Garrett Atkins

This article was written by Paul Hofmann

Garrett AtkinsWhen Garrett Atkins made his major-league debut with the Colorado Rockies on August 3, 2003, the sky appeared to be the limit. The young corner infielder had progressed through the Rockies’ minor-league system in three years and appeared to be Colorado’s heir-apparent to third baseman and fan favorite Vinny Castilla. The unassuming Atkins rose to the challenge and let his big bat do his talking for him. By the end of his second full major-league season, Atkins had quietly become one of the best hitters in baseball.  

Garrett Bernard Atkins was born on December 12, 1979, in Orange, California. He was the older of two children born to Ron and Diana Atkins. Garrett grew up in both a nurturing and disciplined environment. His father was a marketing manager with a schedule that permitted him to spend a great deal of time with his son, much of it as Garrett’s private hitting coach. By contrast, his mother was a no-nonsense assistant high-school principal with a low tolerance for excuses.1

As a young child, Garrett loved baseball and early on his father recognized he had a talent for hitting. He continually reminded Garrett this was a gift to be cherished and developed. When other kids were goofing around and playing video games, Garrett and his father could be found on a baseball diamond honing his swing. During these “coaching” sessions, Garrett’s father emphasized hitting through the middle and driving the ball the other way just like the Padres’ Tony Gwynn, one of Garrett’s favorite players.2

Atkins attended University High School in Irvine, California, from 1993 to 1997. Located adjacent to the campus of the University of California Irvine, University High School is consistently ranked among the top public high schools in the United States, offering a curriculum with a strong emphasis in performing arts.3 In addition to producing a number of actors and entertainers, the institution also produced a number of world-class athletes including former major-league All-Star third baseman Tim Wallach.

Atkins pitched and played outfield and third base in high school. He earned all-league honors in each of his three varsity seasons and helped lead the school’s baseball team to two state championships. During his senior season, he positioned himself as one of the nation’s top high-school prospects when he hit .557 with a school record 13 home runs.4 After his senior season, the New York Mets selected him in the 10th round of the June amateur draft.

At the same time, Atkins was being recruited by baseball powerhouses UCLA, USC, Cal State Fullerton, and Oklahoma State and had a difficult decision to make. Reflecting back on the decision, Atkins said, “My parents were big supporters of me going to college. It was the right thing for me to do. But it was the toughest decision I had to make.”5

Atkins signed a national letter of intent to play baseball at UCLA, where he majored in sociology.6 He and fellow five-star recruit Chase Utley formed the foundation of one of the strongest recruiting classes in the nation. It was also the start of a lifelong friendship when UCLA coach Gary Adams had the two freshmen standouts room together.7 The relationship fueled the two friends to get better. “If he can do it, I know I can do it,” Atkins said. “And it’s the same way with him.” With the two prized recruits pushing each other and the return of seniors Eric Byrnes and Eric Valent, great things were expected of the Bruins.

UCLA had a disappointing 1998 season and finished in fifth place in the Pac 10 conference with a 24-33 record. Atkins, however, was one of the team’s bright spots. After Adams installed him as the starting third baseman, Atkins manufactured a school-record 33-game hitting streak and finished the season with a team-leading .383 average, the ninth highest single-season average in UCLA history. He also set freshmen records for hits (85) and doubles (22).8

UCLA steadily improved over the next two seasons, earning bids to the NCAA Regionals both years and advancing to the Super Regionals in 2000. Atkins was a mainstay in the Bruins lineup, starting every game during his three seasons, and became the Bruins’ first-ever three-time All-Pac-10 performer and All-American. Atkins finished his three-year Bruins career with a .369 average (fourth best in school history) and 276 hits, second only to Byrnes’ 326.9 Adams characterized Atkins as a natural hitter: “I coached at UCLA for 30 years and he’s at the top of the list for fluid swings. He’s a guy who could fall out of bed and hit.”10

After his junior season, Atkins was selected in the fifth round of the June 2000 amateur draft by the Colorado Rockies. Rockies scouting director Bill Schmidt looked at Atkins and saw another UCLA player, 1992 NL Rookie of the Year Eric Karros, who had a long and successful major-league career because of his bat.11 Schmidt believed that Atkins, like Karros, needed to work on his defense.

Atkins opted to forgo his senior year and signed with the Rockies. He was farmed out to the low Class-A Portland Rockies of the short-season Northwest League. In 69 games Atkins, who played both first base and third, finished with a team-leading .303 average, 7 home runs, and 47 RBIs, earning league MVP honors. Despite playing on a team with a roster that included Clint Barmes, Brad Hawpe, and 11 other future major leaguers, the Rockies finished with a 32-44 record in last place in the circuit’s western division.

