|Wednesday, November 20
Expect better times ahead for Hampton in Atlanta
By Jayson Stark
Once upon a time, in another lifetime, Mike Hampton was one of the best left-handed pitchers of his day. Then the Rocky Mountains entered his life.
We don't need to get into what has happened to Hampton since. That's been better-documented this week than Michael Jackson's stupid baby tricks.
But now that Hampton has been airlifted out of Coors Field to a team where Cy Youngs grow like peach blossoms, only one question matters:
Can he ever be that pitcher he used to be again?
We know what the Atlanta Braves think. They've gambled $48.5 million over the next six years that there's nothing wrong with Hampton that Turner Field and 5,200 feet closer to sea level can't cure.
But are they right about that? We asked three veteran major-league scouts who have watched Hampton extensively, pre-Denver and post-Denver, what they thought. They voted unanimously ...
Yes. (Not without some reservations, we might add. But yes.)
"I would bet he does," said one member of our panel. "His work habits have always been tremendous. He's a big-time competitor. He's not going to be happy making that kind of money and pitching that lousy. And he's going to one of the best pitcher's parks in the game."
OK, if we're going to start listing all the reasons Hampton should be better, let's start there -- with ...
"That's a big, big yard," said one scout of Turner Field. "You've got to cream the ball to get it out of there. Pitching in a yard like that, he can go back to the way he used to pitch."
But there's more to this than the ballpark. Let's take a look at some of the other factors our scouts pointed to:
Delivery: If you watched Hampton pitch in 2002 and tried to compare it with how he looked in 2000, about the only thing that looked the same was his mustache.
"He tried to do too many things with the baseball there," said one scout, "to try to make up for the loss of his natural movement. It wound up screwing him up at home and on the road. He got in bad habits and that got him into bad muscle memory."
The Braves are sure hoping it was just bad muscle memory that propelled him to baseball's worst road record (3-12, 6.44). Whatever it was, though, the issue now is: How tough will it be for him to pull his old delivery out of storage?
"That's not easy," said one scout. "It's like a golfer who gets the yips with the putter. It can be hard, once you've got that, to get it back. He needs to look at videos from when he was with the Mets and Houston and get his arm angle back to being more consistent. But that's the first thing they'll do. Leo (Mazzone) is big on that video work, anyway."
Mind games: One scout who has known Hampton for years said it wasn't so much all the bad habits and bad pitches that sank him to these depths in the first place. It was everything that happened inside Hampton's head once his problems began.
"The biggest thing with this guy is, you've got to keep his head together," the scout said. "He's a competitive guy, but he has a fragile psyche. When things are going good, he'll ride that and compete. When things are going bad, he'll jump off the bandwagon.
"But going to a place like Atlanta, he'll be a lot more comfortable just going back to his roots. I don't think he ever embraced the whole culture, the whole way of life in Colorado. Atlanta is more his kind of environment. And Bobby (Cox) is just the right kind of personality for him. He'll know when to stroke him and when to kick him in the butt. And Mike needs a guy like that."
Athleticism: This isn't Brian Bohanon or Hideki Irabu we're talking about here. Maybe the best thing Hampton has going for him is that he's such a great athlete. He doesn't just consider himself a pitcher. He's a baseball player.
"He's always been a guy who could make a lot of changes on his own," said the scout who has known Hampton longest. "If he had one bad game, he'd go look at himself in the mirror and try to figure out something new.
"He's such a good athlete, I'd bet it won't take him a lot of time to get it back. I would bet he'd be back into his old mechanics before he leaves spring training. He'll be the first to identify all the changes he made just because he was in Colorado. Now he can go back to being himself."
History: People often talk about how pitchers like Hampton "historically" do better after leaving Colorado. So we decided we'd look it up.
Four pitchers before Hampton made at least 35 starts for the Rockies, then left and made at least 35 more starts elsewhere. Here is how they did:
Pedro Astacio: As a Rockie: 129 starts, 53-48, 5.43 ERA. As an ex-Rockie: 35 starts, 14-12, 4.57 ERA.
Darryl Kile: As a Rockie: 67 starts, 21-30, 5.84 ERA. As an ex-Rockie: 82 starts, 41-24, 3.54.
Jamey Wright: As a Rockie: 91 starts, 25-33, 5.57 ERA. As an ex-Rockie: 80 starts, 25-34, 4.73 ERA.
