From August of 2011 until August 2014, I attended games at five different major league ballparks—none of which were Coors Field. I did see the Rockies play on the road for one of those games, but as Rox Pile’s Hayden Kane told me, that doesn’t really count. It was due time to return to Colorado for Rockies baseball, and there was no better weekend to do it than that of August 16 and 17. It was, of course Todd Helton weekend, but this article is not about that. Richard Bergstrom and I, as well as others, have already waxed nostalgic and reported on the festivities surrounding Helton. Instead, this post offers a brief narrative of the experiences that come with press access at Coors Field, and it provides a thick description of a crucial at-bat that came during the Rockies most improbable victory of the 2014 season.
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The most striking thing about walking through the bowels of Coors Field and ending up in the dugout is how mundane much of it is. Watching or listening to broadcasts of games on a regular basis gives the impression that players blink in and out of existence in three hour intervals. We don’t have the mental space to contemplate Corey Dickerson’s daily life, even though we know that he has one outside of baseball. Walking through Coors Field three hours prior to first pitch, one is also reminded that the stadium is an employer of myriad Denverites without whom there would be no baseball at Coors Field. One such humanizing incident came when Richard and I were heading to the clubhouse before the game. It was closed. You might imagine the gatekeeper of the clubhouse to resemble a bouncer in a purple polo shirt, ready to stave off an overeager press corps with intimidation and muscle. That’s not the case. The protector of the clubhouse, what Ryan Spilborghs describes as the players’ living room, was an elderly woman named Barb. Sitting between us and the clubhouse, Barb kindly informed us that it was closed and directed us to the dugout.
Being in the dugout during batting practice and pregame warmups was another humanizing experience. Going in, I thought about being around baseball players the same way I think about students on the first day of the semester. In preparation to meeting a fresh group of college students for the first time, I have to remind myself that the students are people. It’s easy to talk yourself into nervousness by imagining a faceless group with whom it is impossible to communicate. Things become much easier once students begin entering the classroom and a few words are exchanged. Once it becomes clear that they’re going about their lives, as I am, and that we just happen to be intersecting in a single space with a clearly defined relationship, it becomes difficult not to think of them as human beings with their own vivid lives. A similar thing happened once I walked into the dugout. I didn’t exchange words with any players, but it was immediately evident to me that, like Barb, these guys were at work. It was still a bit surreal to have players like Justin Morneau and Nolan Arenado casually walk by. Ultimately, though, one can really sense the banality of pre-game stretches and interviews.
The dugout stuff was fun, but the real treat was going to be watching the game from the press-box—the women and men who work from there have pretty good seats. What happened next can be chalked up to YCPIWMD (You Can’t Predict the Integrity of Water Mains in Denver). The water main that burst on 20th and Blake first caused a delay, and then the postponement of the game. The game that was to take place on a beautiful Denver evening with cloudless skies and weather in the mid-70s was postponed. While disappointing, the postponement set up the drama that took place the following day at Coors Field.
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The Rockies 10-9 win on August 17th was the most improbably of the season. It was an unlikely win, first, based on the context. The win probability chart below summarizes the course of the game. Based on the situation, down four runs with only three outs left to give, the Rockies had a 2.2 percent chance of winning. That chance increased to 4.7 percent after Nolan Arenado walked, 9.7 percent after Michael McKenry’s base on balls, 19.7 percent after Aroldis Chapman walked Josh Rutledge, and it jumped all the way up to 33.8 percent after Charlie Culberson’s walk. After J.J. Hoover recorded two outs the Rockies chance of winning fell to 9.9 percent, and then Drew Stubbs made “win probability” irrelevant with a walk-off home run.
Measures of win expectancy are based on context, but they don’t account for personnel. Score, runners on base, and how many outs remaining factor in to the win probability. In a given game where the road team leads the home team by four runs heading into the bottom of the ninth, the home team’s chances of winning are 2.2 percent. That’s the case regardless of who is pitching and who is hitting. I didn’t have this number in my head as I watched the game from the upper deck on the third base side. I didn’t need to know that according to FanGraphs’ win expectancy chart the Rockies had about a two percent chance of winning because I knew that the chances were even less than that because of who was pitching and who was hitting.
The only reason I stayed for the bottom of the ninth for this game was because Aroldis Chapman was going to pitch. In fact, I was ready to leave because the game was no longer a save opportunity and I thought Reds’ manager Bryan Price was going to keep him out of the game. I wanted to see the flamethrower throw flames. The only question in my head was whether or not he would strike out the side. Coming into the game, Chapman had struck out half of the batters he faced this season. He had walked 12.3 percent as well, but his ability to strike people out had easily overcome the threat those baserunners might have posed. The league’s OPS against him was just .456—and his fastball averages 100 miles per hour. Due up for the Rockies were Nolan Arenado, Michael McKenry, Josh Rutledge, and Charlie Culberson if a runner reached. Of these players, Arenado was the least prone to the strikeout. His strikeout percentage at the time was 12 percent, which is relatively low. McKenry, however, had a strikeout rate of 21.4 percent. This was better than the rates worn by Rutledge and Culberson, which were 26.4 percent and 27.8 percent, respectively.
