The cleanup hitter is in a special position on any baseball team. While the best overall hitter might often be in the No. 3 spot, the cleanup hitter is the horsepower of the offense with homers, a high on-base percentage, and lots of RBI. The position is held by some of the most iconic names in the history of the game including Lou Gehrig, Willie McCovey, Honus Wagner, Willie Stargell, Eddie Murray, and Fred McGriff.
In their 30 years of existence, the Rockies have had some pretty remarkable leadoff hitters. The elevation probably doesn’t hurt. In a time when GOAT debates rule the day, an important question arises: who is the best cleanup hitter in Rockies history?
Like all GOAT debates, the answer is subjective and complicated. For the Rockies, names that might first pop into minds, like Hall of Famer Larry Walker, near-future Hall of Famer Todd Helton, and more distant future Hall of Famer Nolan Arenado, as well as team legends like Dante Bichette and Matt Holliday, all spent more time in the no. 3 spots than No. 4. However, some of them also thrived as cleanup hitters. Andrés Galarraga leads a group that includes Troy Tulowitzki, Preston Wilson, and current Rockie CJ Cron who are part of the rare hitters that have actually spent more time as cleanup hitters in their careers than any other spot in the batting order. The table below shows the cleanup hitter who played in the most games each year along with the numbers they produced from that spot.
30 Years of Rockies Cleanup Hitters
|Year||Top cleanup hitter||Games at No. 4||AWAY||B.A||OBP||OPS||MR||RBI||R||bb|
|Year||Top cleanup hitter||Games at No. 4||AWAY||B.A||OBP||OPS||MR||RBI||R||bb|
Other factors that make this complicated are the humidor decreasing power from 2002 on and the Rockies frequent rotation of the cleanup spot. The Rockies have featured a regular cleanup hitter that hit No. 4 in 100 games or more in a season only 12 times. For the sake of making this list manageable, I am only going to consider the eight players in those 12 seasons: Galarraga (twice), Bichette, Helton (three times), Preston Wilson, Vinny Castilla, Holliday, Tulowitzki (twice), and cron.
An original Blake Street Bomber, Galarraga is a huge reason the Rockies and power hitting became synonymous in the 1990s. In the Rockies inaugural season, The Big Cat slashed .370/.403/.602 with 22 homers and 98 RBI overall, earning an All-Star bid. He would go on to the All-Star game once more in his Rockies tenure in 1997 and posted 579 RBI and 172 homers in his five-year career in Colorado. Not all of those came from the cleanup spot, but he never hit below .300 as the Rockies cleanup man and he even hit 31 homers in 103 games in the strike-shortened season in 1994. His 150 RBI in 1996 are the most in one season by a Rockie, even if all of them didn’t come as cleanup. He was famous for long bombs, but before the StatCast Era, things were less sure. In 1997 against Kevin Brown in Miami, Galarraga smashed a ball that was first measured at 597 ft, which was later calculated as 529 feet by the Marlins, and then was downgraded to 468 by ESPN. Whatever the total, The Big Cat was a phenomenal cleanup hitter that made the Rockies fun to watch from the get-go.
A fellow Blake Street Bomber, Bichette not only set the mullet theme that the Rockies still enjoy today, but also helped establish a tendency toward a homer-heavy offense. In his seven years as a Rockie, he drove in 826 runs, hit 201 homers, and had an OPS of .892. Despite mostly hitting in the No. 3 hole, Bichette was the primary cleanup hitter in 1998 and 1999. In 1999, he hit 133 RBI from the No. 4 spot, which is the most in team history as a cleanup hitter in one season. He also hit 34 homers cleanup homers that season. Bichette was solid as a cleanup hitter, but in the end, had his best years one spot up in the lineup.