Armando Reynoso: As a Rockie: 87 starts, 30-31, 4.96 ERA. As an ex-Rockie: 93 starts, 35-30, 4.77 ERA.
So here is what history tells us: Three of those four had winning records after leaving Denver. All of them lowered their ERA. And Wright, who didn't improve his record, still dropped his ERA by more than three-quarters of a run.
What that means, exactly, for Hampton is hard to say. But one thing is sure: He can't be any worse in Atlanta than he was this year.
"Oh, he'll be better," said one National League GM, "because if you look at what he did this year, he was the worst pitcher in the league. So getting out of Colorado, you've got to think he'll be better. But for me, he'd have to make an awfully dramatic turnaround to be somebody you could project as going 15-10 for you. Maybe he can. But I couldn't make that gamble."
"I don't think he wants to leave," said one prominent front-office man who has known Thome for a decade. "But I think he'll be under an incredible amount of pressure to leave. It's so much money, and his agent (Pat Rooney) will be feeling so much attention from the industry, I think that when it's all said and done, he'll leave."
Many of his fears were allayed, according to one source, when all those construction workers lined up outside the Phillies' new ballpark in their "Philadelphia Wants Thome" caps. Even more were allayed when he got a long, impassioned standing ovation during a Flyers hockey game.
Still, Thome has been calling around, looking for the real story on Phillies fans. So in Philadelphia, they might not consider it a very positive omen that one guy he called was Scott Rolen, who isn't exactly a candidate to be president of the Chamber of Commerce.
So how surreal is it that next year, the Marlins will pay a player (i.e., Hampton) $7 million to play for the Braves? Then again, how surreal is it that the Marlins will pay Hampton as much money not to play for them next year as they paid anyone to play for them this year?
Although they get long-term savings out of the Hampton deal, the Rockies will actually be taking on more than $12 million in payroll over the next three years. They would get just a minimal short-term payroll break from the Larry Walker trade. And if they wind up trading Denny Neagle for Jeromy Burnitz and Rey Ordonez, that would add more than $8 million to the debit sheets for next year.
In other words: They'll have no money left to do anything but bottom-feed in this free-agent market.
"That approach just doesn't work," O'Dowd said. "I understand that now. In Denver, pitching is neutralized and speed is no factor, except on defense. And defensively, it only helps you in the middle of the diamond. The rest of your lineup needs to be offense-based. You just can't build a team here the same way you build it anywhere else."
Turns out, though, he was incorrectly listed, because the Marlins owed him $1.1 million for next year, plus at least another $200,000 buyout on a 2004 option. So while Darensbourg had the option to become a free agent, he also would have voided the contract if he had taken it. Whereupon he opted for the guraranteed money. And that allowed the Marlins to trade him, even though he wasn't on their 40-man roster. Got all that?
"He's made a lot of money with the Yankees," said an official of one club that is following this closely. "He only needs one year to get to 300 wins. So if it comes down to a few million bucks, leaving or staying, now let's see what's important to him. If he goes to someplace like Texas, winning those seven games (to reach 300) is no sure thing."
Thome will set the hitters' market. Tom Glavine and/or Greg Maddux (depending on which leaves Atlanta) will set the starting pitchers' market. And Mike Remlinger and/or Mike Stanton will set the bullpen market, since the two closers out there -- Roberto Hernandez and Ugueth Urbina -- aren't considered marquee guys.
But there has been no stampede to sign anybody because the waiting game is at the heart of the owners' free-agent strategy this year.
"Owners are telling their general managers, 'Before you sign any free agents, you'd better get rid of your bad contracts,' " said one prominent baseball man.
Hence, Hampton turns into Preston Wilson and Johnson -- with more deals just like that one to come.
Next-most bonuses earned: $2.5 million, by Curt Schilling ($50,000 for making the All-Star team, plus bonuses for all starts past No. 25), and $2 million, by Rick Helling ($80,000 per start after his fifth start).
Matsui might not hit the 50 homers in the States that he hit for Yomiuiri this year -- "but he'll be at least in the 30s," the scout said. "And anything above that wouldn't surprise me."
"I don't like him at third," the scout said. "I don't think he can cut it there defensively, day in and day out. Blalock is a much better third baseman -- much quicker and more athletic. Teixeira looks good taking ground balls before the game. But once the bell rings, he's got no real rhythm. I don't see that good infield quickness you look for. But I'll say this: With the bat, he's a special guy -- from both sides."
Barry Bonds in Japan: 30 at-bats, zero walks.
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.