Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Colorado Rockies To Announce Long-Term Deal With Jim Tracy, Are They Making A Mistake?

On May 29th, the Colorado Rockies sat 10 games under .500, they had just been swept by the Dodgers in consecutive weekends and were playing with no heart.

That day, manager Clint Hurdle was given his walking papers. Less than two years removed from captaining a young team to a surprise World Series appearance, Hurdle was no longer the manager of the Rockies. It was a move that was surprising to no one.

Jim Tracy, brought in before the ‘09 season to be the bench coach, was handed the reins. If nothing else, Tracy was the polar opposite of Hurdle. Hurdle was loud and boisterous. He spent time in the clubhouse with the players, he was like one of the guys. Hurdle was very likable, and in the end, that is what got him fired. When he needed to make a tough decision, he struggled. He did not want to disrupt the chemistry in the clubhouse that he felt a part of.

Hurdle managed with his heart. He would play the hot hand instead of going with a routine. This often led to confusion as to what role a player was in. There is no better example of this then the early season move to declare Huston Street the closer, then go with Manny Corpas, then go back to Street. All the while, neither of the pitchers had blown a save.

Tracy, on the other hand, is a very soft spoken. Instead of being “one of the guys” in the clubhouse, he was often locked in his office, scouring through numbers, trying to be one step ahead of the opposing manager, knowing the intricacies of every hitter on the opposing lineup. In his two previous managerial jobs, Tracy’s critics accused him of being too much of a micro manager. They said that when things went wrong, he blamed the players, but when they went right he took the credit. It seemed odd to Rockies fans because Tracy was letting the players play and seemed far too humble to take credit for the success.

Instead of going with the hot hand, Tracy instead put the talent on the field. This included inserting Clint Barmes into the two-hole in the lineup, playing second base every day. In addition to that move, he made Ian Stewart the third baseman, planting Garrett Atkins and his struggling bat on the bench. Tracy retooled the bullpen, finishing the season with only one pitcher still there from the opening day roster, Huston Street. That enabled him to find the right person for each job, and for that person to understand their job.

The starting pitchers were given a longer leash. Instead of being tied down to a pitch count, Tracy would allow the starter to pitch deep into games, giving them the opportunity to pick up the win or the loss, not the bullpen.

The changes were felt in a positive way almost immediately. Barmes looked like the best hitting second baseman in baseball, Ian Stewart was hitting for power and improved the infield defense, Ubaldo Jimenez and Jorge De La Rosa turned into top shelf pitchers. Everyone knew their role, and they became comfortable in that role.

The turnaround that the team experienced was history making. No team had every been as far behind as the Rockies and managed to go to the postseason.

Tracy had the Midas touch, there was nothing that he could seem to do wrong. The team had turned around completely with him at the helm.

Then, as the summer nights turned chili, it seemed as if the Jim Tracy that had calmly led one of the greatest turnarounds in baseball history had turned into the Tracy that the critics had described. Tracy began to micromanage. A prime example of that was on September 24th. Jason Hammel was pitching brilliantly against the Padres. Through six innings he was staked to a 3-1 lead courtesy of a first inning Troy Tulowitzki home run. In the bottom of the sixth inning the Rockies had runners on second and third with two outs. With the game a hit away from being secured as Hammel stepped to the plate. Hammel, not much of a hitter, grounded weakly to the second baseman.

Tracy allowing Hammel to hit for himself was not a big deal, the righty was getting outs and had his best stuff working. What left Rockies fans scratching their heads came in the top of the next inning. After getting the first out, Tracy elected to go to the bullpen to face the light hitting Tony Gwynn Jr.

Franklin Morales came to the mound and promptly walked Gwynn, allowed a hit and walked another hitter, allowing the Padres to even up the score. The next inning the Padres scored two more runs and the game was lost.

The way the playoffs were handled made many fans second guess the previously perfect Tracy.

Due to the fact that the Phillies starting rotation is extremely left-handed, Tracy elected to go with Garrett Atkins at third base. To say that Atkins slumped all season long would be a huge understatement. He looked lost at the plate and could not turn on fastballs the way that he had earlier in his career, presenting questions about his off season work ethic.

While Atkins added a right handed power threat, Stewart was placed on the bench because Tracy did not want too many left handed hitters facing left handed pitchers. While stats would suggest that rightys tend to hit rightys better and lefties hit lefties better, this is not always the case. In Stewart’s case, just one year ago he led the league against left handed pitchers, hitting .370 against them. Early in ‘09, the Rockies bragged about his ability to hit left handers.

For the playoffs, that left the Rockies short both on the defensive side of the ball and the offensive side.

In addition to Atkins playing, Seth Smith rode the bench in favor of Dexter Fowler in center field. Smith in the lineup would have pushed Carlos Gonzalez to center field and Smith in left. The switch-hitting Fowler is far better from the right side of the plate, but was still going through the growing pains of a player who never set foot on a Triple-A field. In 433 regular season at bats, Fowler struck out 116 times.

Smith, on the other hand, had been one of the hottest hitters for the Rockies. He was the National League Player of the Week in the first week of September and contributed in the clutch several times down the stretch.

The moves seemed all too familiar. They seemed eerily similar to the moves of a former manager. One who had worn out his welcome in the clubhouse and lost control of his team. It seemed as if Tracy decided to use the Clint Hurdle book on managing down the stretch and in the playoffs.

The fact that Jim Tracy managed the Rockies to the playoffs at all in 2009 is proof that he deserves a long-term contract, however, it will be interesting to see which Tracy shows up in the dugout in 2010, the Jim Tracy who let the players play the game, or the Jim Tracy who micromanaged his way out of the playoffs in 2009.

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