Tag Archives: Jeff Bridich

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.

 


Rockies still believe in Nolan Arenado

A funny thing happened on Nolan Arenado’s express trip to the big leagues. The train suddenly turned into a local.

A second-round draft pick out of California’s El Toro High School in 2009 and the Rockies’ much-hyped third baseman-to-be, Arenado watched as Double-A Tulsa teammate Josh Rutledge, a third-round pick out of the University of Alabama a year later, roared past him.

Arenado finished 2012 with a respectable .285 batting average, but his 12 home runs and 56 runs batted in were a serious comedown from his 20 and 122 in the same number of games at high Class A Modesto the year before.

Rutledge was hitting .306 with 13 homers and 35 RBI from the shortstop position when the Rocks called him up to fill in for the injured Troy Tulowitzki. Rutledge hit .274 with 8 homers and 37 RBI for the parent club. Even with Tulo healthy again, Rutledge is expected to make the Rockies again, this time as a second baseman.

Arenado will also be in big league camp by the time position players are required to report on Saturday. Of Baseball America’s top 10 Rockies prospects, four are non-roster invitees to the major league camp — Arenado, outfielder Kyle Parker and pitchers Tyler Anderson and Chad Bettis.

“I personally still think he definitely is that candidate,” Jeff Bridich, the Rockies’ senior director of player development, said on KOA when I asked him about Arenado.

“I think he’s talented enough and deep-down inside confident enough, athletic enough and skilled enough, to be our everyday third baseman in the future. He holds that decision inside of him, and I think that’s a lesson that he learned (last) year. That Double-A level is tough. It’s where the cream starts to separate itself. I think he was expecting big things out of himself — I know he was — and when faced with some adversity, just was unsure and didn’t know how to handle it.

“The crime would be if he doesn’t learn from that and apply it this year. Really, I think he’s just got to get back to being himself on that baseball diamond, being himself every day in terms of how he prepares and playing the game for the love of the game, which is really how he came into this organization out of high school. He was a very energetic, excitable, talented young man. He put a lot of pressure and stress on himself last year, and I’m very, very confident that he learned from that experience and will apply it well this year.”

The decision to invite Arenado to big league camp despite his disappointing 2012 season indicates the Rocks believe he might be ready to join the parent club sometime this season. For such players, the organization tries to get the “wow factor” of being around big leaguers out of the way in the spring.

“You usually make the decisions guy to guy,” Bridich said. “There’s a method to the madness. I would say that when certain players have done certain things that make you think that they could impact the big league club at some point during the season, you want to get them acclimated to not only the other big league players that might factor into that team that year, but the coaching staff as well. Kind of get that wow factor of being around the big league environment, get that kind of over and done with in spring training as best you can.”

This is also the case with Bettis, a second-round pick out of Texas Tech in 2010 who was expected to be on a fast track to the majors last season after an impressive 2011 campaign at Modesto, when he went 12-5 with a 3.34 earned-run average. But Bettis suffered a shoulder injury last spring and ended up sitting out the season.

“We were hopeful that Chad would be pitching for us, at least starting for us last year in Tulsa, and where he ended up, who knows, but he was beset by injury at the end of the spring training,” Bridich said.

“So his situation is really health first. I think he’s past it. He pitched for us in instructional league the first, second week in October, towards the end of our camp. I know he feels like he’s past the injury and is feeling strong. So first things first with him — getting back on the mound, getting his arm strength and body strength and muscle memory and all that kind of stuff back, and we’ll see what happens.”

The big league invite to Anderson, the Rockies’ first-round pick in 2011 out of the University of Oregon, suggests the Rocks think the left-hander could rise through the ranks rapidly.

“Tyler Anderson is obviously a talented kid who has also battled some injury stuff. Fortunately for him, it hasn’t been his arm. But (we’re) looking forward for him to put in a good full season of professional baseball. When I talked about that wow factor and kind of getting that out of the way, I think Tyler definitely fits into that type of category with this spring training invite.”

After last season’s disastrous decision to bring in veteran Jeremy Guthrie, who freaked out trying to pitch at Coors Field, Rockies management has been reminded that it requires a certain mindset to pitch here. So I asked Bridich how the organization goes about diagnosing that intangible quality in pitchers.

“It’s no surprise to anybody that there are challenges here, pitching at altitude,” he said. “I think that we have seen in the past that a variety of different types of pitchers can pitch well here. It’s not just one specific mold. But what really is telling is what’s inside of the guy — that fearlessness and the confidence that he can pitch anywhere, it really doesn’t matter, and that if he’s pitching in Colorado, it’s no different in his mind than pitching in Dodger Stadium or out east at sea level. It’s one of the toughest things to scout, because you can’t see what’s inside that player. But oftentimes, it’s the most important.”

Another top prospect to get a non-roster invite to big league camp this year is Kyle Parker, the former Clemson quarterback. The Rocks have gone one for two on football/baseball players lately. They also drafted Russell Wilson, who went back to football after a couple of unremarkable seasons in the minor leagues and became a rookie star with the Seattle Seahawks. Parker made the opposite call.

“Kyle is a very good athlete, a very powerful athlete, and I think last year he dealt with some unfortunate and unlucky injury circumstances,” Bridich said, referring to Parker’s 2012 season in Modesto. “He got hit with a pitch first game of the season and he broke his wrist and then towards the end of the season he kind of repeated history there, so he lost some time in the playoffs. In between all of that, he put together a very impressive offensive season and defensive season as well.

“He improved in many, many phases of his game last year. He used to have kind of a split personality between football and baseball, growing up and all the way through college. Now he doesn’t have that. He’s dedicated himself fully to baseball. He is a hard worker to begin with. He’s got work ethic; that is not a question at all.

“Really, it’s about paying attention now to some of the finer points of playing baseball and having some of that baseball experience under his belt that he didn’t have previously because he was spending a lot of time on the football field.”

Of the four, only Arenado has a full season at the Double-A level, which would seem to make him the most likely to wear a Rockies uniform sometime this season. But the invites suggest the organization thinks that any of the four could surprise and earn a promotion earlier than expected.