LOS ANGELES – This isn't the first time Jim Tracy's front-office bosses have tried to reinvent baseball. So excuse the Colorado Rockies manager if he isn't in mutiny mode just because he must pull his starters after only 75 pitches and the first reliever he summons is called a "piggyback" and the entire cockamamie plan was dubbed Project 5,183 because that's the altitude at Coors Field.
The Rockies could become the first team in baseball history without a single pitcher logging at least 100 innings. It's a distinction to file under Just Plain Weird and will have taken a perfect storm of injuries, ineptitude and idiocy to happen. The plan was implemented in mid-June when it was clear the season was lost, and it's only gotten worse: Colorado is 39-68 and in last place in the National League West.
"We wouldn't have ventured into this if we were in a pennant race," Tracy said. "It's very safe to say we're not. We have nothing to lose. We are looking at young players. We're trying to figure out if this will work period, let alone in a pennant race."
Seven years ago, Tracy managed the Los Angeles Dodgers and was force-fed a roster by young, Moneyball-weaned general manager Paul DePodesta, who revered on-base percentage over a decent glove, decent speed and superior instincts. Tracy dutifully played Hee-Seop Choi at first base, Oscar Robles at third and Dioner Navarro at catcher, and even lesser lights dotted the roster. The Dodgers lost 22 more games than the year before, and finally Tracy had enough. He quit in a huff and found refuge with the Pittsburgh Pirates, who had little talent but let him manage the way he believed this game ought to be managed.
That led to a shot with the Rockies early in the 2009 season, and the team made the postseason and Tracy was named National League manager of the year. His methods weren't revolutionary, he was happily tried and true, and that was the whole point.
Now it's getting crackpot weird again. Is it 2005 revisited?
"It's very different," Tracy said. "When you are in a situation like we're in, it's nuts to be afraid to change and try something different. What do we have to lose? We can always go back."
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Tracy is loyal and knows his place. So he'll lift a starter after four scoreless innings, as he did Monday against the Dodgers when rookie Drew Pomeranz exceeded 75 pitches. He'll go to a "piggyback" – basically a long reliever – such as the unheralded Adam Ottavino, who followed with three scoreless innings, then return to the conventional with one inning from setup man Matt Belisle and one from closer Rafael Betancourt.
Voila, a tidy 2-0 victory. It was only the second Rockies' shutout of the season, an outlier, but for one night it all felt right. Pomeranz could have quibbled about not pitching the fifth inning so he'd have been eligible for the victory, but he didn't.
"I wish I'd thrown fewer pitches, but it happens," he said.
That indeed is the lesson: Throw first-pitch strikes, avoid walks, be as efficient as possible with those precious 75 pitches. It might be the only way to be successful at mile-high Coors Field, especially in a hotter-than-usual summer that has made even the famed humidor ineffective.
"The ball is flying all over the place there," Betancourt said.
So, Project 5,183 was born. Rockies GM Dan O'Dowd has been alternately brilliant and bizarre over his 14-year tenure. He got the team to the World Series in 2007. He signed shortstop Troy Tulowitzki and outfielder Carlos Gonzalez to team-friendly long-term deals. But in 2006 he admitted to wanting only players who were committed Christians, and this June he conceived and implemented the project, which he also calls a "paired pitching system."
It begins with a four-man starting rotation rather than the standard five, and follows them with three rotating piggybacks. No starter throws more than 75 pitches and no piggyback throws more than 50. It's a system rooted in rigidity, one that gives a manager little room to maneuver.
And Tracy, like most managers, loves bullpen flexibility. But he won't blast O'Dowd or Project 5,183. And, heavens, he would never blast the Rockies pitchers who have been so bad it's impossible to tell if Project 5,183 has any merit. Those pitchers are Tracy's guys, most of them are young, and most of them aren't any more thrilled about the system than he is.
"It can be an opportunity when you realize there really are seven starters," said rookie Tyler Chatwood. "The pitch count forces you to attack the strike zone. You're constantly aware of how many pitches you've thrown. It can be frustrating when a guy fouls balls off. Above all, it teaches efficiency."
Efficiency, maybe. Proficiency, not so much. The Rockies are coming off a 1-8 homestand in which they allowed at least seven runs in seven of the games. The team ERA for the season is a monstrous 5.46, far and away the worst in baseball.
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O'Dowd won't call Project 5,183 a failure. "We have to find the right seven pitchers," he told season-ticket holders during a recent conference call. "Perhaps right now, we don't have the right seven." Last week O'Dowd was reassigned to oversee the Rockies' farm teams, although he kept his title. His longtime assistant, Bill Geivett, is now in charge of the big-league team. Sorely missed in all respects is Keli McGregor, the team's acknowledged top administrator who died unexpectedly of a heart virus at age 48 in 2009.
Injuries to high-potential starters Jorge De La Rosa, Juan Nicasio and Jhoulys Chacin, and to reasonably effective rookie Christian Friedrich, decimated the staff. Jamie Moyer was a nice story early on, winning two games at age 49, but he quickly faded and was released. O'Dowd had high hopes for offseason acquisition Jeremy Guthrie, but he injured his shoulder in a bicycle accident in April and pitched so poorly he was traded for Jonathan Sanchez, who went 0-3 and is on the disabled list.
So the innings are spread in historic fashion: No team has ever had fewer than two pitchers with 100 innings, according to baseball-reference.com. Friedrich was on pace to exceed 100 innings, but he's out for the season. Short reliever Josh Roenicke is the current leader with 66 innings. Pomeranz is at 60, journeyman starter Jeff Francis has 58⅓ and rookie starter Alex White is at 57. If any of them reach 100, they'll just barely get there.
Tracy won't bend Project 5,183 rules to help. His longtime pitching coach, Bob Apodaca, quit a few weeks ago, saying, "I'm fried," but Tracy will see this through. The closest he'll come to criticism is admitting he doesn't like the rigidity of the piggyback reliever always following the starter.
"In the early stages of the game your starter has to perform, it's that simple," he said. "The tough part is, if he's not right or if he teeters, knowing there's another venue you have to use, yeah, that's difficult, I won't shy away from that. There might be a different way to go, it makes it very tough."
Not as tough as 2005 and Paul DePodesta and Hee-Seop Choi. Reinventing the game is a fool's errand and Tracy knows it. But in the Rockies' lost summer of 2012, weathering Project 5,183 is just another way to lose. Maybe next spring it'll be back to baseball.
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