Tag Archives: Aaron Cook

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.

 


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.”