Category Archives: pitching at Coors Field

Ruminations on putting the band back together

Recapturing the good old days is a wistful preoccupation, caught somewhere between tradition and nostalgia. But it’s not always as desperate and hopeless as cynics suggest, particularly in the world of sports, where tradition still matters.

The Broncos brought back John Elway, to promising results so far, and Joe Sakic is in training for a similar second act with the Avalanche. So the Rockies’ reach back into their own brief history for a new manager and hitting coach seems less like desperation than finally staking a claim to an organizational identity.

They may not have Hall of Fame legends like Elway and Sakic to call on, but the Rocks do have a cheerful band of brothers that remembers when big league baseball was new in Colorado and everybody was too thrilled to complain about its . . . uh . . . idiosyncrasies.

When I asked Dante Bichette, the old Blake Street Bomber and new hitting coach, if it felt like they were getting the band back together, he laughed.

“Absolutely, man!” he said. “Bring ’em on back. Every organization has their guys. The Rockies don’t have a long history. We don’t have Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays, but this is what we’ve got and we understand what it was like in the beginning, how special these fans are. So absolutely, I want to perform for fans there because they were so good to me. That’s a little motivation there.”

Bringing back Bichette and Walt Weiss, the Rocks’ new manager, is about more than connecting with a happier time. After all, the art of pitching, the most inscrutable and important of baseball’s secrets, was at least as mysterious then as it is now, particularly here, a mile above sea level, where breaking balls betray their name and fly balls, like field goals, fly a little bit farther.

No, it’s also about putting today’s club in the hands of people familiar with the issues unique to Colorado, people unafraid to confront them.

“I believe you’ve got to be tougher and you’ve got to be smarter to play here than just about anyplace else,” Weiss said last week as he became the Rocks’ sixth manager and their first former player to take the job.

“That could be a badge of honor, but we’ve got to be smart, too, about the grind of the game here — recovery here and all those things that there’s been a lot of research on, particularly lately. Those are all factors about how you run a club. But you’ve got to be tougher, and more than anything, mentally tougher, and smarter than most. That’s something we should take pride in and we should embrace.”

Weiss thus becomes the Rockies’ first manager to acknowledge and confront on Day One the unique challenges of playing 81 games a season at Coors Field. For most of their history, Rocks managers have believed that ignoring these issues, or at least not talking about them, was the best approach.

The theory went something like this: If you acknowledge publicly the challenges that no one inside the sport denies, you’ve given your players a ready excuse when they fail. This theory was propounded in the organization’s early days, before data piled up to confirm the message that intuition and observation had already delivered. So, in a reflexive nod to the macho culture of athletics, the Rocks’ message to their players was simple: Ignore it, be mentally tough, overcome it. Heck, maybe it will go away.

The last two seasons, and particularly this last one, the worst in franchise history, changed all that. For one thing, a management team that has been around for more than half the club’s history was as surprised as anyone by their charming ballpark’s sudden nostalgia for horror movies of the past. Mike Hampton was back, but his name was Jeremy Guthrie. Thankfully, the lesson he repeated — some pitchers just can’t handle it here — came at a much cheaper cost.

In the face of a debilitating drought across the western United States, with forest fires raging, the ball flew as it hadn’t since the humidor was installed at Coors Field in 2002. The Rocks had their own little version of climate change, quite a challenge for sports executives whose analytical skills had previously been focused principally on bullpens and batting cages.

The players, of course, have been dealing with all this stuff for years. They just didn’t talk much about it because that was against club policy. It made you weak.

Even aside from the screamingly obvious — the great Greg Maddux became thoroughly ordinary at Coors Field, as if the green seats were made of kryptonite — the symptoms were largely ignored. An ESPN blogger wrote recently that Rockies outfielder Carlos Gonzalez is clearly not a superstar because he hits only at Coors Field, citing his .234 batting average on the road last season.

Of course, if you’ve followed the Rocks for more than about five minutes, you know this has been a pattern for 20 years. Home/road splits of more than 100 points, unheard of elsewhere, are routine here. Bichette was working on this before anybody. Back in the 1990s, he took a pitching machine on the road with him — general manager Bob Gebhard called it a curveball machine — trying to acclimate to sea-level breaking balls so his performance wouldn’t fall off a cliff each time the Rocks hit the road.

“I don’t want to give all my secrets away, but the breaking ball . . . you see ’em on the road,” he said this week. “You go on the road and they throw breaking balls. And then at home, it doesn’t quite break. There’s where the problem lies. I don’t think it’s from the light air as far as the ball traveling, it’s more in the breaking balls that are hanging up and they get hit harder. The home/road, I don’t care who you bring in there, they struggle a little bit on the road. So there’s something there and I’ve just tried to figure that out. The curveball machine’s a good idea. I’ve got some other ideas that hopefully we can get them to understand that.”

