In the Sunday edition of the Houston Chronicle appeared a story by Evan Drellich about former Colorado Rockies and new Houston Astros outfielder Dexter Fowler. Part of the article discusses Fowler feeling that the trade gives him “a new beginning”. Juxtaposed with that is the observation of how, er, rocky his tenure in Colorado was near the end. To recap, in late November, Dan O’Dowd told KOA 850-AM that “Dexter’s a great kid, and he knows that we all feel that way about him… But I think he’s got to get tougher. No doubt. He’s got to show up and play with an edge every day, not just when he thinks he has to. It’s got to be that edge that he brings every day. He’s got to be a passionate competitor in the game. He has to love the game. He’s got to compete because he loves the game and he loves his teammates and he wants to win. It can’t be for anything the game provides. It’s got to be for those reasons.” Eight days after Dan O’Dowd’s interview, Dexter Fowler and a player to be named later were traded to the Astros for Jordan Lyles and Brandon Barnes. As I read through the Houston Chronicle article about the aftermath, the first part that jumped out to me was Fowler’s confusion about the comments Dan O’Dowd made and the Rockies leadership in general. He told Drellich, “I’m still trying to figure out where they’re coming from…’Passion for the game’ – I mean, you see me each and every day. This will never change. So I don’t know where that was coming from. Dan’s never in the clubhouse, so he probably never sees any of that. I don’t even know who’s the GM. I think everybody over there is still wondering who really is the GM … Dan and [Asst. GM] (Geivett) are just both coexisting.”
I’ll admit, I tried to reread that part in a Rod Tidwell ala Jerry Maguire “I’m all heart” rage and I couldn’t quite pull it off. Part of that might be because, with all of Fowler’s smiling, I never perceived him as a rager. On the other hand, if Fowler wasn’t as over-the-top as Rod Tidwell, perhaps the Rockies front office interpreted that as a lack of passion. Which perception is closer to the truth, since I don’t know Dexter Fowler personally, is hard for me to divine. Yet, though O’Dowd corroborates the observation that O’Dowd is “often absent from the clubhouse” to the Houston Chronicle, I do agree that O’Dowd should be pretty familiar with Fowler personally by this point. However, even if Fowler is only concerned with being “shown the money”, I do question O’Dowd’s wisdom of discussing Fowler’s character in public. As noted by the Purple Row, it’s also not the first time O’Dowd has publicly called out players. It’s almost a page from the George Steinbrenner playbook with two exceptions. The first exception is that there has always been the perception that the Yankees put their money where their mouth is. They try to win the World Series every single year so they pay for the best players and thus, except those players to play their best. The Rockies, however, have a business model where Monfort’s realistic goal is to reach the playoffs “twice every five years”. Now, the Monforts may not be the richest owners in baseball but believe it or not, neither are the Steinbrenners, who as of 2012 didn’t even rank among the Top 10 Richest Owners in Baseball. The second exception is that, if O’Dowd is not in the clubhouse, then he really should not be commenting on the attitudes of players in the clubhouse. As Zach Marburger from Mile High Sports noted on Twitter “And that Fowler, a guy who’d been with the org. awhile, didn’t even know who the GM was”. Technically, that should be Bill Geivett or Walt Weiss’s job to comment or (preferably to me) refrain from commenting on anything involving attitude. Complicating this, however, is the depiction that the Rockies front office acts as a group. Perhaps the group decision was made that Fowler had to go even if O’Dowd takes the brunt of that decision as the “face” of the front office. However, making such remarks not only hurts Fowler’s trade value but if the Rockies keep up the persona that they call out players, it does make them less attractive to prospective free agents. Another takeaway from the article is that Fowler felt pressure to play hurt, particularly in the last season. So I decided to run some numbers and the results were at the same time, enlightening and sobering. Going back to Fowler’s first full season, 2009, he has led the Rockies in games played with 654. That is enlightening. Eighth on the list is relief pitcher Matt Belisle with 326 games. Only three of the ten players on the list are still on the Rockies. That’s sobering. Very little public study has been done on the effect of altitude on baseball players. Most of it has been anecdotal. In 2012, Patrick Saunders of the Denver Post wrote about how altitude affected some of the Colorado Rockies. Former Colorado Rockies shortstop Clint Barmes reflected that “It’s a huge factor,” Barmes said. “Last year at Houston, getting away from the altitude, my body felt different for sure, not nearly as many aches. I felt much fresher, looser.” In contrast, after Michael Cuddyer‘s first season, he observed “It does beat you up, so you have play very close attention to your body,” said Cuddyer, on the disabled list with a strained right oblique muscle. “The thing is, you can never get used to it, because you go out on the road just as your body is starting to get used to it (at home). Let’s just say it’s a challenge.” A further issue is sleep disruption, complicated by the repeated transition from high altitude to low altitude and back as the Colorado Rockies alternate home stands and road trips. In short, the body and mind can get fatigued throughout the baseball season, more so at altitude, and I believe it says something on how challenging it is to be a Colorado Rockie when a relief pitcher is sixth on the list of games played. All the more credit to Fowler, who managed the most games played since 2009 while exerting himself at such a physically demanding position as center field. He even chipped in a few stolen bases for icing.
Yet, some credit also should go to the front office who, as Fowler said to the Houston Chronicle, “Playing with the Rockies, they used to give you days off all the time just because of the altitude and stuff.” Rarely is any baseball player 100% healthy by mid-July, even at sea level. As some analysts have noted, particularly in the case of J.D. Drew, that resistance to injury may be as much of a skill as pitcher stamina or bat speed. If Fowler was leading the Rockies in games played yet was also being given days off to deal with the fatigue of altitude just like, I presume, other Rockies players were, then how do the days off reconcile with the pressure to play through pain? I don’t know if playing through pain is supposed to be an indicator to the front office of a player’s passion for the game. There have been high expectations for Fowler since he joined the Rockies organization and some of it might just be disappointment that he didn’t become a superstar. Sometimes, when the numbers don’t meet expectations, character gets blamed. And though character is hard to measure, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Fowler doesn’t seem to know what “edge” the front office wanted to see from him, but whatever it was, it is something the front office felt was keeping Fowler from being an elite player. I just know that at the numbers I look at, Fowler was a pretty good Rockie for a pretty long time. After the “He said, he said” fiasco, there’s been a “forgive and forget” from both Fowler and O’Dowd and both parties seem happy with the trade and to have moved on. The issue here, though, isn’t so much in the names as the underlying process. I’ve always been of the opinion that it’s easier for me to solve a problem if I know what it is. I assume someone in the front office would’ve understood the issues with playing at altitude and communicated what issues they were having with Fowler’s performance before O’Dowd’s radio interview. That’s fine. If Fowler didn’t understand what’s being asked of him, that’s a flaw but, in the end, not an issue with the front office’s processes. That O’Dowd decided to discuss the issues with Fowler in public, doing so in such a way as to damage Fowler’s trade value and make the Rockies front office look vindictive is not fine. It also does not make sense from a process standpoint. Thus, I question the process that enabled O’Dowd to comment about issues that, as he himself noted, are no longer in his purview. He should know better and I am at a loss as to why he didn’t.