For the Rockies, same as it ever was

Nick Groke posted a tweet thread Sunday that reminded me of the Rockies’ bad old days, when their suckage seemed like a permanent state, interrupted occasionally and wistfully by brief confluences of good luck.

In the 16 years from 2001 to 2016, the Rocks had three winning seasons. Back then, some annoyed journalist, blogger or radio talk-show host, sometimes all three, would lash out after another losing season and urge a popular uprising against ownership or management.

A lot of years, it was merited. During its interminable rebuilds, the franchise enjoyed above-average attendance and below-average payrolls, leading to the logical conclusion that ownership cared more about profits than winning.

Groke does a nice job covering the Rockies for The Athletic. He maintains a distance and wit over the long season that offers readers the truth with a little bite, which is not always, or even often, the case with Rockies beat writers.

But this tweet felt more what-have-you-done-for-us-lately than similar calls to action in the past. And it started up an old motor on an old cause, which isn’t really his fault.

So feel free to complain your ass off about the Rockies, if you care. Complaining might help…
— Nick Groke (@nickgroke)

I’m just a fan now, but aside from hindsight, always 20-20, I don’t know what the complaint aimed at ownership or management would be this year. The Rocks were coming off two straight playoff appearances following seasons of 87 and 91 wins. They had the most promising young pitching staff in their history. The payroll was above the league average.

True, the payroll rank is lower than the attendance rank, but it’s higher than the TV market rank, which has at least as much to do with total revenues.

Several pitchers broke down in one way or another and it got ugly. To blame this on ownership or management, you would have to argue they should have anticipated this dramatic decline from roughly the same pitching staff and overhauled a 91-win team going in. I didn’t hear anyone making that case last spring.

Situational hitting varies from year to year, but the offense was about the same from a production standpoint. Last year’s 91-win team scored 4.79 runs per game. This year’s team, currently 65-85, in last place, is averaging 5.19 with 12 games to play.

Scoring is up league-wide this year — from an average of 4.45 runs per team per game last year to 4.85 so far this year — so both the Rocks and the league average are up 0.4 runs per game. They ranked seventh in scoring among all big league clubs last year; this year, they rank ninth.

The pitching was nowhere near the same. The Rocks allowed 4.57 runs per game last year, lower than 10 teams, which is quite an accomplishment when you play half your games at Coors Field. They had a team earned-run average of 4.33.

They’re allowing 5.95 runs a game this year, with an ERA of 5.63, worst in the big leagues in both categories except for the tanking Orioles.

They had 84 quality starts last year. This year they have 44.

Four starters had better-than-average park-adjusted ERAs in 2018. Two do this year.

What happened, from the perspective of an old-timer who’s been watching since Opening Day in 1993, is the same thing that always happens. In their 27-year history, the Rocks have never been able to sustain good pitching. To understand why, you have to acknowledge the fact that pitching a mile high is different, very different, from pitching anywhere else in the major leagues.

This is not a myth, it’s not an excuse, it’s freaking science.

And it’s an enormous structural disadvantage for the Rockies. For most of its history, club officials have done their best to avoid discussing this publicly because they believe acknowledging it gives players a built-in excuse for failure. But the result is a public posture of ignoring or denying science, which is unlikely to be a successful strategy in the long run.

A lot of longtime Rockies fans, and most of the reporters who cover the team, are sick and tired of hearing about this. They would rather blame the players or management architects in each case. Over time, this has created a lengthening list of individual, idiosyncratic self-destructions in the public mind. That doesn’t change the science either.

Robert Adair, the Sterling Professor Emeritus of physics at Yale University, now 95, explained it all in The Physics of Baseball, which he updated to include some discussion of the effects of altitude for the third edition in 2002.

Batted balls travel farther and faster due to less air resistance a mile high, which accounts for the sprawling Coors Field outfield, designed to cut down on home runs but carrying unintended consequences of its own. Adair observed:

The use of a less lively, “high-altitude” ball would reduce the altitude effect, just as special less lively, “high-altitude” balls are used in tennis, though for somewhat different reasons.

As a columnist for the Rocky Mountain News beginning in 2000, I advocated development of a high-altitude ball to bring scoring at Coors Field closer to baseball’s normal parameters. Various officials of the Rockies and other teams told me this would never happen. There was too much suspicion of doctored balls as it was.