Weiss’ plan is pretty much the opposite of the organization’s approach in the past. Rather than ignore or downplay the difficulties of playing at Coors, he wants to recognize them and emphasize them in the minds of visitors — sort of the way the Nuggets remind visitors of the thin air with elevation signs before running them into exhaustion.

“I think we’ve got to understand the vulnerability of the opposing pitcher,” Weiss said. “They’re more vulnerable here than they are anywhere else. I don’t care what they say; that’s a fact. I played here as an opposing player with some of the best that have ever stepped on the mound and I know what their mindset is. So that’s got to be our mentality, that we need to exploit that.”

He was referring to the great Braves staffs that included Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz, who welcomed most challenges but dreaded pitching at Coors Field. Of course, the Rocks can take advantage of opposing pitchers only if their own are far better equipped to deal than they were last season.

“That’s going to be part of this process,” Weiss said. “With some arms getting healthy, that’s going to help us. We’ve got some young arms. No doubt they’re going to have to grow up at the major league level quickly, but we’ve got some young power arms . . . .

“Learning how to pitch here, that’s something that we’ll spend a lot of time on so that we have a plan, a better plan than the opposing team is going to have, when they take the mound. Again, we’ve got to look at it as an advantage for us. That’s how we’ve got to approach all the aspects of playing here. The challenges are unique here, but so are the advantages, and that’s what we’ve got to focus on.”

Frankly, I don’t know if that’s true, but it’s clearly the attitude the club needs to take. Only a much larger swath of history will tell us if the challenges Weiss referred to can be overcome with any consistency. It was only three years ago that the Rocks had the best starting rotation in the National League when measured by advanced metrics that take into account ballpark factors. Five pitchers — Ubaldo Jimenez, Jason Marquis, Jorge De La Rosa, Jason Hammel and Aaron Cook — started all but seven of the team’s 162 games in 2009, and the Rocks went to the playoffs. Within two years, all five had either broken down physically or regressed dramatically.

Why? Twenty years of data suggested two things to Rockies management. First, pitchers generally put more strain on their shoulders and elbows here trying to make pitches bite and cut the way they do at sea level. That doesn’t have any long-term effect on visitors who pitch here only occasionally, but over time, for pitchers making half their starts here, it leads to more injuries. Second, the frustration so obvious in Hampton and Guthrie manifests itself more subtly in other psyches, producing more nibbling, more fear of throwing strikes.

So last year the front office came up with the much-maligned four-man, paired pitching rotation in which the starter was limited to roughly 75 pitches and a second pitcher was designated to replace him and carry the game to the point where the bullpen would normally take over. The pitch limit was designed to encourage strike throwing and discourage fatigue-related injuries. This was an approach that had been discussed as far back as a decade ago, when the concerns were still mostly intuitive. Bob McClure, then the pitching coach at Triple-A Colorado Springs and later pitching coach for the Royals and Red Sox, was one of the first members of the Rockies organization to think about new approaches to pitching here.

Unfortunately, the Rocks implemented the plan during a season in which they had lost virtually their entire starting rotation to injury. The kids they put in their place weren’t ready, and no system was going to compensate for starting pitching that finished with a league-worst earned-run average of 5.81.

The organization also got pushback from its own clubhouse, including manager Jim Tracy, prompting it to give assistant general manager Bill Geivett a new title — director of major league operations — along with a desk in the clubhouse. There were going to be more experiments to deal with the challenges at Coors, and GM Dan O’Dowd thought the club needed better communication and coordination between uniformed and non-uniformed personnel.

Tracy resigned at season’s end rather than honor the final year of his contract under these circumstances. The new arrangement was considered something of an overhang on the search for his replacement. As a novice, Weiss isn’t worried about it.

“To be honest, it’s not a great concern of mine,” he said. “Geivo I look at as a great resource for me. He knows the game well, he’s got a sharp mind, he knows our club really well, he’s a guy I can lean on. There’s going to be a bit of a learning curve for me. Regardless of how much time I’ve spent around the game and 21 years at the big league level, still I’ve never sat in the manager’s seat. I’m not afraid to say that. He’s a guy that I’ll lean on as well as other guys on our staff until I find a rhythm of certain aspects of the job. It’s not an issue for me; it’s not a concern.”

On the offensive side, the Rocks have bounced from one extreme to the other over the past few years. Don Baylor, their original manager, was replaced as hitting coach two years ago because he was considered too laid back. Carney Lansford was replaced this fall because he was considered too Type A, too pushy.

