Bashing Rockies management may now be the second-most popular fall sport in Colorado, surpassing college football. The playoff appearances of 2007 and 2009 seem long ago and far away in the wake of consecutive seasons of 89 and 98 losses, that last one the worst in the organization’s 20-year history.
Memories are short: It is not unusual to hear a fan go uncontradicted when he declares that the Rocks have been terrible for many years.
Within the game, the view is virtually unanimous that playing 81 games at Coors Field represents a unique challenge. This year’s pitching implosion — four starters were brought in from other organizations and all four flamed out — is viewed as just the latest piece of evidence on a very large pile.
“This is the most challenging venue to coach, manage, perform at in major league baseball,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle, a former Rockies manager, said during Pittsburgh’s lone visit to Coors last season. “5280 (feet above sea level) 81 times a year, there’s nothing like it anywhere else. There are dramatic changes you’ve got to make to things.”
Among fans, invoking the thin air and huge playing field is generally considered nothing more than an excuse for a front office that’s been in place since 1999. There is perhaps no issue in baseball that produces such a dramatic difference in perception between those in the game and those outside it.
When Rockies pitchers acknowlege making adjustments to pitch at Coors, they too are accused of making excuses, even if, like reliever Matt Belisle, they say specifically the need for these adjustments cannot be used as a crutch.
Perhaps a great pitcher who has nothing to gain by discussing these issues will carry more credibility. Because, frankly, if the Rocks’ fan base remains oblivious to the central challenge of operating the franchise, it will never embrace the organization’s attempts to deal with it.
John Smoltz, the only pitcher in major league history with 200 wins and 150 saves, was part of a great Atlanta Braves staff in the 1990s that hated pitching in Colorado. Greg Maddux, a certain Hall of Famer once he becomes eligible, compiled a career ERA of 3.16. At Coors Field, it was 5.19.
“I prided myself on being in really good shape,” Smoltz said recently on the Dave Logan Show. “I loved to shag. When you go to Colorado, your breathing is affected. You feel like you’re out of shape. You feel like you’re holding your breath to get three outs per inning. The sharpness on your breaking ball and the effectiveness on your pitches are not quite the same. It’s just factual; it’s not mental.
“What you end up doing, as I learned over time how to adjust, you end up throwing the ball harder, spinning it tighter, and you do things that are going to have a carryover effect to make you sore.
“When you learn how to do that on a day-in and day-out basis, you’ll probably make the adjustments, but I had to survive a 1996 Cy Young campaign in which I went in there late in the year and gave up something like 12 singles. They never hit a home run. But it’s the big part of that field that allows the hitters to dink and find the gaps.”
Smoltz’s memory of that day 16 years ago — Sept. 12, 1996 — is not exact, but it’s close enough. He pitched six innings, giving up nine runs, eight of them earned, on 12 hits. He did give up one homer, Ellis Burks’ 37th of the season. When he departed, the Rocks led 9-7. Atlanta made it 9-8 in the top of the seventh before Colorado scored seven more in two innings off five Braves relievers.
The final score was 16-8. In perhaps his best season, Smoltz saw his earned-run average swell from 2.78 to 3.02 in one nightmarish outing. Three wins later, when the season ended, it was 2.94. As the National League’s only 20-game winner (he finished 24-8), Smoltz won the Cy Young award easily over Florida’s Kevin Brown.
“I always said, ‘Someone will hit .400 in that park before someone would break, let’s say, the home run record,'” said Smoltz, now an analyst for MLB Network. “Now, I know the humidor’s come into play and that’s a whole other subject. But I think it’s one of the most exciting places to watch a game. It’s just not the most exciting place to pitch.”
From the organization’s point of view, the worst result of the extra effort Smoltz described to make pitches move in Colorado’s thin air is the long-term effect on the health of its pitchers. The extra stress on shoulders and elbows has produced, over 20 years, a remarkable lack of longevity among Colorado starters.
But Smoltz pointed out another major drawback: It’s a terrible place to develop young pitchers. Getting your brains beaten out with every mistake — and sometimes, when you haven’t even made a mistake — is not a great way to build confidence. Even some veterans — notably Mike Hampton and Jeremy Guthrie — have been unable to handle it.
“If you look around the league, there’s teams and places where you can develop pitchers — Oakland being probably No. 1 because of how big it is, the foul territory,” Smoltz said. “I think you have San Diego, Seattle. You look at those teams and they develop pitchers and the confidence in those pitchers.
“Colorado has a different monster. It’s a mental challenge to develop a young pitcher because of the changes you must make in your mind that you’re not going to have a low ERA, you’re not going to be able to do certain things. You just have to adapt. Hopefully, the offense has a surplus and you benefit from that, but it is a big difference.”
For that reason, Smoltz applauds the Rockies front office for trying experimental approaches such as this season’s paired pitching rotation, in which each starter had a limited pitch count and was paired with a “bridge” reliever to cover the middle innings. The organization has taken a lot of heat from its own fan base for this experiment.
“What I’ve always said for years, I said if I was in charge (there), it’s so unique, no one else deals with it, that I’m in favor of what they’re doing,” Smoltz said.
“I wouldn’t put necessarily a pitch limit on it, but I would have a freshness of guys, knowing that you’re going to go three, four, five innings and we’re going to use three, four, five pitchers and we’re going to make it more like spring training, shuffle it around, give guys opportunities to get potential wins. But I think it makes sense because if you don’t get the right type of pitchers there, you do have to do something outside of the box, I truly believe that.
“It’s such a big, significant chunk of the year, 81 games. On the road, I know it’s different, but you can’t (change systems) from the road to home. They just have to get past the daily questioning of reporters going, ‘Well, how can you do this, how can you buck the system?’
“That’s really why the game has changed so much. I guarantee you, you can start next year with a team and go with a four-man rotation and they’ll be great. No one wants to do it because they don’t want to deal with the ramifications of these new age theories of what is best for pitchers and how we’re going to move in this new millennium of guys throwing about 180 innings and that’s it.
“I commend Colorado and the manager or whoever came up with this idea to say, ‘You know what, it ain’t working, so let’s try something different.’ They’re in a unique situation.”