Author’s Note: Over my next few posts here on Rockies Zingers, I’ll be examining the philosophy of the organization in regards to developing pitching prospects. Today is Part 1, where our discussion centers around park factors and the environments in which the Rockies develop their young arms.
Ever since the Colorado Rockies entered Major League Baseball as a member of the National League in 1993, a lot has been made of the advantages given to hitters, mainly due to the altitude and thin Rocky Mountain air. With the addition of the humidor in 2003, that was supposed to assist in evening that advantage out, and in some ways it did, but not quite as dramatically as what may have been intended.
We’re familiar with the early iterations of the Rockies, led by Andres Galarraga, Larry Walker, Dante Bichette, Vinny Castilla, and Ellis Burks. They were followed by Todd Helton, Charles Johnson, Preston Wilson, Brad Hawpe, Matt Holliday, and now Carlos Gonzalez and Troy Tulowitzki. Unfortunately the list of successful pitchers has been much shorter, giving us big names and mediocre performances like Mike Hampton and Denny Neagle, some good years from Darryl Kile. Clearly, the free agent method of acquiring pitchers hasn’t been the most succesful. What’s the alternative? Well, the Rockies have to grow their arms from within. Make sure they are producing quality arms that can pitch in that environment, but also pitchers with thick skin and strong mental skills to avoid getting caught up in the results.
The Rockies have attempted to take a logical step in developing these pitchers, adopting an organization philosophy stressing pitching to contact, inducing ground balls. In theory, it makes sense. If a hitter is spraying balls on the ground, the majority won’t make it out of the infield and therefore will result in outs, keeping runners off the bases and runs off the scoreboard. That said, before we label anyone a mastermind or baseball savant, it doesn’t take too many sinkers that don’t sink to get launched around the park and a few runs to be scored, so execution is really the point of emphasis here.
Since that philosophy is top down, we know the Rockies are teaching it at all levels of the organization from the Dominican Summer League to Denver. But what about allowing their pitches to become familiar with pitching in the hitter friendly environment they will see when they make it to the majors? Do the Rockies adequately prepare their young arms for that? Are the Rockies addressing the fact that these young pitchers may need an adjustment period to account for a few extra hits here, a fly ball turned home run, and so forth? Especially for a young pitcher used to success, a rough outing at Coors Field could go a long way to destroying some confidence. Let’s start by taking a look at the parks the minor league affiliates play in.
For the sake of relying on available information, I’m going to start this investigation stateside, with Grand Junction. We could research all day, but the sandlots of the Dominican Summer League don’t provide us a lot of context in terms of park factors, game conditions and the like, so to Grand Junction we go. One last tidbit before world exploration for those not overly familiar with the subject of park factors: Park factors are essentially an accounting of the difference in ways that specific ballparks play in comparison to others. This allows us to evaluate hitters and pitchers while adjusting for the ballpark’s impact from dimensions, temperatures, elevations, and so forth. For a more detailed overview, please visit FanGraphs. All park factors listed come from www.minorleaguecentral.com.
Now, as my colleague Ryan Hammon noted in his article on Ryan McMahon, the Pioneer League is essentially, in his words, “an entire league of Coors Fields”. The Grand Junction Rockies play at Sam Suplizio Field. The field had been built in 1949, and underwent an 8.3 million dollar renovation in 2011. It measures a short 302 down the left field line, and the fairly standard measurements of 400 to center and 330 down the right field line. For the right handed pull hitter this park could turn into a bandbox with that short foul line. The fence is higher in left to offset the short distance. Now, in 2013 Grand Junction held a park factor of 98, which means it was actually pitcher friendly in the context of the Pioneer League. This isn’t a great sample size to off of, given it is just one season, but it indicates where the ballpark plays in comparison to its’ peers. This plays well for pitchers entering professional ball, getting their first taste of action in a league that can familiarize them with the Rocky Mountain altitude, but also put them in a position to not get shelled around during each outing. It makes the introduction to professional baseball a relatively easy one.
From Grand Junction, a player may climb to Tri-City to play for the Dust Devils. The team plays at the modest Gesa Stadium. It’s dimensions are the far more standard 335 feet down the lines and 400 to dead center. For the 2013 season, it had a park factor at 100, which makes it about dead even in terms of batter or pitcher advantage. Over the previous three seasons, it came in at 95, signifying that the environment is more pitcher-friendly than not. While that doesn’t give the young arms a chance to get a feel for high altitude pitching, it does grant them a bit of a reprieve to focus on what needs to improve in their arsenal and know the mistakes may not get pounded as hard. In turn, they can improve over the course of the season both physically and mentally.
Our first foray into full-season ball causes us to travel from the great northwest United States down to the southeast, arriving in Asheville. McCormick Field has been described as hitter friendly in the past, and rightfully so. It is without a doubt the friendliest hitter’s park in the South Atlantic League, and has provided some boosts to a number of Rockies’ prospects over the years. With a three year park factor of 120, it rates very similarly to how Coors Field performs. This is the first real challenge stop for pitchers, and just as well as Asheville can turn a mediocre hitter into a slugger, it can take great arms and cause them to unravel. Those that make it through Asheville with good numbers really deserve a gold star.
Because travel and road trips build character, the Rockies send their prospects back across the country to the bustling metropolis of Modesto, California to play for the Nuts in the High-A California League. Modesto plays in the pitcher friendly John Thurman Field, where the fence measures 312/400/319 from left to right, with a 15 foot high wall all the way around. With a three year park factor of 95, it gives pitchers a reprieve from the previous stay in Asheville, allowing them to pitch to contact more and really embracing the aforementioned ground ball theory.
The next step up the ladder takes players to Tulsa, Oklahoma, home of Oneok Field. As an aside, Oneok Field may be one of the best looking parks in all of minor league baseball, and measures 330 to left, 400 to center, and 307 down the right field line with a taller fence near the foul pole. Tulsa has a three year park factor of 101, giving a slight advantage to hitters, but just enough that it isn’t a huge adjustment for pitchers. As pitchers see the increase in challenges now that they are in the higher realms of minor league baseball, Tulsa serves as the gateway to the hitter friendly environments the next phases of their careers will bring.
Triple A ball of course comes in Colorado Springs for the Sky Sox, at Security Service Field. Of course, being on the edge of the mountain range it has a bit of an altitude adjustment from Tulsa, resulting in a park factor of 111 over the past three years. It serves as an intermediary prior to pitchers going to the big leagues, where Coors Field awaits.
As the previous paragraphs listed out, there is a bit of a pattern in the minor league affiliates thanks to geography, ballpark dimensions, and their effect on the baseball games being played. It seems the Rockies have been somewhat mindful of this as they continue grooming their pitching prospects. Rather than having players pitch in one environment and be caught blind when their surroundings change, the team has taken measures to ease that transition as a player climbs the ladder.
While park factors can show us how a certain stadium plays and its implications on pitching and offense, it is hardly the end all, be all in terms of pitching preparation. Coming up in part two of my analysis of the Rockies’ organizational philosophy will be a look at ground ball pitching and if it is successful at Coors Field.