Bichette, the Rocks hope, will be just right. For veterans who know what they’re doing, he said, he may do little more than organize batting practice. With younger players who need instruction, he plans to be more active. One of Bichette’s greatest strengths as a player was hitting with two strikes, a skill he believes might improve the Rocks’ clutch hitting generally.

“You’ve got to let the ball get a little deeper with two strikes,” he said. “To me, two-strike hitting and hitting in the clutch go hand in hand because when you’re sitting with two strikes, that pitcher’s trying to punch you out. He’s throwing his nastiest pitch on the corner, trying to get you to chase. And it’s very similar when you get guys in scoring position. Pitchers aren’t coming to you. They’re trying to get you to chase. So those things I kind of felt like I figured out a little bit, and hopefully I can relay that to some of the younger players.”

There’s no substitute for experience. That’s a cliche because it’s true. Weiss and Bichette have no experience in their new jobs at the major league level. On the other hand, they are the first generation of leaders in uniform that also wore Rockies pinstripes as players. They have experience doing what they will now ask others to do.

Whether it actually helps remains to be seen. It is just one of the experiments the Rocks are likely to try in the coming year. But it is more than a feel-good exercise. It is more than looking back wistfully at a happier time. It is an attempt to recognize the unique challenges this club faces and to put it in the hands of men who know from personal experience exactly what they are.


Of Cy Young awards, the knuckleball and high altitude

The first knuckleballer to win the Cy Young Award seemed as good a person as any to ask about throwing baseball’s most unpredictable pitch at high altitude. Or, yes, high elevation for you wordsmiths.

Regular readers may recall that we are building an inventory of conversations about the challenge of pitching at baseball’s highest level, no pun intended, with folks who actually do it. Here are a few of the earlier installments:

Matt Belisle.

Alex White.

John Smoltz.

So as Mets righthander R.A. Dickey was preparing to come to Denver last week to accept the Branch Rickey Award for humanitarian service, I got a chance to ask him about throwing the knuckleball in Colorado.

Dickey was one of three finalists for the Cy Young Award at the time. He was named the winner today, easily outpacing the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw and the Nationals’ Gio Gonzalez. Dickey received 27 of 32 first-place votes in balloting by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America.

Phil Niekro and Wilbur Wood each finished in the top five of Cy Young voting three times, Joe Niekro (for whom the knuckler was a complementary pitch) twice, and Tim Wakefield once, but Dickey became the first pitcher whose primary pitch is the knuckleball to actually win the thing.

I raised the question about altitude because fascination with the knuckleball comes up sometimes in conversations about how to pitch at Coors Field. Desperately seeking a pitch or approach that might work there for longer than a season or two, fans periodically ask whether the knuckleball could be a solution.

Knowing that curveballs often lose their bite a mile high and even two-seam fastballs tend to get less sinking action, I assumed the knuckleball would be the ultimate victim of thin air, relying as it does on air resistance to do its inimitable dance. When I looked at Dickey’s career, I found he has never started a big league game in Colorado. But it turns out he has thrown the knuckler here, both in bullpen sessions at Coors Field and in games at Colorado Springs as a minor leaguer.

First, some background on how Dickey came to throw the knuckleball relatively late in his career.

“I started the first few years of my career as a conventional pitcher, and I came to the point in 2005 where I’d kind of run my course as a conventional pitcher,” he said on the Dave Logan Show.

“My velocity had dropped, and just through general attrition, I just didn’t have the stuff I once had. So if I wanted to keep chasing the dream of being a major league baseball player, I had to come up with something that was a weapon that I could use to face big league batters.

“Orel Hershiser was my pitching coach at the time (with the Texas Rangers) and he suggested that I go to a knuckleball full time. He had seen me kind of piddle around with it on the side and thought that it might be good enough. So that’s when it began for me. It took quite some time to learn how to throw it correctly. I mean, it wasn’t until 2008 or 2009 where I really kind of felt comfortable with it. So it took a good three and a half years for me just to really have a mechanic that I could depend on that would produce a ball that doesn’t spin.

“That’s what a knuckleball is, for the people out there that don’t know. It’s a ball that when you throw it, does not spin. It has about a quarter of a revolution on it from the time it leaves your hand ’til the time it gets to the plate, which is a lot different than every other pitch that’s thrown. A curveball, you’re trying to impart really a lot of revolution on the ball to get it to manipulate the spin; a fastball the same way. But a knuckleball’s tough to throw, and it took me quite some time.”

In fact, Dickey enjoyed the best season of his career this year at age 37. His 20 wins and 2.73 earned-run average were career bests. Like Wood, the Niekro brothers, Wakefield, Hoyt Wilhelm and Charlie Hough, Dickey’s knuckler danced to an unpredictable tune of its own.

“I think one of the things that makes a knuckleball effective is if I throw it and I don’t know which direction it’s going to break, well, the hitter surely doesn’t know,” he said.