Just putting standard balls in a humidified room to keep them from drying out and making a bad situation worse caused some controversy at the time. Would the home team substitute non-humidor balls for humidor balls when it came to bat? Given baseball’s documented history of attempts to get an edge, it seemed like a reasonable question.

Restricted-flight balls are an entirely different matter, with distinctive markings in the sports that use them, so the humidor analogy doesn’t apply. By the time I raised this point, every baseball official I talked to had already waved off the idea as impossible.

In tennis, of course, they have no choice. You can’t play the game a mile above sea level  with regular tennis balls. They bounce into moonshots. Basketballs are inflated to a different pressure at high elevation to achieve the same behavior you get at sea level.

Baseballs are solid, so the necessary adjustments are different, but it’s certainly doable. Softball and golf both have restricted-flight balls. Somehow, both games figured out how to give them distinctive, identifying markings.

As it turns out, the increased speed and distance of batted balls at altitude is not even the biggest problem. The biggest problem is the effect on pitching. Orel Hershiser, the longtime Dodgers star who is now part of their television broadcast team, riffed on it during a visit to Denver in June.

The proximate cause was just another 12-8 Coors Field game featuring 33 hits, including 13 in 5 2/3 innings against Dodgers starter Walker Buehler, who hasn’t surrendered more than nine in any other start this year.

“This is one place that even pitchers are confident they can get a hit,” Hershiser said after Buehler collected his second of the season. “And it’s not a good feeling, cuz you’re like, ‘If I feel like I can get a hit here, I gotta go get nine guys out on the other side.’

“I don’t care how long they put the balls in the humidor and they try and balance that part of it so the ball won’t carry, because of where we are, and the lack of humidity and thin air, the ball won’t break as much. So there’s more solid contact. The popup at sea level is a long fly ball, possible home run, here because the hitter can square up more baseballs because it’s harder to make the ball move as a pitcher.

“The other thing you have to do as a pitcher that helps the offense here is you have to make the ball start breaking sooner. So, as far as late movement? Late movement is harder here. Because the way to get movement here is to help the ball on the pattern it’s going to go on, compared to thinking, ‘I can throw it out flat and it’ll break late.’ So it’s definitely an offensive park no matter what they do to help the flight of the ball be cut down.”

Play-by-play man Joe Davis piped up: “And so you almost have to be two different pitchers depending on what your set of stuff is, two different pitchers when you’re pitching home games versus going on road trips.”

Hershisher: “I really believe that, yeah. I used to come in here, if I was pitching in game one, I would actually go out early during batting practice and play catch three, four hours before the game, just to get an idea of what I’m going to have to aim for when I actually warm up. I didn’t want to just figure it out in the bullpen and come in. I wanted to get a couple different reps and get used to the air.”

Davis: “Did it take a hard lesson to learn to do that?”

Hershiser: “It did. You come in here and you think you can overpower it, like we have most of our life if you make it to the big leagues, but you can’t overpower this environment.”

Davis: “You thought you could have the leg up on Mother Nature, huh?”

Hershisher: “Well, look, you know, you just kinda come through and build an ego of, ‘Oh, I can spin it fast enough to make it break. I can do it.’ Even if you make adjustments, you might tell the media, ‘Nah, it’s no big deal.’”

That last part is important. Pitchers routinely downplay or deny the effects of the elevation in comments to reporters, so as not to be seen as making excuses, and a lot of reporters adopt that view, even though it’s not true.

“This is a place that if you’re a pitcher you can gain a lot of equity and a good reputation in the locker room,” Hershiser said. “If you’re the kind of guy who doesn’t come in here and whine about the environment, doesn’t talk about it, if you have a rough outing you don’t worry about it. You take your beating, if you have to, to save the staff and your teammates. So this is a place that can expose some character.”

Showing character is what they call denying reality in baseball because, from a player’s point of view, there’s nothing to be done about it. It’s similar to complaining about the weather. Both teams have to deal with it, right?

Right, except the Rocks deal with it 81 times a year, in 50 percent of their games, and no other team deals with it more than 10, or 6 percent of their games.

