Author’s Note: Over the course of a few posts here on Rockies Zingers, I’ll be examining the philosophy of the organization in regards to developing pitching prospects. Part one was published a couple of weeks ago, where our discussion centered on park factors and the environments in which the Rockies develop their young arms. Part two came out last week, and looked into the organization philosophy of ground ball pitching and its overall effectiveness. Now, in the third and final part of the series, we’ll investigate into whether or not Rockies pitchers need a pit stop in Colorado Springs to adjust or can make the jump from AA Tulsa directly to the big leagues.
As has been discussed in previous posts, the Rockies have tried and failed to bring in established pitchers via free agency. It even reads like a Jeopardy question; Darryl Kile, Mike Hampton and Denny Neagle all signed large contracts and struggled mightily for which team. Who is the Colorado Rockies Alex? Correct! Given that information, and the high price tags attached to such transactions, the Rockies must develop their pitchers from within. Thus, the discussion on park factors and pitcher preparation in part one and the organization philosophy on pitching to contact and ground balls discussed in part two. It only makes sense that here in part three, we’d try to shed some light on if the Rockies can further equip their prized arms for success by letting them adjust in AAA Colorado Springs.
At the end of June, our friend Drew Creasman of Purple Row was able to interview former pitching coach Bob Apodaca. Apodaca shed some light on what good it does to pitch in AAA Colorado Springs. You can find the entire article about Bob Apodaca talking with Purple Row here. The first line of the interview set the tone:
“If you think all of our pitchers need to spend time in Triple-A, you are simply uninformed. It isn’t necessary,” he says. “Maybe if your main pitch is a breaking pitch and we need to see how it does there and get you used to throwing it there, then absolutely Colorado Springs can be a useful tool. When we look at pitchers when we need to make the call-up, we look at who is the most qualified right now to help the team win and with a guy like Eddie (Butler) he was ready.”
Apodaca would go on to describe why he felt that altitude has become an overstated issue; that it doesn’t matter where you pitch at all. The fundamentals of pitching should remain the same. While altitude is a factor, it shouldn’t be the emphasis and really just serves as an excuse for bad pitching. The team needs to be acquiring pitchers that are stronger mentally and can face adversity without getting beat down. Pitchers that can struggle and move past it, overcoming obstacles like the altitude. On the flip side, pitchers that don’t pitch at the highest level of minor league ball may not have faced much adversity. They may have not seen struggles before, and the first sign of poor performance can send them reeling. It would make sense then to have that pitcher pitch at AAA, getting accustomed to the higher level of baseball there before climbing the next rung of the ladder. Overall, you may not know just how mentally tough a pitcher can be if they haven’t experienced the struggle. Apodaca did mention the need for pitchers with a breaking ball as their main pitch to adjust in AAA for a time being, but one that shows good command and acumen with the pitch may still be able to negate that trial period.
So now I’ve had you read six paragraphs into this article, and we haven’t really made any progress on our original question. Plus, your boss has walked by your desk twice and made note you were reading and not working on those TPS reports, so we’ll cut to the chase. Let’s crunch some numbers. Can pitching in Colorado Springs help prepare a pitcher for the major leagues? We’ll take a look at pitchers who have made the jump from AA and cross-reference their statistics with their brethren who had a layover in the Springs. For the sake of brevity, we’ll look at starting pitchers who have made their major league debut with the team since 2008, a number that has climbed this year thanks to the arrivals of Tyler Matzek, Eddie Butler, and Christian Bergman all within six days of each other. In my research, I came up with 13 pitchers that have made their major league debut with the Rockies. Ubaldo Jimenez, Jhoulys Chacin, Esmil Rogers, Greg Reynolds, Franklin Morales, Christian Friedrich, Edwar Cabrera, Tyler Matzek, and Christian Bergman make up the AAA visitors group, while Juan Nicasio, Drew Pomeranz, Eddie Butler, and Chad Bettis compile the group with direct flights from Tulsa to Denver. Yohan Flande would have made 13, but I am leaving him out due to his vast AA and AAA experience with other organizations. Alan Johnson also didn’t make the cut. Johnson would not have added favorably to the AAA group’s numbers. We’ll take a look at the debut season numbers for pitchers, as anything beyond that speaks less to minor league experience and more to the ability to make adjustments at the major league level. (Perhaps a nod to the makeup Apodaca was discussing.)