“So I’ve got an advantage there. It may break like a curveball at one point, it may break like a screwball at one point, it may not break at all on another one. I can throw 10 knuckleballs and they may do 10 different things. That’s the advantage of throwing a pitch like that, is that it’s going to probably do something a little bit different every time, and a hitter can’t track that. It’s tough for them to anticipate where the ball’s going to end up and put the barrel on the ball. Once you learn how to throw a knuckleball, the next step is how can you throw it for strikes. And that took me quite some time.”

So . . . about throwing it in Colorado. I mentioned that my research hadn’t turned up any Dickey starts at Coors Field.

“I’ve thrown bullpens in Colorado and I pitched in the minor leagues against Colorado Springs as a knuckleballer,” he said.

“It is tougher to throw at those high altitudes because there’s not much humidity for the ball to kind of resist against. At sea level, let’s say in New York, for instance, if I throw a mediocre knuckleball, well, it’s still going to move, it just might not move as sharply or as much. If I throw a mediocre knuckleball in Colorado, it’s going to be a b.p. (batting practice) fastball right down the middle that I’m going to have to either dodge or I’m going to just put my glove up for the umpire to throw me another ball because that one just went 450 feet.

“So it is tougher. You’ve got to be more perfect with your mechanic, with your release point, with the consistency of the rotation. You just have to be a little more perfect.”

So, no, sadly, the knuckleball is probably not a solution to the interminable search for an approach that will solve the riddle of making a career out of pitching at major league baseball’s only park a mile above sea level, home to the game’s highest team ERA (5.22) last season. It is that quest for perfection that has led to injury both physical and psychological in Rockies pitchers over the franchise’s first 20 years of existence.

Dickey might yet get the chance to give it a try on the hill at Coors. Though he just turned 38, the history of knuckleballers suggests he could be pitching for years to come.

“I do think that my body will be able to withstand pitching into my mid-40s,” he said.

“A knuckleballer is probably best when they are operating at about 70 percent capacity, which means you’re not taking a lot out of your arm. Now, other parts of your body can break down too, so it’s not only an arm issue, but most of the time the thing that stops someone from pitching another year is that they have arm problems or they just don’t want to deal with the pain that comes from pitching a game, throwing 120 pitches, and having to do it again in five days.

“Well, throwing a knuckleball takes away some of that concern because you’re throwing at about 70 percent capacity. So there’s less wear and tear, there’s easier recovery, you’re a little more resilient, and you’ve got a good mechanic where you could pretty much throw 300 or 400 hundred pitches and it would be no big deal. So that’s what’s different about being a knuckleballer and that’s why you can pitch deep into your 40s.”

Oh, and one more thing. About that humanitarian service that earned him the Branch Rickey Award and a banquet in Colorado.

“One of the things that I’ve always enjoyed about specifically playing in New York is that it gives you the platform to do things that might transcend the game, and I’ve always had interest in trying to use the platform of baseball to do that,” Dickey said.

“I climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro last year in an effort to raise money for an outreach called the Bombay Teen Challenge, which rescues young girls and women from sex slavery and human trafficking in Mumbai, India.

“I had some exposure to that through a friend and he turned me on to the charity and I got involved intimately with the head of it. We raised over $100,000 for that outreach and they’re able now to purchase a clinic in the middle of the red light district in Mumbai, which was, ironically, once a brothel. It’s a really neat story and it’s a fantastic organization and it’s something that I’m thankful that I’m a part of.”


John Smoltz: ‘Colorado has a different monster’

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.”


Learning to pitch all over again

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.


Dick Monfort rejected Dan O’Dowd’s proposal to fire Dan O’Dowd

In the midst of the most disappointing season in Rockies history, general manager Dan O’Dowd offered owner Dick Monfort the solution many fans desire: Fire the GM.

“I sat with Dick and said, ‘Hey, listen, it would make it easier on you, just throw me under the bus here. In some ways, I’ll be better off for it, too,'” O’Dowd told me after the club announced its latest organizational shakeup this week.

“But he won’t do that and I can’t leave him because no one knows more about this place than I do. You bring another GM here and it will take him years just to get up to speed on the issues we have here, how different it is. I don’t have all the answers, but the only way you find answers is you’ve got to try different things. You can’t think traditionally.”

This is the crux of the difference in perception inside and outside the organization. Many fans believe playing at altitude is a minor or negligible issue, just another variable like the short porch at Yankee Stadium or the wind at Wrigley Field. Even mentioning it is just an excuse for poor performance, they believe.

Within the organization, it is considered the central challenge of operating the ball club. O’Dowd calls it the Rockies’ “Goliath.” The reason they don’t talk about it more publicly is it’s already next to impossible to get free agent pitchers to come to Colorado. Emphasizing the difficulty of succeeding here as a pitcher will only make that situation worse.

