Troy Renck has raised the controversial issue of baseball at altitude in his column in today’s Post, “Home Can’t be Where the Hurt is if Rockies are Going to Rebound” http://www.denverpost.com/rockies/ci_21293241/home-cant-be-where-hurt-is-if-rockies. The subject has been bouncing around, due primarily to Rockies’ BIB General Manager Dan O’Dowd’s citation of the conditions at Coors Field as key to the team’s trouble in 2012. Colorado fans’ disgust with the BIB lead inevitably to diatribes such as this by my good buddy El Supremo at Charlie Brown’s Bar and Grill: ”The Broncos use the altitude to their advantage; the Nuggets use the altitude to their advantage; why the [heck] can’t the Rockies use the altitude to their advantage?”
Well, football and basketball are highly aerobic sports, and it’s fairly obvious that opponents will tend to be more exhausted than the home team at the ends of football and basketball games. Baseball much less so. It is not whining to acknowledge that the Rockies face challenges at 5280 feet that none of their opponents do.
Pitchers face a double-whammy. The ball is harder to control. It slips and slides through the lighter air and it is tougher to hit your “spots.” And when the ball comes back at you off the bat it’s got less resistance to overcome, it also slips and slides and drifts and carries and finds the gaps in the big Coors outfield that’s got to be that way to keep the ball in the playing field a reasonable amount of the time.
For the Rockie’s batters, they deal with the “payback” effect. They experience the forgiving conditions at altitude for a week or two, then ski down the hill to face the more challenging conditions at sea level. And back again.
No other team has to deal with this, and no other team faces conditions at home that are as unique and significant. Certainly you try to turn them to your advantage, but it’s not as brainless as simply waiting for your opponent to wear-out faster than you do.
For pitchers the key at altitude is “hitting your spots,” as Jeff Francis has shown, and doing so, as Renck notes, requires exceptional mental toughness. Guys like Francis, who don’t have exceptional “stuff” have to rely on mental toughness to succeed. If you have monstrous “stuff,” like Franklin Morales, yet you don’t have the mental toughness to make it work for you consistently at altitude, then you’re not going to make it with the Rockies. And Rockies’ starters have to muscle-up that toughness 16 or more times a year. Their opponents, maybe twice. There are untold factors that can compromise your mental toughness: you had a fight with your girl-friend; your brother got thrown in jail; your kid fell-off his bike and cracked his skull open; you have a cold; you have a hangover; your right foot is aching inexplicably… who knows? But 16 times a year you’ve got to buck-up, cast everything aside, and put every one of your pitches exactly where you want them. Your opponent? He’s on the road where he can minimize distractions; he’s got to tame Coors Field this ONE time– in many way’s he’s the one with the advantage.
For hitters on the road, it’s a mental and physical roller coaster. Every other week or so you’ve got to adjust to environmentally different pitch behavior in addition to the challenge each individual opponent presents.
It’s simply wrong to suggest playing at altitude should provide the Rockies with an extraordinary advantage. Now that doesn’t mean you can use it as an excuse, or as justification for convention-defying strategies. One of Renck’s arguments is that Coors is on pace to allow the second-most home runs in the post-humidor era this season. So? It’s not the MOST. Has not the starting pitching been the worst in the post humidor era? And this business that altitude is causing more injuries to the pitchers? Every team deals with injuries to pitchers. Pitchers get hurt. That’s why there are the pitch-counts that everybody gets all worked-up about. And it’s not like Nicasio was tearing up the league before he tore up his knee.
Finally Renck’s suggestion the 4/75 rotation concept is a reaction to conditions at Coors Field is absurd. It’s a reaction to horrible pitching and the fact Colorado was forced by circumstance into relying on guys who aren’t ready for the major leagues. The BIB has gotten us into a fix where all of the starting pitching talent, save Francis, is being “developed.” Not a sound strategy if you accept mental toughness as a paramount characteristic required of your staff. You need the Kevin Ritz’s, the Pedro Astacio’s, the Shawn Estes’s (guys whose names end in the “s” sound) who know the drill and can go out there and persevere, undaunted by what ever calamity befalls you on or off the field every time you start.
We all want the Rockies to become that sustainable juggernaut that wins 96 games year after year, but to suggest playing at altitude is going to be our “friend” in that pursuit is foolish.