So you can see how the semi-context dependent 2.2 percent chance of winning could reasonable be seen as something closer to 0.022 percent. It was entirely unexpected that Chapman walked all four of those batters before being pulled from the game without recording an out. J.J. Hoover, as you know, proceeded to retire Rosario and Blackmon before Drew Stubbs hit a walk-off home run. In the end, the Rockies scored five runs to overcome a four run deficit, and they did so with just a single hit in the inning.
The hits don’t necessarily have to be the stars though. I want to focus on Charlie Culberson’s plate appearance. Culberson is the type of player I find very interesting. Major League Baseball has a lot more Charlie Culbersons than, for instance, Troy Tulowitzkis. If we want to seek out a representative experience of being a big leaguer, we should be drawn more to the fringe players who form the motor of the game rather than the superstars, the latter of whom are, by definition, non-representative.
A few months ago, I wrote about Ryan Spilborghs’s unspectacular career. My aim was twofold: first, to argue that just making it to the major leagues is a spectacular and rare achievement; and second, to demonstrate that even unspectacular careers have their own extraordinary moments. In Spilborghs’s case, it was his memorable walk-off grand slam. On May 4 of this season, Charlie Culberson hit his own walk-off home run. At the time, I thought to myself that he just had the spectacular moment of his career.
But we can also find extraordinary moments in something as quotidian as a base on balls. Charlie Culberson’s nine pitch plate appearance that resulted in a walk and a run scored was one such case. It was the most critical plate appearance against Chapman not only because the bases were loaded with nobody out, but also because it was clear that Chapman would remain in the game if he got Culberson out, and he would be taken out if he did not. While Chapman was reeling—overthrowing his fastball and consistently missing the strike-zone—the lead was still four runs. A single out would have been huge for Chapman and the Reds at the moment.
Chapman attacked Charlie with fastballs. The heat map below shows their location. Notice the deep red, as the map shows the location and velocity of each fastball. They ranged between 97 and 100 miles per hour.
The first pitch was a ball low and out of the zone. It’s the most centered low pitch in the heat map. It was a correctly called ball, but it was close. At 100 miles per hour, it must have been difficult for Charlie to lay-off, despite the knowledge that Chapman was having trouble finding the strike-zone. Starting the plate appearance with a 1-0 count must have also frustrated Chapman, which might have been compounded by how close the ball was to being a strike. The second pitch was also a ball, but it was well outside of the zone. Probably an easy one to not swing at; it resulted in an excellent hitters count, 2-0. Culberson took the third pitch for a strike. It was located near the first pitch, but it was in the zone and correctly called for a strike. I don’t know what Charlie was thinking at this point, but it was a wise decision to let that ball land for a strike. It would have been tough for him to barrel, and the count still stood 2-1. Culberson swung at the fourth pitch of the at-bat, which was a fastball that painted the inside corner. If he had left the bat on his shoulder, it probably would have been called a strike. The fifth pitch was easier to lay-off. It was a sharp fastball down and in. The final location resembled where a slider might end up. It was a fastball that probably looked like a ball for the entire split second that it speedily made its way to home plate. The count was then full, and this is where Culberson was at his best. Charlie fouled off the next two pitches. Both were in the lower part of the strike zone but inside. Both of them likely would have been called balls, but the end result of continuing the plate appearance was no less of a successful outcome. For his next pitch, the eighth of the plate appearance, Chapman grooved a 98 mile per hour fastball in the inner half of the zone with the clear agenda of blowing it right by Charlie. Culberson spoiled the plan with a third consecutive foul ball. At this point, observers could tell that Charlie had already defeated Aroldis Chapman. This is how he reacted.
The result felt inevitable. The final pitch of the plate appearance was a ball at Charlie’s ankles. The base on balls scored a run and signaled Chapman’s exit from the game. People are going to remember Drew Stubbs’s walk-off home run the most, but the base on balls Charlie Culberson earned played a crucial role in making the victory possible, and it too should be remembered.
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Three years is too long to spend away from Coors Field. In my mind, I’ve already committed to visiting for a weekend series sometime next summer. Until then, I have to remind myself that baseball players don’t go into hibernation over the winter, hope that Denver’s water mains cooperate with my leisure time, and keep an eye out for the seemingly small things that make memorable instances possible.