The Toddfather also spent most of his career batting third, but he was the main cleanup hitter for four seasons: 2000-2002 and 2007. In 2000, he hit .391, had a .497 on-base percentage, and an OPS of 1,266 . That earned him 115 games at No. 4 in 2001 where he hit 39 homers — the most for a cleanup hitter in team history — and drove in 119 runs. Despite moving out of the cleanup spot for a few seasons, he returned in 2007 for 151 games, which is also a team record. That year, he hit .319/.434/.495 with 17 homers and 88 RBI. With a reputation for punishing pitchers, he also drew 114 walks and another 16 intentionally. The performance was perfect for Rocktober as Helton led the Rockies to the World Series. Helton leads the Rockies in most power career totals in the Rockies record books and he’s also got the most homers as cleanup at 96. As of Thursday, Helton has 79% of the 158 public ballots for the Hall of Fame, which is only 42.2% of the total votes that will be cast. If any voters are undecided, maybe they should check out his cleanup numbers.
Wilson took over at No. 4 in 2003 and did quite well, despite having to follow Helton’s act. In 134 games, he hit 33 homers, which is fourth most at No. 4 in a season and drove in 127 runs, which is second best. He returned to cleanup in 2005, only for 67 games, and didn’t have as strong of an average or on-base percentage, but still managed to put up 17 homers and 63 RBI in less than half the time of 2003. His run was short, but his 2003 season is one of the most productive from the cleanup spot and earned him his only All-Star bid in his 10-year career.
The third Blake Street Bomber to make the list, Castilla was the main cleanup hitter in 2004. He made it count, hitting 35 homers, which is second only behind Helton’s 39. He also had 119 RBI. In his nine years with the Rockies, he hit 239 homers (third most in team history) and posted 745 RBI (sixth most). He spent the majority of his 16-year MLB career in the No. 6 spot, but he is the only player on this list to have hit in all No. 1-9 spots. He is a legendary bomber, but not the best cleanup hitter just because of the smaller sample size.
Holliday was the main cleanup hitter in 2006 when he slashed .334/.403/.981 from the no. 4 spot with 24 homers and 88 RBI. He totaled 34 homers and 114 RBI that season and the performance earned Holliday his first of seven All-Star appearances in his 15-year career. The following season, he moved back to No. 3 in front of Helton and it worked out really well. Holliday could have hit anywhere and made an impact, but he really was a better third hitter than cleanup.
When Tulo was healthy, he was a force to be reckoned with. In 2010 and 2011, he played 248 games as the cleanup hitter and combined for 55 homers with 189 RBI. He slashed .313/.380/.565 in 2010 and .301/.373/.547 in 2011. He was an All-Star in both. Just imagine if he could have stayed on the field as a sustained clean-up hitting shortstop. He was the majority cleanup hitter for two more seasons with 71 games in 2013 and 40 games in 2014. Both years, he earned All-Star bids, as he also did in 2015 when he was traded to Toronto. By then, he’d shifted to the third hitter and the injuries started to end his career in 2017, despite his brief comeback in 2019. Tulo is undeniably one of the Rockies best cleanup hitters even if that was only his spot in four of his 10 years with the team.
Even though he’s been a Rockie for two years, the Cron Zone has only been the main cleanup hitter in 2022. He played 101 games at the spot, hitting 22 homers with 79 RBI. He did play there in 37 games in 2021, but he really made the spot his with his hot first half last season. He had 21 homers with 69 RBI total (between No. 3 and No. 4) in the first half of the season, earning his first All-Star Game appearance. Unfortunately, he only hit seven homers after July as part of a brutal slump. If he’s the cleanup hitter again in 2023, he could add to his cleanup prowess, but right now the sample size is too small for GOAT consideration.
So who wins?
In my opinion, Todd Helton with Galaragga in second and Tulo in third. For Helton, it’s just another accolade in a distinguished career that could add another important plaque. The countdown is on until the HOF announcement at 4 pm MT on Jan 24.
Who is the best cleanup hitter in Rockies history?
Someone else (please share in the comments)
65 total votes
Houston, Atlanta, and the New York Yankees top the list and you have to scroll down for a bit to find the Rockies at No. 26, down two spots from the end of the 2022 season. The blurb for the Rockies can be summed up in one phrase: It depends on Kris Bryant.
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