It’s a $75,000 question because that’s the bonus purse for the player that takes home the honor of being named the NLCS MVP. That, Colorado, is precisely what the former Rockie did last night. In the Giants’ win over the Cardinals, a seven-game series that saw San Francisco overcome a 3-1 deficit, Scutaro was easily the best player on the field.
He batted .500 with two walks, scored six runs and drove in four others. He tallied a whopping 14 hits, tying an LCS record shared by just three players – Hideki Matsui, 2004 Yankees; Albert Pujols, 2004 Cardinals; and Kevin Youkilis, 2007 Red Sox. And he rides a 10-game hitting streak into the World Series.
“Hot” isn’t even warm enough to describe Scutaro right now.
Flash back to July, when Scutaro looked to have fallen victim to the Rockies’ white-flag fire sale. Scutaro, who was hitting .271 with the Rockies, was shipped west to a contender in exchange for a minor leaguer named Charlie Culberson. Also a second baseman, Culberson was hitting .236, with 10 home runs, 53 RBIs and a .281 on-base percentage in triple-A ball. The Rockies even had to throw in a little cash to get the Giants to take the deal.
Uninspiring to say the least. But it turned out to be baseball’s biggest steal.
To be fair, Scutaro wasn’t exactly lighting the world on fire with Colorado. His fielding was solid and his hitting was just below where the Rockies probably projected him to be. With 102 hits on the season, Scutaro had posted just 30 RBI. Once shipped to the Bay Area, he drove in 44 runs on 14 fewer hits and 34 fewer games. He also hit .362 in his new uniform.
Sure, one could argue that Scutaro was surrounded by better ballplayers, that he was protected in the lineup. But is hitting in front of Pablo Sandoval considerably better than hitting in front of Carlos Gonzalez? Early in the season, Scutaro spent time as the Rockies leadoff man, but Dexter Fowler, who was often hitting second, was arguably one of the Rockies’ most consistent offensive weapons. One might fairly deduct that playing in the Giants lineup is worth a few more batting average points. But 90 more points and 14 more RBI in 148 fewer plate appearances? The numbers don’t necessarily make sense.
It’s practically a fact that when a pitcher leaves Colorado, they’ll immediately improve – or at least that’s what the most recent case studies have shown. Jeremy Guthrie’s ERA improved by nearly three runs when he left Colorado for Kansas City this summer. Jason Hammel, who pitched for the Rockies from 2009 to 2011, never achieved better than a 4.33 ERA; this summer with Baltimore, he turned in a 3.43 ERA, or a 1.3-run improvement over his last season in Denver. The O’s managed to make it to the postseason, too.
But nobody in baseball thinks it’s easier to hit somewhere – anywhere – other than Coors Field.
When a Rockies player hits well, it’s because of where he plays. When a pitcher pitches poorly, it’s also because of his Colorado address. So, how then, can a player like Scutaro hit so well once he’s gone?
“It’s the first time that I have been traded in the middle of a season,” Scutaro told the Denver Post‘s Troy Renck after the trade occurred. “I understand it’s a business. Now, I will have an opportunity for a team that has a chance to make the playoffs.”
Who knew he’d get the Giants into the postseason? Who knew that his new teammates would jokingly nickname him “Blockbuster,” taking a playful shot at the seemingly insignificant nature of the deal that sent him there in the first place? Who knew that he would be the most important player, both defensively and offensively, in the NLCS?
Dan O’Dowd didn’t know.
But that’s probably unfair. After all, it was O’Dowd who brought him to Colorado in the first place. Perhaps O’Dowd saw exactly what the baseball world just witnessed long before it happened. Perhaps he knew what Scutaro was capable of, but never got to see it materialize because the season was already lost and payroll – a measly $2.1 million – was being scratched off the books.
A better question, perhaps, is why does this happen in (or to) Colorado? The altitude can’t be blamed for everything. A hitting lineup surely can’t be responsible for almost 100 more points to one’s average, no matter what ballpark they call home.
Is the culture that surrounds the Colorado Rockies so bad that players – pitchers, hitters, journeymen utility guys – feel the weight of the world lift off their shoulders as soon as the plane leaves D.I.A.? It could be just an aberration, but maybe the only person who truly knows is Marco Scutaro.
“I hope I have an opportunity to come back (to Colorado),” Scutaro told Renck before heading west. “I think in the future this team will be good pretty soon.”
Here’s hoping he’s right, because Scutaro’s immediate future is far more appealing. And while Rockies fans cheer for Scutaro as he enters the Fall Classic as the hottest athlete in sports, his miraculous turnaround also serves as a depressing mystery in Denver.