Even for immensely talented young pitchers, facing major league hitters usually requires some adjustments. Watch a young hurler long enough after his introduction to The Show and you’re likely to see an incredulous look pass over his face when a pitch that’s always worked for him lands in the seats 400 feet away.
So when the Rockies lost most of their veteran starting pitchers this season — Jorge De La Rosa took four months longer than expected to come back from Tommy John surgery, Jhoulys Chacin missed more than three months with a nerve issue, Jeremy Guthrie’s head exploded when he tried to pitch at altitude and Juan Nicasio suffered a season-ending knee injury — they knew they were in for a long year.
But the young starting pitchers thrown into the fire — Tyler Chatwood, 22; Drew Pomeranz, 23; Christian Friedrich (also injured), 25; and Alex White who just turned 24 — had to deal with more than pitching to big league hitters. They also had to conquer the demon that turned Guthrie, a 33-year-old veteran of eight major league seasons, into a basket case.
“It’s certainly a learning process,” White said recently on the Dave Logan Show. “I think one of the toughest things for us right now is our starting rotation is so young. We have a lot of guys trying to figure out, one, how to pitch at the major league level, and two, how to do it at Coors Field and then on the road. We’re working together to do that, but there’s definitely a big difference in pitching at home and pitching on the road.”
Faithful readers of this blog may recall veteran Rockies reliever Matt Belisle describing in some detail how he changes his release point to adjust for the relative absence of break, or bite, on his breaking pitches, and sometimes his two-seam fastball, at altitude. Guthrie, who generally refused to talk about it while in Colorado, admitted after recovering his sanity in Kansas City that he had trouble making his pitches break at Coors Field.
Seen through this prism, perhaps the struggles of the Rocks’ young starting pitchers this season shouldn’t discourage fans as much as they have. White, for example, has made significant progress as the season has gone along.
In his first 10 big league starts this season, he got knocked around to an earned-run average of 6.45, surrendering 64 hits and eight home runs in 51 2/3 innings.
In his last 10 starts, his innings limited by the club’s paired pitching rotation, he has compiled an ERA of 3.51, surrendering 40 hits and four homers in 41 innings. Remarkably, White has compiled a better ERA at Coors Field (4.73) than on the road (5.55) this year.
“That’s one thing that I’ve learned throughout this season, that you do have to change certain things in different places,” White said. “When you’re on the East Coast, you have a better breaking ball. My split-finger’s a lot better. When you come to Coors, those things kind of leave you. You have to change your approach and what you want to do in the strike zone.”
Still, as the season has proceeded, White’s ability to throw strikes has improved considerably.
“It’s really just been working on command,” he said. “I’ve been able to develop a change-up here lately that’s been pretty good for me. That allows me to use my split-finger as more of an out pitch. I don’t have to use it as my primary secondary pitch, if that makes sense. It allows me to pitch in the strike zone. My command’s been a lot better to both sides of the plate and the change-up allows me to have a pitch that I can throw in the strike zone in hitters’ counts that kind of keeps them off balance.”
For starting pitchers, of course, the paired pitching rotation has one career-crushing effect: Because a starter must pitch a minimum of five innings to get credit for a win, a system that limits his pitch count will take wins from him and award them to relievers.
In White’s three September starts so far, he has given up just three earned runs. But because his pitch count limited him to four innings each time, he was never eligible for a win. On the flip side, starters are always eligible for a loss if they leave the game at any point with their team trailing. Hence White’s record of 2-8 and reliever Rex Brothers’ mirror image record of 8-2.
“Everybody wants wins, but you really try not to think about it,” White said. “It’s really our job to win as a team. I think the starters are more susceptible to taking losses in this kind of plan, but when you look at the big picture it’s about winning as a team and we’re trying to figure out a way that we can be effective in Coors Field with different pitchers. And I think we’re starting to figure that out.”
You might think this would prevent starting pitchers from coming to pitch for the Rockies, but let’s be honest: No starting pitcher with a choice was coming here anyway. The disastrous experiences of Mike Hampton, Denny Neagle and Guthrie have made Colorado an option only for free agent pitchers who can’t get a major league job anywhere else.
In the latest incarnation of the paired pitching rotation, the number of starters has increased from four to the major league standard five, and the pitch limit has grown from 75 to 90, which ought to give starters a better chance to make it through five innings if they’re pitching well.
Whether a good young starting pitcher will elect to stay in Colorado once he becomes eligible for free agency is very much an open question. De La Rosa had enough success here to sign a three-year contract to stay, but then he suffered a major injury. That’s been a recurring issue for those who throw significant innings for the Rocks and was a major impetus for the pitch limits in the first place.
It’s beginning to look like the ability to pitch for the Rockies depends as much on competitive temperament as pitch selection or command. White’s attitude may help establish a template.
“It’s certainly a challenge, but we’ve got to win,” he said. “Somebody’s got to do it, and we’re learning how to do it with a lot of young players, a lot of young pitchers. I think once we figure this thing out here as a group — and to be honest I think we’ve started to do that. As a starting rotation, we’ve been a lot better. Our bullpen’s been great all year. It’s one of those things where once we figure it out, we’re going to be good for a long time.”
Not everyone has made the progress White has, but all the Rocks need is one example to show it can be done.