Atkins spent the 2001 season with the Salem Avalanche of the Class-A Carolina League. The sweet-swinging right-handed hitter was used almost exclusively at first base and hit .325, second in the league to Victor Martinez (.329).  He had 5 home runs, 67 RBIs, a league-leading 43 doubles, and a .421 on-base percentage. He was named both a mid- and postseason all-star, tabbed as the Rockies’ third-best prospect by Baseball America, and honored by the Rockies as the organization’s Player of the Year.

Promoted to Carolina Mudcats of the Double-A Southern League in 2002, Atkins moved across the diamond to third base, where he appeared in 119 of his 128 games. The move to the hot corner may have partially explained his drop-off in average. For the year, he hit .271 with 12 home runs and 61 RBIs. As he was rising through the Rockies’ minor-league system, Atkins was most often compared with Sean Casey and projected as a prospect who could develop into a major-league hitter with 15-home-run power.12

Atkins started the 2003 season with the Colorado SkySox, the Rockies’ Triple-A Pacific Coast League affiliate. He continued to play third base and enjoyed a solid season with the bat and earned two promotions to Denver. The third baseman hit .319 with 13 home runs and 67 RBIs with the SkySox.

Atkins made his major-league debut on Sunday, August 3, 2003, against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Pittsburgh’s PNC Park. Starting at third base and batting seventh, Atkins took little time to record his first major-league hit. With the Rockies already ahead 4-0 in the top of the first inning, he shot a groundball double down the left-field line off Jeff D’Amico to plate right fielder Rene Reyes with the fifth run of the inning. Atkins drove in a second run in the seventh when he grounded out to shortstop to score Preston Wilson with the Rockies’ 15th and final run of the game. Atkins finished 1-for-6 with a pair of RBIs.

But Atkins struggled to hit major-league pitching, and was returned to the SkySox. He was recalled when major-league rosters expanded in September. However, it was clear that he was not yet ready to play every day at the major-league level. During his two brief stints with the Rockies, he hit just .159 with 2 doubles and 4 RBIs. After the season he was invited to play for Team USA, which was participating the Arizona Fall League in preparation for the 2004 Olympic Games.

Atkins returned to the SkySox for the 2004 season. Despite missing 15 games in July with an acute viral infection of his lower intestine, Atkins hit a league-leading .366 with 15 home runs and 94 RBIs. He hit a team-high 43 doubles and had a career-high 23-game hitting streak on his way to being named to the PCL All-Star team. Atkins was now viewed as a complete hitter. 

Atkins was once again called up to the Rockies when the rosters expanded in early September and enjoyed more success at the plate than he had a year earlier. On September 11, 2004, he hit his first major-league home run, against the San Diego Padres at Coors field. Pinch hitting for Castilla in the top of the seventh inning, Atkins hit a two-run shot off right-hander Steve Watkins in the Padres’ 13-2 blowout loss to the Rockies. During the month with the parent club, Atkins gave the Rockies a glimpse into the future. In 15 September games he hit .357 with two doubles, a homer, and eight RBIs.

After the 2004 season, Castilla signed a $3 million contract with the Washington Nationals clearing the way for Atkins to become the Rockies’ everyday third baseman. However, two days before the start of the 2005 season, Atkins strained his right hamstring during the team’s final exhibition game and landed on the disabled list. Atkins missed the first 18 games of the season before coming back to have an outstanding rookie season. He played in 138 games (136 at third base) and hit .287 with 13 home runs and a team-leading 89 RBIs. While his RBI total led all NL rookies by 26, Atkins finished a surprising (if not disappointing) distant fourth in NL Rookie of the Year voting behind Ryan Howard, Willy Taveras, and Jeff Francoeur

In his second full season, Atkins became the centerpiece of a strong Rockies offense. In 2006 he played 157 games at third base and hit .329 with career highs in home runs (29), runs (117), and RBIs (120). He was one of only four players in the majors who hit better than .320 with at least 20 home runs, 100 RBIs, and 100 runs scored. The others were Albert Pujols, Miguel Cabrera, and teammate Matt Holliday.13 Atkins’ breakout season had many wondering what the future had in store. Rockies manager Clint Hurdle thought there were no limits. “I would not put a ceiling on what kind of hitter this kid is going to be,” Hurdle said.14

Atkins’ consistency during the 2006 season was also noteworthy. His batting average climbed over .300 in the season’s third game and never dropped below that level the rest of the year. Despite the spectacular season, the Rockies third baseman was not named to the NL All-Star team and was again overlooked in postseason award voting.  Atkins finished 15th in NL MVP voting. In the end, the season proved to be not only a breakout year for the 26-year-old, it was also his career peak.

