Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Early conclusions on the job that Walt Weiss is doing for the Colorado Rockies

Has Walt Weiss been up to the task so far in 2013?
The high school coach with a one-year contract to be the manager of the Colorado Rockies has come out of the gate with a 10-4 record.

Walt Weiss came out of nowhere, almost literally, to be the manager of the Rockies in October after Jim Tracy resigned after a 64-98 record that was due, in large part, to his incompetence and excuse making.

Tracy clearly had issues with the front office in Colorado. In fairness to Tracy, they had handcuffed the manager. In June, general manager Dan O'Dowd instituted a 4-man rotation where each starter was limited to 75 pitches. A "piggyback" starter was designated before the game to come out of the bullpen and throw 50 pitches in an effort to get the game to the back end of the bullpen.

The idea was crazy. It didn't work, and frankly, was never accepted. No one faulted the Rockies for thinking outside the box. The issue that most had with the club wasn't that they were trying something different, but that they were doing so to make excuses for their lack of talent on the mound.

O'Dowd went as far as to tell 850 KOA in an interview that they had statistical evidence that pitchers who threw more than 800 innings at Coors Field ended up hurt. Nothing like ensuring that no free agent pitcher would ever dome to Denver again.

When the Rockies hired Weiss, it came with skepticism from the fan base. Frankly, the club deserved the skepticism. They had been terrible the year before, and not much better in 2011. A once promising farm system had been reduced and decimated, while the club on the field was worse than ever.

On top of the fact that Weiss had never managed above 5A Colorado high school baseball, the Rockies front office only gave Weiss a one-year contract. Just enough time to put the blame on him and buy the front office another excuse for another year--at least that is what the skeptics said.

So, through 14 games, what are the early returns on Weiss?

Despite being early, there has been a fair amount of praise, as well as a fair amount of criticism heaped onto Weiss.

On Opening Day in Milwaukee, the Rockies held a 3-1 lead in the 7th inning. Jhoulys Chacin had done a great job in his first Opening Day start, but was finished after allowing a two-out base runner in the 7th. Matt Belisle came in and recorded the final out on one pitch.

Belisle was then finished, Wilton Lopez, the newly acquired Rockie reliever, came in to pitch the 8th inning. He promptly gave up three runs on four hits in his one inning of work. The Rockies ended up coming back, but lost the game in extra innings.

The criticism was that Weiss should have stuck with Belisle, who has been incredibly reliable in recent years and had only thrown one pitch.

On Tuesday night, on a very cold stage, Troy Tulowitzki was asked to pinch hit with the bases loaded in the 6th inning. The stats were screaming at the bottom of the TV screens. Tulowitzki had never recorded a hit in the pinch. There are plenty of Rockies fans out there who would suggest that Tulo is anything but clutch. With Todd Helton on the bench, why not use him?

Tulo struck out on three pitches and looked overmatched.

The other aspect of Weiss' early criticism has been the continuation of Jim Tracy style day-game lineups. The bench has seen plenty of time in 2013. Every Sunday has seen what some would call a "B" lineup. Despite the success the Rockies have had, many fans don't like the decision to rest starters all at once, and as often as Weiss has.

The criticism is expected of Weiss. However, all of his moves have been justified.

In Milwaukee, the decision to take Belisle out was the best one. Lopez had just spent the entire spring as the 8th inning guy. He had been exceptional in the spring as well. Belisle had been in the same role that he is used to as well. A good manager doesn't change things on day one to go with their gut. Sure, Belisle threw only one pitch, but when Weiss has a guy with the talent of Lopez on plenty of rest, why not use him? Consider the fact that Belisle would have to go sit on the bench for three offensive outs before heading back to the mound, something relievers don't do well.

The decision to go to Lopez on Opening Day was the correct one, despite the criticism it drew.

On Tuesday night, when Weiss picked Tulowitzki to go to the plate and be the hero, he was proven wrong. However, a managers job is to give his team the best shot at winning. There are very few people who would argue that a healthy Troy Tulowitzki isn't the best player on this Rockies team. He certainly was the best player available to pinch-hit in that situation, even with Todd Helton coming up behind him.

A manager knows when to put the game into the hands of it's players, and frankly Tulowitzki is the face of this Rockies team. Using him in that situation was questionable, but it was still a good move.

As far as the lineups go, it seems clear that if upper management is keeping more tabs on the play on the field. The lineups look very similar to what Tracy would throw out there on many Sunday games. It is clear that, while Weiss gets to make many of his own decisions, that one is clearly made by Weiss' bosses.

The fact is, it is going to be tough for someone to find a way to criticize a manager who has no experience at the big league level, but has lead his team to a 10-4 start.

The deciding edge for the Weiss is that this team is playing with resilience. They don't quit in the 20 degree weather. They don't stop fighting when they get down by a few runs. They keep battling. That edge is something that they were missing in 2012. Take, for example, the three-game sweep that the Rockies were handed by the San Francisco Giants one week ago. Instead of bouncing back and sweeping the Padres, the way the Rockies played, it would have been very easy to imagine that they would have folded and dropped two of three in San Diego, hoping for better results at home.

The tests will come. Starting on Monday Weiss will get to face the National League's hottest team, the Atlanta Braves. How the pitching staff holds up against that group, and how well the lineup hits against the Braves starting pitchers, will tell more about who this team is. When things get tough, Weiss will show his acumen.

However, for Rockies fans, everything is good right now, the time will eventually come when they can second guess Weiss. But at 10-4, so far, so good.

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  2. Excellent analysis David and I agree with you that Weiss has been excellent as the Rox come out of the gate. I think that a lot of the criticism heaped upon Tracy last year was unavoidable because the team was flawed as it left Salt River Fields in 2012. (To be pinning any hopes at all on Nicasio- just coming off a life threatening injury, or putting any faith at all on a creaky Moyer was ill-advised at best and downright foolish at worst.) Too often, criticism (such as the examples you cited) is too "results-based." I don't believe that "results-based" criticism is valid. That's like criticizing Weiss for having Dexter lead off any time he fails to reach base in the game's first at bat. In the "pulling Belisle after just one pitch" instance: it's fair and legit criticism if they want to question Walt's "LaRussa-Duncan system" of MLB pitching staffs. It's not legit to criticize one outing of one pitcher in the first game of the season.
    If there was one thing which shipwrecked the Rockies' chances last year, it was injuries to key players and pitchers. Many of those injuries were injuries resulting from overuse and fatigue. Basically, it's been proven that Tulo isn't a particularly durable athlete because he plays so hard all the time. He's particularly susceptible to overuse-style strains, sprains and muscle pulls when his body gets worn down. I commend Weiss for his program to keep Tulo from wearing down. MLB baseball isn't just a marathon, it's a marathon of short sprints, so the risk of overuse injuries is definitely a factor. Weiss' method is designed to keep both Tulo and the rest of the team in the race all season. Helton (obviously), Cuddyer, Fowler and Rosario are other guys like this who could wear down this way.
    Back in the mid '90s, I remember Atlanta coming to town and putting Maddox, Glavine and Smoltz on the bump in a three game weekend set. Not one of those guys got out of the 3rd inning and although the Rox didn't win all of those games, it was obvious that the Braves hated to come here. I distinctly remember Glavine whining because he wasn't getting the "one foot outside" strike. Weiss, Bichette and Castilla were on that Rockies team that bludgeoned the best pitching staff in the business. Maybe they can work their magic again.

  3. it won't last.