In part one I tried to determine just what makes an excellent pitcher. An excellent pitcher will most likely succeed at Coors Field. A staff of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Justin Verlander, CC Sabathia, and Felix Hernandez would probably “fit” just fine at Coors. In thinking about building a staff at Coors, I think we can all agree that a high quality pitcher in MLB will make for a high quality pitcher at Coors. However, we live in a real world where high quality pitchers are very hard to find, as only 24 pitchers in MLB had a WAR of over 4 in 2011. 69 pitchers had a WAR between 0 and 4. So the vast majority of pitchers fit in that zone of bad (Brad Penny .8 WAR in 2011) to pretty good (Edwin Jackson 3.8 WAR in 2011). This type of pitcher is what we want to examine in regards to Coors Field. We don’t need to figure out if Clayton Kershaw would be a fit for Coors, we need to figure out which pitchers in the vast “bad to pretty good” category would have their skill set maximized in Coors. Of the pitchers that may be acquirable at a reasonable price what can the Rockies target?
What is different about Coors?
To first figure this out we need to look at just what is different about pitching in Coors Field. As far as batted ball results: the fences are far away from home plate and the ball travels farther. This means that in addition to the normal hits that would elude outfielder’s gloves in every park, more balls that may be caught elsewhere turn into hits due both to the large outfield and because the ball travels faster through the air than at any other park, making a fielder’s range even lesser. During the last 3 years MLB wide BABIP was .295 in 2009, .293 in 2010, and .291 in 2011. At Coors those numbers were .306, .310, and .306. So a ball hit (in the park) is more likely to become a hit and a ball hit far is more likely to leave the park. This means that there is an even larger premium on getting strikeouts at Coors to prevent those balls from leaving the batter’s box and being subjected to the increased odds of a hit or a home run. When a ball is put in play at Coors the consequences are heightened.
Let’s look a little more into the effects of the mile high air in Colorado. A University of Colorado at Denver Study in 2003 (all work done before the humidor) showed that despite physics telling us that a ball should travel 10% further at Coors, a ball really traveled an average of 6% further in Coors than at the average NL ballpark. The study indicated the unexpected difference was due to the wind patterns where Coors is situated. The study also noted that (at the time of the study) the average outfield dimension of Coors was 11.6 ft. further than the NL average dimension. When you consider the mitigating factor of the fences being further, it would seem that Coors gives up an awful lot more home runs than it should at a 6% longer flight (especially since that study was pre-humidor). As you may have guessed, yes I think I have figured out why Coors gives up so many long balls despite the ball only traveling 6% further; and the reason is: the breaking of pitches.
Think pitch break—not breaking pitches
You are probably now thinking about all of the hanging curveballs that we have assumed happen in Coors. We have been led to believe that breaking pitches just don’t break the same at Coors due to the thin air. We have been told this is one of the biggest reasons that it is difficult to pitch in Coors. I am telling you the opposite; breaking pitches are not nearly as affected in Coors as fastballs are.
I first considered this idea when reading this piece about pitch movement in Coors. I also compiled some pitch f/x data on Ubaldo Jimenez at home and away to confirm the findings. And the conclusion is that while breaking pitches are minimally affected when thrown at Coors, fastballs are mind-blowingly affected. In 2010 (I used this because Ubaldo was at the peak of his powers) an Ubaldo Jimenez curveball broke 6.27% less than on the road. But his exceptional two-seam fastball broke an insane 35.3% less horizontally and 19.8% less vertically. The four-seam fastball also broke 42.3% less horizontally 25.3% less vertically. Don’t be hesitant, these are crazy numbers. Home plate is 17 inches wide. A pitcher puts food on his family’s table by maneuvering in and around those 17 inches. Ubaldo’s 2010 four-seam fastball moved 2.54 horizontal inches less at Coors than on the road. That is a huge variance. When Ubaldo threw a four-seamer away from Adrian Gonzalez at Petco it tailed away from the sweet spot of his bat 2.54 inches further than that same pitch at Coors. That is more than the difference between a pop up or a strikeout and a ball heading towards the visiting bullpen at Coors.
Why the difference?