Atkins had another solid year in 2007 as the Rockies captured the NL wild card. He started slowly and hit only .223 in the first two months of the season. However, he eventually found his stroke and finished with a .301 average, 25 home runs, and 111 RBIs, while matching the career-high 157 games he played in the year before. During the Rockies’ magical 15-game run in which they went 14-1 to close out the season, Atkins hit .414 with 3 home runs and 9 RBIs. Unfortunately, he went into a postseason slump. 

The 2007 NLDS between Colorado and Philadelphia offered the interesting subplot of two good friends trying to keep each other from advancing in the playoffs as Atkins and the Rockies squared off against Utley and the Phillies.15 The series was anti-climactic as the Rockies swept the Phillies in three straight. Atkins went 3-for-13 in the series with three runs scored and a lone Game One RBI, a second-inning double that scored the first run of the series. Utley managed to go just 2-for-11.

Atkins’ offensive struggles continued in the NLCS against the Arizona Diamondbacks. The third baseman batted a pedestrian .143 (2-for-14) as the Rockies swept the Diamondbacks to advance to the World Series against the American League champion Boston Red Sox. With the sweep, the Rockies increased their winning streak to 10 games and had won an improbable 21 of their last 22.

The World Series brought with it a change of fortune for Colorado as the Red Sox swept the Rockies in four straight. Atkins went 2-for 13 in the Series. He had double and scored the Rockies’ only run in Game One and homered off Hideki Okajima in Game Four. Atkins, however, was not the only member of the Rockies to struggle. The Red Sox pitching staff limited the Rockies to 10 runs and a collective .218 average in the four games. 

Atkins’ offensive production continued to slightly decline in 2008. In 155 games split between third base and first, he hit .286 with 32 doubles, 21 home runs, and 99 RBIs — perfectly acceptable numbers for a middle-of-the-order hitter. However, the precipitous drop in his OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) from two years prior was a clear indication that he was in decline. Atkins’ career-high .965 OPS in 2006 had fallen to .853 in 2007 and dropped even further to .780 in 2008. 

After the 2008 season, the Rockies and Atkins became involved in an arbitration battle. Jeff Blank, his agent, felt the Rockies’ corner infielder’s numbers compared favorably to the Twins’ Justin Morneau.16 Atkins requested a salary of $7.95 million, while the Rockies offered $6.65 million. The two sides avoided arbitration by settling on a $7.05 million contract for the 2009 season.17

The 2009 season was a struggle for Atkins from start to finish. He started the season with an 0-for-12 skid before breaking out of it with a two-run home run off the Phillies’ Cole Hamels in the Rockies’ fourth game of the season. From May 13 to June 10 he was below the Mendoza line18 and finished the season with .226 average, 12 doubles, 9 homers, and 48 RBIs. As the season progressed, Ian Stewart, who hit a career-high 25 home runs in 2009, saw an increasing amount of time at third base.

Despite Atkins’s disappointing statistics, the Rockies earned their second playoff berth in three years. He was the starting third baseman all four games of the NLDS rematch with Utley and the Phillies. He went 3-for-13 in the series with a pair of RBIs in Game Three. Utley hit .429 for the series with a Game Three homer as the Phillies avenged their 2007 NLDS loss by beating the Rockies in four.

On December 12, 2009, Atkins’ 30th birthday, the Rockies told him they wouldn’t be offering him a contract for 2010. Though an unpleasant message to receive on his birthday, the move was not unexpected. Within a period of 12 months, Atkins had become an underperforming, overpriced veteran. He was the only arbitration-eligible Rockies player not to get a contract offer from the club.19

Ten days later the Baltimore Orioles signed Atkins to a one-year guaranteed $4 million contract with the hope that he could fill a gap they had at first base and return to the 20-homer, 100-RBI form of seasons past. However, Atkins’ stint with the Orioles proved short-lived. After hitting safely in his first five games with the Orioles, Atkins managed to hit only .192 in his final 39 major-league appearances. He batted .214 with one home run and nine RBIs before being designated for assignment on June 26, 2010. The Orioles president for baseball operations, Andy MacPhail, summarized the situation by stating, “We gambled that we could resurrect a bat, and it just wasn’t happening.”20 Atkins was released by the Orioles on July 6 when he refused to accept a minor-league assignment.

