The latest Coors Field casualty

If you happened to be among the 35,151 people who paid (or managed a ticket from someone who had) to see the Rockies play the Phillies on Saturday night, you saw the most recent version of the species of baseball player known as the Coors Field casualty.

Jeremy Guthrie has joined a small but distinguished group of pitchers (and one manager) who were driven to distraction and ultimately defeated by Coors Field, or by the altitude at which it sits. Each retreated into his own defensive bubble, refusing to acknowledge the elephant in the ballpark because they couldn’t accept their inability to overcome it.

Keep in mind Guthrie was acquired over the offseason to be the veteran leader of the pitching staff. Looking over his previous three seasons, Rockies management saw a horse who never missed a start, threw 200 or more innings every year, pitched for lousy teams in Baltimore and never complained. What they got was the opposite — a head case who can’t show leadership to the Rocks’ young pitchers because he can’t get out of his own way.

One sarcastic gesture — tipping his cap to the crowd as one of his early exits was accompanied by a symphony of boos — offered all the insight necessary into the psychological shield he has raised to protect himself from what no doubt seem like the slings and arrows of some strange and foreign planet.

Following his ninth loss in 12 decisions Saturday night, when he gave up four runs, all in the first inning, and came out in the fifth, this was Guthrie’s post-game session with the inquiring minds:

Q: So what’s your diagnosis? What happened in the first inning?

A: Just a, you know, got behind to (Carlos) Ruiz and he took a good hack and, you know, a three-run homer.

Q: That’s it? What about the hits that led up to that?

A: You know, the fastball away, 1-0 count, off the plate a little bit, (Chase Utley) did a nice job to punch in (Shane) Victorino. Victorino was a fastball up in the zone, 0-2, tried to elevate it, got it at his letters but he did a nice job and hit it into the gap. I walked (Ryan) Howard, I think it was on five pitches, got behind him. I think that’s all the hits. I think that’s all the results of the first inning.

Q: Especially after the first inning, you were able to keep it under control after that, do you feel like you have a pretty good pattern, at least here at home?

A: I think so. I mean, I’ve got the longest scoreless streak of my career at Coors, so there’s a lot of positives to build on. It’s a career low in runs allowed in a start as well. So there’s positives to build on and you’ve got to take what you can and go for it.

Q: At this point is it trying to just build on something like that, considering how it’s gone so far?

A: Yeah. You always find the positives and try to build on ’em. That’s what I try to do. That’s the kind of person I am and if it works out I’m pleased; if it doesn’t, I’ll keep that same attitude in baseball and in life.

Q: Jeremy, was it self-evident to you from the first inning what you needed to adjust or did anybody have a chat with you between the first and second?

A: No, no chat. It came down to one pitch, really. Three-one. The Utley pitch wasn’t a mistake. It was where I was trying to go. The Victorino pitch was where I was trying to throw it. The walk is not what I was trying to do. I look at it every at-bat, every pitch. You look at four runs and you just think the world’s coming to an end, but it really came down to one big pitch, to Ruiz, to one of the best hitters in the league right now.

When the brief group session was over, I asked Guthrie if I could ask him a couple of further questions, one-on-one.

“No,” he said. “Thank you.” And then he hightailed it out of the clubhouse.

Now, granted, this refusal could well be because of my personal charm. Guthrie would not be the first athlete who, given a choice, declined an opportunity to spend any more time than necessary answering my questions. But he also gave me a flashback to the most famous Coors Field casualty of the Rockies’ first 20 years, who gave me a similar response when I tried to talk to him one-on-one about pitching here.

In 2001, Mike Hampton got the biggest contract ever given to a pitcher at the time — eight years, $121 million. He’s the poster boy of Coors Field casualties. The Rockies broke the bank to sign him after coming off consecutive (pre-humidor) seasons in which their starters pitched to earned-run averages of 6.19 and 5.59, numbers that might sound familiar if you’ve followed this year’s team, whose starters are currently at 6.06.

Hampton had gone 37-12 over the previous two seasons for the Astros and Mets. He was a power sinker ball pitcher, exactly what their home launch pad seemed to demand. So the Rocks overpaid in a big way to snare the top free agent pitcher of the year.

His first start was awe-inspiring. He threw 8 1/3 innings of five-hit, shutout ball at Coors Field against the Cardinals. On June 10, when he beat the Cardinals again, he was 9-2 with a 2.98 ERA and a National League All-Star for the second time.