This happens for a number of reasons. One, the thin dry air at Coors may affect the relationship between a pitchers fingers and the baseball (just watch how confident a good pitcher feels attacking the zone on one of those muggy nights in San Diego or Atlanta) and two, the thin air does keep the seams on the ball from “gripping” the air and generating movement. But most importantly, at Coors the baseball travels from the pitcher’s hand to the catcher’s mitt faster than anywhere in baseball. We talk a lot about a ball traveling further off a bat at Coors but we seldom discuss the ball traveling faster to the plate; but let’s not be fooled, this is the same physics. The physics could actually be even stronger because the aforementioned weather that lessens the altitude impact of balls hit far affects the rubber to the plate area much less. All six of Ubaldo’s pitches reached the plate faster at Coors than on the road. This means that gravity has less time to affect the pitch and allow movement. So to put it plainly, the Ubaldo fastball at Coors is in the catcher’s mitt before it has the chance to do all of the movement that it can on the road. The reason that the curveball doesn’t suffer as much is that since it is slower anyway, there is more time for gravity to take its course and have closer to typical break.
What does this mean for the Rockies?
This has enormous implications. For one, it may explain why the Rockies struggle so mightily hitting on the road. After a 6 game home stand gearing up on mostly straight fastballs it is not easy to adjust to all that life on a Petco or AT&T Park two-seamer or cutter. But we are here to talk pitching at Coors. For starters, I think this completely blows up the notion that an all heavy sinkerball staff would succeed at Coors. That idea is built on a desire to keep the ball on the ground; meaning that you are okay with “pitching to contact” to some extent. The high BABIP at Coors might suggest that this is problematic enough to start with, but when you consider that most sinkerballers rely on that one pitch more than other pitchers and the fact that the movement on that pitch will be severely impeded should put up some serious red flags. If the main strength of a player is to generate excellent movement on a sinking fastball then you do not want him throwing half of his innings in the one park in baseball that mitigates that strength the very most. This may explain why Alex White got hit so hard in 2011. He has a great heavy sinker and he probably had massive difficulty adjusting to the decreased movement, thereby making a mess out of all of his fastball command. As an aside I do not think he is doomed to be a poor Coors pitcher as he has multiple strengths and multiple types of fastballs.
So where do the Rockies go from here?
So where does all of this leave us (besides depressed that the Rockies have such a unique, challenging, and ongoing problem here)? I will offer a few thoughts and ideas, however after thinking so much about this I can say there is certainly a reason this has not been solved by O’Dowd and Co.; all of these prescriptions all have their own little issues.
- While I would not avoid them completely, a staff that is a “fit” for Coors should not be based around sinkerballers. Coors field takes their main strength away. But let’s not forget that the best sinkerballer of them all right now is probably Roy Halladay, so we cannot close out minds to them.
- Fastball command should be at an absolute premium in the Rockies organization. Because the fastball has less life the importance of command is magnified. This one is tough because obviously this is what every organization wants and teaches their young pitchers first and foremost. This is why I was absolutely dying to see Kevin Slowey pitch for the Rockies. His fastball speed (a weakness) would be helped at Coors and I wanted to test my hypothesis that he may actually be better by going to Coors.
- Do not be scared of pitchers that thrive off of having good off-speed pitches. Remember, these are the pitches least affected by being thrown at Coors. (JAMIE MOYER ANYONE?!)
- One advantage of all of this is that a hard fastball is even faster at Coors, so if you can find guys who throw hard and can command a fastball, they could be especially dominant in Coors. As a sub point of this I would recommend using the high fastball more often at Coors as a put away pitch.
- A pitcher with average stuff that can command a lot of pitches but does not have one overpowering pitch (Ted Lilly) may be more effective than a pitcher with two above average pitches because at least Lilly can go to a bunch of other stuff if he can’t get a feel for fastball command, where the other guy may be forced to keep coming with the bad fastball on an off night.
- Although there haven’t been many cases to examine yet, pitchers may benefit from hanging around longer; when a pitcher understands the Coors effect, he should get better year after year in adjusting to it.
- Perhaps the best thing that could be done by the organization is to fully understand this and to teach it to their pitchers. I don’t mean to be presumptuous in saying that I understand this more than the front office, but I remember last year reading this piece by Tom Verducci in which Bob Apodaca says that he teaches pitchers to have two aiming points for breaking balls; one for home and one for the road. This mentality needs to be extended to the fastballs. Pitchers need to be taught that their two-seamer needs to be aimed further inside to a right handed pitcher at home than on the road (for a RHP) and vice versa. And obviously the catcher needs to be taught this even more so.
So while there are still no easy answers I think this shows two immediate findings which would be helpful to the club. First of all, don’t get sucked into the idea that sinker is king at Coors, and secondly that there is a complete misunderstanding of the impact on the breaking of pitches at Coors Field. Once everyone understands that the fastball is most impacted at Coors the adjustments can be better made. The Rockies enjoy a massive challenge that is even more unique than we first thought. More experimenting and tinkering is ahead for this club.
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