But the challenge of pitching at altitude has never been clearer than this year, when O’Dowd acquired four starters from other teams — Jeremy Guthrie, Guillermo Moscoso, Josh Outman and Tyler Chatwood — and not one of them proved able to survive at Coors Field.

We have nearly 20 years worth of major league data now, and the numbers are revealing.

Try this exercise: Imagine an average major league ballclub. Over a 20-year span, how many starting pitchers on this team would put up at least three seasons of 100 or more innings pitched with an earned-run average below 4.75? Pretty low bar, right? There should be plenty.

Over the past 20 years, the average National League club has had eight such pitchers. The average club in the NL West, the Rockies’ division, has had 10.

In their entire history, the Rocks have had two: Aaron Cook and Ubaldo Jimenez.

“We worked as hard as anybody trying to find pitchers,” said Bob Gebhard, the Rocks’ general manager from 1993-99. “Our first pick in the expansion draft was David Nied, who did a nice job for us but unfortunately he got hurt. So you do the best you can in trying to add pitchers but it was extremely difficult to convince free agent pitchers to come to Denver and pitch.”

“I’ll put it this way,” said Clint Hurdle, the Rockies’ longest-serving manager, from 2002 to 2009. “This is the most challenging venue to coach, manage, perform at in major league baseball. 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.”

Hence the latest attempt to think outside the box in seeking a solution to the high-altitude riddle. Six weeks ago, O’Dowd implemented a four-man starting rotation with pitch limits on those starters, an attempt to address the Rockies’ 20-year history of injury and/or rapid deterioration among their pitchers. This week it was installing a front office executive — Bill Geivett, O’Dowd’s right-hand man — in the clubhouse, in part because the first experiment got such a lukewarm response there.

“I understand how some people are going to look at this,” O’Dowd said. “But you tell me how you look at anything traditionally in this place. What may work anywhere else is just not going to work here. If anybody knows that, I do. So I’ve got two choices. Hell, I could resign and move on. I’ll get another job. But I’ve got an owner that embraces change. He loves to look and try to do things differently. He’s not a traditional thinker.”

Many fans point to anecdotal evidence that altitude really isn’t such a big deal. C.J. Wilson comes in and throws eight innings of five-hit ball for the Angels. Cole Hamels throws eight innings of six-hit ball for the Phillies. Everybody’s pitching in the same conditions, right? Why can’t Rockies starters do that?

Of course, some of them have. That’s the problem relying on anecdotal evidence. You notice what you want to notice and ignore what you want to ignore.

Few remember that Mike Hampton was terrific in his first half-season in Colorado, going 9-2 with a 2.98 ERA through his first 13 starts in 2001. He was never the same pitcher after that. Ubaldo Jimenez was 15-1 with a 2.20 ERA through 18 starts in 2010. He’s not been the same since.

“It’s a lot different coming here and starting one time per season or two times per season or even three times per season, which is the max someone will have, than starting 16, 17, or 18 times per season,” O’Dowd said.

Fans don’t tend to notice when opposing pitchers blow up. In fact, hard as it may be to believe given the current staff’s woes, the Rocks have a better ERA at Coors Field than visiting teams since 2006.

The Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw, the reigning National League Cy Young Award winner, has a career ERA of 2.89. His ERA at Coors Field is 5.91. Greg Maddux had a Coors Field ERA of 5.19. Curt Schilling’s was 5.51.

The Rocks have had one year in which they were able to deploy a consistent, traditional five-man rotation all season: 2009, the last time they went to the playoffs. Jimenez and Jason Marquis each started 33 times; Jorge De La Rosa, 32; Jason Hammel, 30; Cook, 27. With the exception of Hammel, each has suffered a major injury or a massive deterioration in performance since then.

“The purpose of limiting the pitch counts is that through the studies I’ve done with our trainers, Steadman-Hawkins and all of our medical people, we believe that injuries happen with load,” O’Dowd said. “When you pile on load and you are throwing pitches at the point of fatigue, that’s when the muscle tears and the tendons begin to get stretched, and that’s what causes injuries.

“This was a lost year. I wasn’t trying to develop a model to save this season. I’m trying to develop a model that has a chance to work here long after I’m gone. Because the environmental parts of this aren’t going to change.”

But experimenting with baseball orthodoxy requires an experimental mindset that baseball players, coaches and managers don’t often have. Playing every day for six months, baseball is a game of routine, of doing the same thing over and over and over again.

“My conclusion is we have to do it differently,” O’Dowd said. “We can’t do it traditionally the same way. That doesn’t mean we don’t get back to that at some point in time, but right now where we’re at, with the inexperience we have,  we are going to have to pitch differently. We are going to have to have a different concept and it’s going to have to be an ever-changing one.