From there, it went downhill in a hurry. By the end of July, he had lost six of his previous seven decisions and the ERA had swelled to 4.97. His jaw tightened in post-game interviews. He retreated to formulaic answers, just as Guthrie has, reciting his pitches in a bland monotone the way a golfer recites his shots. This pitch missed, that pitch got too much of the plate. He denied any larger issues. The competitor in him would not allow him to acknowledge them, at least not publicly.

He finished the season with a record of 14-13 and an ERA of 5.41. For a pitcher who had put up ERAs of 2.90 and 3.14 the two previous seasons, it was impossible to accept. He couldn’t have suddenly forgotten how to pitch. It had to be the park. The park or the altitude; either way, this $%&* place!

By his second year, Hampton was such a mess that his road ERA exceeded his Coors Field ERA, which is not the case for Guthrie. At sea level, Guthrie has been the guy the Rocks traded for — actually a little better than the guy they traded for — pitching to an ERA of 3.67. True, he’s only 2-4, but he’s used to pitching pretty well and losing; it happened all the time with the Orioles.

But in Colorado he’s now 1-5 with an ERA of 9.23. In body language and impassive post-game postmortems, he seems to be all but shouting, Get me outta here!

For Hampton, the splits didn’t matter as much as the general deterioration. The harder he gripped the ball, the more he tried to force it to do what he wanted, the less it did. Again, this was pre-humidor, when many pitchers attributed the absence of break in their pitches to the feel of the baseball, which they said was slick as a billiard ball.

Relatively successful hurlers at Coors — the few, the proud — adjust to the reduced movement of their pitches in the less-dense air at altitude, and then adjust back when they go to sea level. By the end of his second and final season with the Rockies — he went 7-15 with a 6.15 ERA — Hampton wanted nothing but to follow Bob Seger’s advice and get out of Denver. The Rocks obliged, but the financial burden of his fully guaranteed contract — and those they took on in exchange for it — haunted them for years.

The original Coors Field casualty was Greg Harris, a breaking ball specialist, and he didn’t even pitch at Coors Field. The Rocks were playing at Mile High Stadium during their inaugural season when they traded for two Padres starters — Harris and Bruce Hurst. Harris had burst on the scene as a reliever in his early years in San Diego, his out pitch a devastating 12-to-6 curve ball.

The Padres converted him into a starter in 1991. He was 10-9 with a 3.67 ERA when the Rocks traded for him on July 26, 1993. After his arrival, he went 1-8 with a 6.50 ERA. His curve no longer broke; it just spun up to the plate with a little sign on it that said, “Hit me!”

The following season, 1994, he went 3-12 with a 6.55 ERA. When the season was over, the Rocks released him. He was 30 and he was done. The Twins gave him a shot the following year. He went 0-5, 8.82 and called it a career.

Another Coors Field casualty was not a pitcher at all. Manager Jim Leyland quit on the Rocks in 1999, walking away from the final two years of his contract. The club lost 90 games that year and Leyland decided he couldn’t manage in a place where he didn’t recognize the game.

We now add Guthrie to the list. Jason Hammel, the starter for whom he was traded, is 8-6 for the Orioles with a 3.54 ERA. Indignant fans want general manager Dan O’Dowd fired for making such a terrible trade. Of course, Hammel was 7-13 with a 4.76 ERA last season for Colorado. If you don’t think altitude has a lot to do with both Hammel’s sudden improvement and Guthrie’s sudden deterioration, you haven’t been tracking this thing as long as the Rockies have.

For most of the past 20 years, Rocks management has declined to discuss the challenges of pitching at altitude in any detail. Acknowledge it, they figure, and you’ve given your pitchers a built-in excuse if they perform poorly. This year, they have acknowledged it in perhaps the most explicit way yet, switching to a four-man starting rotation with a limited pitch count.

O’Dowd admitted to season-ticket holders that the organization still hasn’t solved the riddle of pitching here. He also told them that starters who pitch a normal workload for three years at altitude tend to suffer debilitating injuries. The limited pitch count is an effort to prevent their pitchers from destroying themselves.

On the bright side, pitching successfully here is not impossible. In the next post on this blog, a conversation with someone who’s done it.

About Dave Krieger

Dave Krieger is a recidivist newspaperman. View all posts by Dave Krieger

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