the Dodgers and Giants dominating their division. The change in the front office, however, appears to be a positive first step for a team in desperate need of a new direction.