“This is a ballpark about adaptability. I did not anticipate the ballpark was going to play the way it did this year because it hadn’t for the last four years. Why it is? Hell, I don’t know. There are other things that come up in this ballpark that I’ll never be able to truly understand but we’re going to have to be able to adapt to it a hell of a lot quicker than we did this year without fighting so many battles to be able to try something different and unique.

“We have to have a thought process of adaptability. We cannot think traditionally if we’re ever going to have any kind of sustained success here. If we do nothing, every ten years we’ll win twice, guarantee you. Every ten years, everything will fall into place and we’ll win twice. I’d like to have something that stands for a little more than that.”

They call the NFL a copycat league but no sport worships conformity more than baseball. In the early 1970s, most teams used four-man starting rotations. When the conversion to five-man rotations began, every single team fell rapidly in line. So when O’Dowd began tinkering with accepted norms, beginning with the four-man rotation and pitch limits, he found resistance not only among the chattering class, but also in his own clubhouse. That’s why Geivett is now taking up residence there — to help sell the experimental approaches the Rocks expect to try.

O’Dowd recognized that he needed a diplomat in this role. He also recognized that diplomacy is not his forte.

“The bottom line is we have to come up with a different model,” he said. “The altitude’s not going to change. Do you realize that even if we dome this place, we could not create enough barometric pressure to come close to normalizing the environment indoors? You couldn’t pump enough air in here to make that happen. You could bring it down some, but we’re at 5,183 feet above sea level. The next closest club is the Diamondbacks at 1,040 feet. Do you see how well we play every spring (in Arizona)?”

Strange but true: The elevations of other NL stadiums are minuscule compared to Coors Field, but the Rocks persistently play better at the stadiums that are relatively higher and worse at those comparatively lower. While most of the focus is on their pitching, their hitters consistently struggle with the transition from altitude to sea level at the end of each home stand, adjusting each time to the greater break of the pitches they face.

“We were certainly aware of the splits in the averages,” Gebhard said of the Rockies’ early days. “The great hitters, the Larry Walkers and the Andres Galarragas, at times would have as much as a 100-point spread between home and away.

“Dante Bichette, way back when, had his own little pitching machine. It was a curve ball machine that he would take with him on the road trip and get into a batting tunnel at the stadium and have it throw nothing but curve balls.

“That was a very true issue because playing at Coors Field, you’d see a curve ball and it would be a spinner and it might be good one time and not so good the next time. And all of a sudden the next day you’re playing in Chicago or you’re playing in Atlanta and that same curve ball is a quality pitch. We struggled with that. I can’t say that we came up with a sound solution but we were well aware of that and hitters were frustrated because they would go on the road and the first couple days we didn’t hit very good.”

Many outsiders, clearly, don’t buy any of it. In some cases, this is because they haven’t studied it. Nobody in the game thinks it is an insignificant factor. They just don’t have any idea what to do about it. Most of them are glad to play here only occasionally.

“We’ve only got to be here three days and we’re getting out of town,” Hurdle said with a laugh when he visited Coors last month with his current team, the Pirates. “We don’t have to worry about it.”

If he can find the right candidate, O’Dowd plans to create another new position in the organization when the season is over: director of pitching operations. He wants someone to supervise the way the Rocks develop pitchers throughout their system rather than having a different pitching coach doing his own thing at every level.

He knows that all of this will be seen as an excuse or worse by many who don’t walk in his shoes.

“Hey, listen: At 52, turning 53, I realize I’m on the back end of my career. I’m just at a point in time where I want to do what I think is right and I’m not all that concerned what people say about me.

“I know I’m throwing myself under the bus from a perception standpoint. I know what I’m doing. But I also think it’s the right thing to do. So what do you do? You talk the talk or you walk the walk. Whatever everybody’s going to say, they’re going to say. The only thing that matters is if we find something here that works better than what’s working right now, and has ever worked.

“A market our size, and our payroll, you win more than you lose every 2.7 years. The goal of this thing for me is not winning defined that way. The goal for me is to find something that has a chance to have sustainable success so the peaks aren’t so high and the valleys aren’t so low. That has nothing to do with our personnel model. That has everything to do with the Goliath we face every single day.”


How to pitch at Coors Field

Jeremy Guthrie might be this season’s highest-profile meltdown of a pitcher new to Coors Field, but he’s not exactly the lone ranger:

Guillermo Moscoso had an earned-run average of 3.38 last season for Oakland, mostly as a starter. Obtained by the Rockies with Josh Outman in exchange for outfielder Seth Smith, his ERA was 8.23 in two big league stints before being returned to the minor leagues. It was 11.21 at Coors; 2.79 elsewhere.