It affects the hitters, too, a fact that has escaped most national baseball analysts for 27 years. Each new season, some intrepid investigative reporter discovers that Rockies hitters have ginormous home/road splits. Charlie Blackmon’s .388/.256 batting-average split this season as of this writing is not unusual. Such splits are often used to argue that Rockies hitters are overrated because the road number is real baseball, the home number high-altitude arenaball. Home/road splits have been used against Larry Walker’s case for the Hall of Fame.

It’s true, of course, that the home numbers are inflated by the conditions Hershiser described. But the road numbers are depressed by the same phenomenon.

“These hard hit balls that you’re seeing more often than not is just the pitcher having difficulty getting the movement on the baseball,” Hershiser said. “The movement’s about half as much as you’d normally get it to move. That’s why the Rockie hitters, when they leave here, have such a problem getting hits on the road because they get that same spin and all of a sudden the ball is breaking twice as much.”

Again, this is old news. Dante Bichette famously brought what former general manager Bob Gebhard called a “curveball machine” on the road with him in the Rockies’ early days in an effort to adjust to sharper breaking balls before he got into the batter’s box.

The Rocks make that transition 11 times this season. No other team makes it more than three.

But hope springs eternal and the Rockies, the reporters who cover them, and many of their fans continue to believe the considerable difference between the physics of baseball at elevation and the physics of baseball at sea level can be overcome by mental toughness or something.

The data set over 27 years is growing large enough to suggest the devolutionary pattern of Rockies pitchers is more likely a product of the environment than the talent selection. Plenty of young pitchers have had auspicious starts, only to break down, mentally or physically.

Imported pitchers, accustomed to the luxury of their pitch selection and movement at sea level, have had some spectacular implosions in Colorado, most colorfully Mike Hampton and Jeremy Guthrie. The big contracts given to Hampton and Denny Neagle in 2000 set the Rockies back years. Hampton lasted two years and Neagle three, both putting up the worst numbers of their careers.

Given that history, free-agent pitchers require ridiculous premiums to pitch in Colorado, which leads to outcomes like three years, $52 million for closer Wade Davis, who has the worst earned-run average on this year’s team at 7.87, by far the highest of his career.

So the Rocks emphasize growing their own and have enjoyed some good short-term results: Jason Jennings, Aaron Cook, Jeff Francis, Ubaldo Jimenez, Jhoulys Chacin, Jon Gray, Kyle Freeland, German Marquez (not homegrown, but acquired at 21, before he had appeared in the major leagues).

They are also one of only three franchises never to have a pitcher win 100 games in their uniform. The other two, Miami and Tampa Bay, are in this club because they’re cheap. They develop top-flight pitchers, they just don’t keep them when it’s time to pay them. The best pitchers developed by the Rocks have been unable to sustain their success.

Within the game, the physical breakdowns are often attributed to trying too hard to make the ball move, putting extra strain on the biomechanics of pitching to “overpower” the physics of baseball at altitude.

The mental breakdowns are harder to diagnose because of the macho, no-excuses culture, but the way Hampton and Guthrie struggled to contain their anger and frustration offered a clue about the emotional or psychological issues that may be less obvious in others.

Hershiser is by no means the only pitcher to acknowledge the physical reality. I tried to develop the beginnings of an oral history on this subject when I was still covering the team by discussing it with Matt Belisle, Alex White, John Smoltz, and R.A. Dickey.

Not being on the scene anymore, I don’t know how Rockies GM Jeff Bridich privately diagnoses Freeland’s precipitous fall from 17-7, 2.85 last year, at 25, when he finished fourth in Cy Young voting, to 3-11, 6.98 this year, at 26. As a Denver native, Freeland is pretty much the ideal case for mind over matter. He grew up in these conditions.

In the media, it was all typical stuff. Trying to do too much, poor mechanics, missing his spots, losing his confidence, etc. One media member covering the Rockies said it couldn’t be the altitude because one of Freeland’s worst outings came in Philadelphia. If you’ve talked to pitchers about this challenge, or read the accounts linked above, you know changing release points is a key adjustment, and disruptions to a repeatable delivery from such changes can show up anywhere.

Freeland’s cliff dive is not unique to him. Hampton was 9-2, 2.98 midway through his first season. He finished 14-13, 5.41, then went 7-15, 6.15 in 2002. Mercifully for everyone involved, the Rockies traded him after that season to Florida, which moved him on to Atlanta, where he became a good pitcher again for a couple of years.

