Monday, July 22, 2019

The Impossible Road Of The Colorado Rockies

I started thinking about the Colorado Rockies during their weekend series with the New York Yankees. I would not say I feel sorry for the players, fans or team. Baseball is baseball and is a treasure to play, watch and experience. I would say that the team and its fans have a nearly impossible task to sustain viability and long-term success. It has impossible to sustain pitching or provide batters with any kind of consistency and respect. Players for the Rockies are doubted for Hall Of Fame consideration and for post-season awards such as the MVP. There seems to be this hopelessness that anything can ever change for the Rockies.

Let's take the current baseball season for the Rockies as it seems typical. The Rockies have been in existence since 1993. During that time, they have never finished in first place in their division. They made it to the World Series once and were promptly swept. That was the only season the team also made it to the NLCS. The Rockies have won 90 games in a season only three times with none of them coming back to back.

The 2019 current Rockies' season is typical because the Rockies had a good season a year ago. They won 90 games. They were the wildcard team for the second straight season and actually won the one-game play-in to make it to the NLDS. Once again, they were swept in that series. This year, as has happened many times in the past, they have fallen back and barring an extraordinary run, will not be a wild card team.

And what of their best players? Larry Walker and Todd Helton had remarkably similar offensive careers. Walker compiled 72 Wins Above Replacement (WAR) in his great career while Helton compiled 61 WAR. Walker has thus far been denied a place in to the Hall Of Fame. Helton will likely never get close.

I believe that Larry Walker is the only Rockies player to receive an MVP Award. Helton never came close even though he led the league in WAR the year 2000. He had another amazing season in 2001 and came in ninth in the MVP voting despite having the fifth best WAR total (behind a quartet of juicers).

Throughout the years, the Rockies have not been able to sustain pitching. Ubaldo Jimenez came in third in Cy Young Award voting in 2010 and quickly fell on his sword the following season and was never the same. Kyle Freeland came in fourth in Cy Young Award voting last season and has a FIP over six this season.

Anyone who has a little baseball knowledge has already known what the problem has been for the Rockies though I have not stated it directly. And to state it plainly, the location of where the Rockies play their home games is the problem. And it is a problem that seems to defy mending.

The problem is not Coors Field. That is a beautiful ballpark with a 4.7 fan rating (out of five) with over 15 thousand reviews. The team draws really well. The fans come out in droves. So it is not the venue and it is not the lack of local support (unlike, say, the Tampa Bay Rays). The problem is playing baseball in Denver, Colorado.

There is a baseball term called the Ballpark Factor. This "factor" basically calculates whether the ballpark is easier for the batter or the pitcher. A 100 score is considered neutral where neither the batter nor the pitcher have the advantage. There are some venues that favor hitters. Everyone knows which they are: Yankee Stadium, Fenway Park, Camden Yards, Citizens Back Park, Miller Park, Globe Life Park and maybe one or two more.

Most of those venues favor the batters less than you would think. Globe Life Park in Texas has historically been one of the best batters parks. And their 109 Ballpark Factor rating shows that. The rest are in the 103 to 106 range. For some reason, Camden Yards is up to 109 this season which is higher than historical. Now compare all these fine places to hit with Coors Field. I will start a new paragraph to give the facts there as they are astounding.

Coors Field has a historical Ballpark Factor of 121. This year, for some reason, it sits at 128. That is an astounding number. It is ten to twenty points higher than the other worst pitching parks and more than twenty over what is considered neutral. No other venue comes close. Again, this is not a Coors Field problem. The dimensions at Coors are huge compared to other parks. The right field and left field lines are forty to fifty feet longer than Yankee Stadium!

It is the thin air of Denver that makes baseball impossible to sustain at Coors Field. The talk for years has been that breaking pitches do not break and the ball simply has less resistance when it is hit. How does this affect the road / home results for the team?

The batters and pitchers have had an awful time adjusting to either being on the road (batters) or at home (pitchers) and this is a historical problem. In 2019, the Rockies have a team batting OPS of .894 at Coors. That is an incredibly high OPS which means that team players are batting at elite levels there. But on the road, it is a different story. The team's road OPS is .658. The difference is striking and telling.

And this is nothing new. Last year was similar:  .852 at home and .665 on the road. The year before (2017) was .862 at home and .703 on the road. Go back ten years to 2010 to take a historical look at the numbers are the same, .866 and .652. Go back twenty years and it was, .941 and .742. This is about as historical a problem as you can document.

The pitching has had similar problems in reverse (of course) where historically, they have pitched far better on the road then they have at home. There are some notable exceptions that the batters did not have. 2017 was nearly a wash for the pitching at home and on the road. The 2001 and 2002 seasons were close enough to be respectable. But historically, it has been much harder to get good pitching results at home for the Rockies.

Pitchers cannot sustain careers in Denver and historical numbers back that up. Of their top twelve compilers of WAR over the years, only two are pitchers. Ubaldo Jimenez compiled 19 WAR based pretty much on two seasons and the other is the venerable Aaron Cook who compiled 17 WAR. Compare this with the Diamondbacks who have been around since 1998 and have three of their first four WAR compilers as pitchers.

To be honest, I do not know what my final point here can be. With the fan support, I am not advocating moving the Rockies to a more tenable place to play. In fact, those fans deserve some success for their support over the years. I guess all I am saying is that the Rockies have more to overcome to succeed than any other team in baseball. Playing in Denver and then in the rest of the baseball world is like two different games. It is too much a task for batters and pitchers to overcome with any kind of consistency. The location hurts the team's results and its reputation. And I find both to be a bit of a sad story.