Outman had a 3.70 ERA for the A’s last season. In his first year with the Rocks, that number is 9.00. He, too, has been returned to the minors.

Tyler Chatwood, obtained from the Angels for catcher Chris Iannetta, had an ERA of 4.75 in the American League as a 21-year-old. At 22, for the Rocks, his ERA is 7.62. Like the others, he is now a minor leaguer.

So it seems worth getting some insight into the specific difficulties pitchers face making their pitches in the less-dense air a mile above sea level. Unfortunately, when you go looking for big league hurlers who found a way to succeed at Coors and are willing to talk about it, you find it’s a pretty small group.

No one has taken the mound more often for the Rockies over the past three seasons than reliever Matt Belisle. He led the team in appearances two years ago with 76 and again last year with 74. This season he leads with 45 through 88 games, one back of the league leader, Shawn Camp of the Cubs. In a year in which the Rocks were determined to get Belisle’s appearances below 70, he’s on a pace for 83.

He also leads the club in earned-run average at 2.25, a number that was 1.88 before he was charged with two runs Saturday night against the Phillies. The previous two seasons he compiled ERAs of 2.93 (2010) and 3.25 (2011) — microscopic by Rockies standards. His splits this year are 2.92 at Coors and 1.54 elsewhere.

He wasn’t feeling great Saturday night after giving up two extra-base hits down the right field line in the ninth, but he was accommodating, as always. I started by asking if there are pitches he eliminates from his repertoire at altitude or pitches he relies on more at sea level.

“I guess the answer to that question is yes,” he said. “Do I eliminate? No. I know what happens to the spin or the bite, so to speak, on my off-speed pitches here compared to other places. The break size is going to be different. Sometimes the speed is different. So I’ve had to learn how to adapt my sights, my vision of where I’m releasing the ball, to make sure that I compensate for the lack of bite. So I guess what I’m trying to say is when we leave here, my rotation seems a little tighter and I get better snap on my pitches.

“All that means is I have to adapt and focus more on locating here and when I do mix speeds, to make sure that the arm speed’s there and the approach is extremely aggressive. When you’re feeling good with your spin, sometimes you can get away with sort of flipping one in there. You can’t do that here. That kind of got me in trouble tonight, actually.

“So I think it’s just an adaptability of focus. Is it a change? Yes. How significant it is I think is up to the person.”

Although Rockies pitchers tend to avoid talking about the effects of altitude publicly for fear of sounding like they’re making excuses, they do discuss it frequently among themselves. Complicating those discussions is the fact that altitude seems to act differently on each pitcher and each pitch. There are few rules that work for everybody.

“We’ve all talked about it in here,” Belisle said. “Some people have their arsenal change in similar fashions and some are a little different. So I think it’s up to the individual to really acknowledge what you have and what’s going on and just really focus on (keeping the ball) lower and understanding that the break will be a little different.

“Five out of seven of the guys in the bullpen may say their curve ball suffers, but two of them may say, ‘Actually my curve ball’s great; it’s my slider that has problems.’

“But that’s the same phenomenon as one guy can throw the exact same baseball and it feels like a bowling ball and the other guy, it feels light. It’s what he can do with the snap. So there is a change. It’s just something you have to adapt to.”

The modern emphasis on radar guns and computerized strike zones on television may give fans the impression that pitching is science, but it’s much more art. From one outing to another, a pitcher’s feel of his pitches may change dramatically. Altitude adds yet another variable.

Breaking pitches are more vulnerable because, lacking the velocity of the fastball, they sit up begging to be crushed if they lack their customary snap. But the lighter air can also affect the downward plane of the sinker, or two-seam fastball, leaving it, like the breaking ball, sitting up too high in the strike zone.

“It could be all of them, but I think everybody’s more affected with the breaking balls, the off-speed pitches,” Belisle said. “The fastball/sinker does change a little bit as well. Sometimes it may run instead of really corkscrew down.

“Then when you go on the road, you’ve got to kind of make sure and re-set because all of a sudden the bite’s a little more, so the same pitch that was a strike for my curve ball may be a ball if I’m throwing it at the exact same release point, so I’ve got to kind of change that.”

So you have a different release point at altitude than you do at sea level?

“Yeah, because my sight has to change. We’re talking very small.”

Is that a mechanical adjustment?

“Well, not so much a mechanical adjustment as it is the timing of when I release the pitch, when I say it’s a different release point.”

So it’s the same arm slot, but you may have to release the ball a little earlier or a little later?

“Correct. I may have to get rid of the ball a little later in Colorado and not even think about it so much on the road. But if I’m here for a week and then go on the road, while I’m playing catch, I’ll get a feel of, OK, that one was a strike in Colorado but now it’s a ball because it bit a lot more.”