Manager Juan Samuel praised Atkins for being a consummate professional in the Orioles clubhouse under difficult circumstances. “He’s a great guy,” Samuel said. “He was professional throughout this whole process and understands why he wasn’t playing. He was very quiet, didn’t cause any issues in the clubhouse. He was just a veteran professional.”21

Not yet ready to call it a career, Atkins signed a minor-league contract with the Pittsburgh Pirates on January 5, 2011. The now 31-year-old veteran was brought into the Pirates camp to compete with Andy Marte, Steve Pearce, and Josh Fields for the team’s backup corner-infield position. The Pirates released Atkins on March 21, 2011, after he hit .129 in 33 plate appearances in 17 Grapefruit League games.22 Rather than continue to pursue the goal of making it back to the major leagues, Atkins retired and started a new chapter in his life.

In an eight-year major-league career, Atkins hit .285 with 169 doubles, 99 home runs, and 488 RBIs.  From 2005 to 2008, he hit .301 and averaged 22 home runs and 105 RBIs per year. Amazingly, he hit only .223 with 10 home runs and 57 RBIs during his final two major-league seasons. While he enjoyed a significantly higher average (.327) and OPS (.892) at Coors Field, Atkins actually hit more home runs on the road (50) than he did at home (48) while playing for the Rockies.

As of 2017 Atkins resided with his wife and son in Castle Pines, Colorado, a suburban oasis about 20 miles southeast of Denver. He said he enjoyed reading, watching TV, skiing, and playing golf — identifying himself as the “Worst Club Champion in the US” for 2017.23 

Last revised: March 1, 2018

 

This biography originally appeared in "Major League Baseball A Mile High: The First Quarter Century of the Colorado Rockies" (SABR, 2018), edited by Bill Nowlin and Paul T. Parker.

 

Sources

In addition to the Sources cited in the Notes, the author also consulted Baseball-Reference.com.

 

Notes

1 Troy Renck, “With This Sweet Swing, Hits Just Keep Comin’,” Denver Post. March 17, 2007.

2 “Garrett Atkins — Bio,” https://jockbio.com/Bios/GAtkins/GAtkins_bio.html.

3 Actor Will Ferrell and many other notable entertainers are among University High School’s alumni.

4 “Garrett Atkins — Bio.”

5 “Garrett Atkins — My Say,” https://jockbio.com/Bios/GAtkins/GAtkins_mysay.html.

6 Thomas Harding, “Q & A with Garrett Atkins,” Retrieved from mlb.com.

7 Gerry Fraley, “The Friendship Baseball Made: Utley, Atkins Now Aren’t Rooting for Each Other Much,” Rocky Mountain News (Denver), October 5, 2007.

8 “2017 UCLA Baseball Information Guide,” uclabruins.com.

9 Ibid.

10 Troy Renck.

11 Gerry Fraley.

12 Troy Renck.

13 Ibid.

14 “Garrett Atkins — They Say,” https://jockbio.com/Bios/GAtkins/GAtkins_theysay.html.

15 Atkins was the best man in Utley’s wedding in January 2007.

16 Mark Townsend, “Rockslide: Tracking The Decline of Slugger Garrett Atkins,” March 21, 2011. https://sports.yahoo.com/mlb/blog/big_league_stew/post/rockslide-trackin....

17 David Martin, “Colorado Rockies and Garrett Atkins Strike a Deal and Avoid Arbitration,” https://bleacherreport.com/articles/119437-colorado-rockies-and-garrett-....

18 The “Mendoza line” is a baseball term for batting around or below .200, mediocrity. The term was coined by George Brett after Mario Mendoza. The term has also crossed over into America's pop-culture lexicon and is frequently used to describe almost any type of subpar performance, from the performance of stocks and mutual funds to bad grades, and to quotas for salespeople.

19 Thomas Harding, “Rockies Part Ways With Atkins,” mlb.com, December 13, 2009.

20 Brittany Ghiroli, “Orioles Designate Atkins for Assignment,” mlb.com, June 27, 2010.

21 Ibid.  

22 Tim Dierkes, “Pirates Release Garrett Atkins,” March 21, 2011. https://mlbtraderumors.com/garrett-atkins.

23 “Garrett Atkins (@GAtkins32),” Twitter.com