Looking at the group that did pitch in Colorado Springs, we get the following numbers:
To sum up the findings, the group that pitched at Colorado Springs pitched 257.1 innings in their debut seasons across 59 games, 50 of which were starts. To put it nicely, success was minimal, as base runners were a plenty and runs came in handfuls for the opponents. Looking at this data alone may be enough to surmise that since 2011, pitching in Colorado Springs has not lent itself to success at the major league level.
Going to our group of four pitchers that jumped directly from AA, we get these statistics:
Again, on their own, those numbers leave a little something to be desired. Again, a few extra base runners here and there seemingly allowed the extra run to score as well. Compared to the other data set, it appears that pitchers skipping AAA were able to control the strike zone better, walking less and punching out more per nine innings. It’d be easy to say given the comparison that pitching in AAA actually harms a pitcher and reduces his chances at having success in the majors. Or you could call it young naiveté or stubborn foolishness, since it appears the four who jumped from AA may be more mentally tough and able to fight through struggles better than their AAA-seasoned comrades. That couple fit right into Apodaca’s point. The Rockies felt like those four were mentally tough enough to handle the jump and get past any struggles they may have. Perhaps it is entirely coincidental that the pitchers who have come from Colorado Spring have struggled in their debut seasons.
I do feel a disclaimer of some sort is necessary, as I would not consider myself to be a mathematician or someone capable of Bill Jamesian statistical analysis. What I can point out though is that as a whole those numbers are significant enough to be considered a strong sample, but the numbers making up the sets may be suffering from a case of sample size-itis. For instance, factored into the bottom set is Eddie Butler’s one start this season, of 5.1 innings of shellacking followed by a subsequent trip to the disabled list. There is no way to say if given more outings, whether the set would experience an increase or decrease in overall effectiveness.
Our third log to add to the fire is this piece from Paul Klee of the Colorado Springs Gazette. Klee contends that even though injuries have played a significant role in the Rockies struggles, the main issue continues to be a lack of quality pitching. He argues the basis for this is up and coming pitchers have to go to Colorado Springs to take the next step:
“Is having a Triple-A ballpark in Colorado Springs really the best idea for a franchise that has struggled for two decades to develop quality, sustainable pitching? Pitching at altitude can turn a confident man into Eeyore. When every visiting team suggests pitching at Coors Field is more mental than physical, is it really a good idea to force young pitchers to go through Colorado Springs, where the highest ballpark in professional baseball stands at 6,531 feet?”
His theory makes some sense, in the fact that pitchers come from having success at each level and find themselves getting bounced around Security Services Field, and their confidence becomes shot, mechanics get messed with, and they can’t find the same success they had earlier in their careers. He contends that essentially, the altitude is going to have a negative effect on a pitcher, so why expose the arms to it before the games matter, effectively beginning their downward spiral before they pitch in the majors. Now, before we take the bait from Mr. Klee, it’s important to note he may be taking a bit of a leap in suggesting that no matter what, pitchers will eventually struggle due to altitude. He is talking from extremes, the same way that Apodaca suggests a strong-minded enough person could have all the success in the world.
Security Services Field isn’t the only hitter-friendly park in AAA. Las Vegas, Reno, Albuquerque, and Salt Lake all favor the hitter in terms of park factor. It appears that since the major league teams affiliated with those squads aren’t in a similar altitude situation that it receives less attention and it is focused upon much less. Both Colorado Springs and Albuquerque have installed humidors to offset the thin air.
When all is said and done, there may not be a right and wrong answer. Those involved with the game have mixed feelings on if it is helpful or harmful, if the altitude helps adjust or helps damage. The numbers suggest it may be more beneficial to skip AAA, but further investigation should take place. In the meantime, the current approach of handling the jump on a case by case basis is probably the best choice.