So the pitch that was a strike in Colorado ends up in the dirt at sea level because of the added break?

“Right. But my biggest thing is, it’s not a crutch. It’s not an excuse. It’s just, it is what it is. It’s a condition that we have to work with. The same thing if you get a ball that the rub is really bad or if you’ve got a wet ball that day.

“There’s plenty of things that are thrown at us to try to gain inconsistency in this game. I don’t think we need to allow any of this to be an excuse or a crutch because we’re here long enough to where we can adapt to it. It’s significant, it is something there, but you just have to really be on top of yourself to work on it every day, understand what you need to do.”

I asked if Belisle has noticed fellow pitchers who have trouble dealing psychologically with these constant adjustments.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I know we all talk about it. I know anybody who’s new that comes over here in the past four years that I’ve been here, we talk about it and address it. But that’s up to the individual. We as teammates need to make sure we’re not using anything as an excuse, but whatever cards you’re dealt, whatever you feel that day, you’ve got to figure out and adapt how you’re going to get the guy out because you sure as heck can.

“Maybe some people can use it as a negative, but I try to look at it as an opportunity. If I can become so adept at understanding what my pitches are doing, make those adjustments here and then go on the road and feel like I’ve got even more snap with better, nasty, slow-speed pitches, and then we come here and I can adapt to that again, where a visiting team comes in and really has a tough time because they don’t play here, I feel like that’s an opportunity for me to learn myself better and really take it as a mental challenge to be tougher, because I will not allow excuses. So I look at it more as an opportunity. It’s a fight, but it’s an opportunity.”

I pointed out the dramatic deterioration in the numbers of all four potential starters — Guthrie, Moscoso, Outman and Chatwood — brought in from other organizations this year. These were adequate major league pitchers last season who suddenly can’t get anybody out, I said.

“Yeah. I don’t know what to tell you,” Belisle said. “I mean, pitching’s not easy, period. But all I can say is acknowledge that with most people there is a change in your stuff. And we all have to adapt and be on top of that. You have to do that to the best of your ability and look at it as an opportunity and do not use it as an excuse.”

You can see where the need for constant adjustments in release point would seem like a nightmare from an organizational point of view. The goal of many pitching coaches is to get their charges to find the right delivery mechanics and then repeat them over and over until they become second nature. If you’re constantly fiddling with your release point depending on where you’re pitching, that consistency of repetition is impossible to achieve.

Many fans point to opposing pitchers who come to Colorado and dominate in a single outing — say, C.J. Wilson of the Angels before the All-Star break or Cole Hamels of the Phillies on Sunday. But pitching at Coors once a year is very different from pitching there on a regular basis. Mike Hampton succeeded for half a season before crashing. Ubaldo Jimenez had a sensational first half in 2010 (15-1, 2.20), wilted in the second half (4-7, 3.80) and has not been the same since. It’s not clear if the wear is more mental or physical.

At the All-Star game, Wilson said he basically eliminated his two-seam fastball in his lone start here because he had more confidence in the lateral movement of his cutter than the downward movement of his sinker at altitude. But in a park that puts such a premium on keeping the ball down, the Rocks as an organization can hardly afford to eliminate the two-seamer from the staff repertoire.

Still, as Guthrie demonstrated Saturday night, it can take an inning to get a feel for the release point that keeps the ball down and one bad inning at Coors can be all it takes to ruin a start.

It’s also probably easier for relievers such as Belisle to make those constant adjustments since each outing is so much shorter than it is for starters. This is one of the reasons for the Rockies’ recent pitch limits on starters — to make their focus more like that of a reliever.

It’s not clear whether the failure of any Rockies starter to sustain success over a career is a function of the extra physical effort required to make balls move at altitude, the potential for injury created by constantly changing release points or the mental strain of the battle.

But Belisle’s description of his mental approach suggests that perhaps the most important attribute of a pitcher donning a Rockies uniform is mental discipline — the ability to view pitching at altitude as a challenge rather than a conspiracy to ruin his numbers. Consciously or subconsciously, the pitchers who have failed here most spectacularly seemed to blame altitude, not themselves, for their issues. Belisle, by contrast, has been a better pitcher here than he was during his previous stint in Cincinnati.

This remains the essential dilemma of big-league baseball a mile high. The effects of altitude are real; any honest pitcher will tell you that. To succeed here, a pitcher has to adjust for those effects and adjust back at sea level without resorting to the defense mechanism of blaming all those changes when things go wrong. It’s a tough psychological line to walk, and it’s tougher still to predict how any particular pitcher will deal with it before he gets here. Twenty years in, the Rocks remain a long way from a solution.


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.