Jimenez was 19-9, 2.88 in 2010, finishing third in Cy Young voting. A year later, he was 6-9, 4.46 when he was traded to Cleveland. He never regained the form he showed in Colorado, although he scattered a couple of good years among a bunch of mediocre ones in Cleveland and Baltimore.

This year wasn’t that dramatic a comedown for anyone but Freeland. Marquez devolved a little, but he was still pretty good. Gray quietly put up the best ERA of his career. Antonio Senzatela’s ERA ballooned from 4.38 last year to 6.87 this year, a deterioration that seemed familiar.

Can one or more of these guys avoid the traditional fate of Rockies starters and make a run at Jorge De La Rosa’s career mark of 86 wins in a Colorado uniform? They certainly have the physical ability. At 27, Gray has 43. At 24, Marquez has 38.

Of course, Jimenez, Jennings and Francis all had more than 50 by age 27.

If you feel like blaming ownership or management for this year’s collapse, consider that the solution to the Rocks’ long-term pitching issues, if there is one, is as much a mystery to them as it is to you. Their staff directory does not include a team physicist.

Francis, who started Game 1 of the 2007 World Series, the only time the Rocks have made it that far, actually majored in physics. In 2006, the American Physical Society asked him if that helped.

“As much as it might seem contradictory,” Francis said, “physics knowledge does not help much on the field. So much of playing baseball is ‘feel’ that explaining to someone what makes a ball curve would be almost meaningless. I get asked that a lot, and sometimes I say: ‘I never met him, but I bet Einstein couldn’t throw a curveball.’ ”

Not at altitude, anyway.

The most practical possible solution, the only practical possible solution I know of this side of a climate-controlled geodesic dome, is a restricted-flight ball with raised laces that increase air resistance and help pitchers command movement.

It would take some experimentation to get it right, to make the high-altitude ball behave a mile high the way a standard ball behaves at sea level. But I suspect it would not be the most miraculous technological innovation of our age.

If the alternative is denying science, pretending that will can overcome physics, it still seems, after all these years, like it’s worth a shot.

 

About Dave Krieger

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

4 responses to “For the Rockies, same as it ever was

  • thedenveragent

    I’ve been reading your stuff for years Dave and couldn’t agree more with everything you said here.
    I just worry, and I know you mentioned this in the article, if MLB would ever even consider allowing a high-altitude ball for the Rockies.
    I would love to know if pitchers would be in favor of it, on the surface you would think they’d love it, but this year was a pretty good test case of sorts with the ‘juiced ball.’ I’ve read stories about pitchers talking about how different this year’s MLB baseball is compared to previous years, so how would they feel if they came to Coors and the ball was maybe heavier and like you said the laces were higher.
    Again, I think it makes the most sense, they could then bring the fences in so the outfield wasn’t the size of Yellowstone, sadly I just can’t imagine it ever happens.
    Thanks again for the great post!

  • DeepPurple

    Dave, you may recall this 1995 quote I’ve shared over at Purple Row several times…

    Reggie Jackson had a memorable quote when he came to Denver as an adviser with the New York Yankees for a pair of exhibition games against the Rockies to open the new Coors Field in late March 1995…

    “They’ll never win a championship here, you CAN’T PITCH.”

    Obviously, he didn’t mean you couldn’t pitch an outstanding game at Coors, but it was more the baseball-wise insight that working at altitude wears a staff down over the long haul to the point where championship level consistency is nearly impossible to achieve. Of course, this has been the overriding question with the Rockies franchise since Day 1. Can a major league team win consistently, including a championship, playing home games a mile above sea level?

  • Chris Kline

    Having grown up and pitched at the college level, the type of ball used onany given day absolutely made a difference in how well I could get movement (unlike MLB, we were using different varieties of balls depending on what school purchased whick company). Raised seems was definately advantageous.

    I have been sayong for years the Rox need to load up on guys who throw hard AND can hit spots. You can’t just throw it up there and let it move a little like in lower altitudes. Gotta hit spots and adjust for lack of movement. I see a lot less pitching at the MLB level and more throwing.

  • m stais

    Wow. You nailed it. Thx!

    P.S. I remember your writing from the 1900s, you were pretty good then too. So, thx for that as well. Cheers

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