Coors Field: A Laboratory of Innovation

     Coors Field is unlike any other sports venue in professional sports in the way that it tangibly affects on-field outcomes. Due to the high altitude in Denver, the air is thinner so the ball carries further. In an attempt to normalize home run outputs, the outfield fences have to be deeper than a typical MLB park. However, deeper fences mean a more expansive outfield. A more expansive outfield means outfielders must cover more ground which inevitably leads to more base hits and more runs.

     Due to these hitter-friendly park conditions, the Rockies have ranked towards the bottom half of the NL every year but twice since their inception in 1993. This is in part because even if the Rockies overpay (See: Mike Hampton), no starting pitcher in their right mind would ever want to endure the psychological torment that comes with pitching at Coors Field. With external improvements out of the realm of possibility, the Rockies have been limited to building a staff entirely from within their own organization. In order for this to be successful, the Rockies would need an entire staff of young starting pitchers to succeed simultaneously before they inevitably elect to sign elsewhere the moment they become free agent eligible. With these structural barriers to success in place, the Rockies have had to experiment. They have tried everything from building their rotation around sinker-ballers to loading up their staff with hard throwers (under the assumption that breaking balls are less effective in high altitude). However, these attempts to mitigate the Coors Field Effect have all failed because they have not targeted the real root of the problem. The Rockies have overlooked the fact that not only does the high altitude make the ball fly further, but it also has an extremely taxing effect on starting pitchers. This is reflected in the fact that no Rockies starting pitcher has reached 200 innings since Ubaldo Jimenez did so in 2010.  Due to these reasons, I am proposing a bold plan for the Rockies:

     The Rockies should use more relief pitchers than any other team in MLB history. It is well known that pitchers do worse the second and third times through the lineup, but the taxing effect that the high altitude has on starting pitchers is especially pronounced in the mile-high city. By limiting their starting pitchers to only one time through the lineup, they would be able to avoid this taxing effect. In order for this plan to work, Colorado would have to alter their roster construction in an unprecedented way. The Rockies could either go to a three man rotation to make room for additional relief pitchers or resort to a six-man rotation in which two starting pitchers could piggyback each other.

 

In the first option, the Rockies pitching staff would look something like this:

 

Starting Pitchers (3)

Closer (1)

Set-up man (1)

Middle Relievers (6)

Left Handed Specialists (2)

 

In the second option, the Rockies pitching staff would look something like this:

 

Starting Pitchers (3)

Long Relievers (Next best three starting pitchers) (3)

Closer (1)

Set-up Man (1)

Middle Relievers (4)

Left Handed Specialists (1)

 

     With the Rockies roster makeover in place, let’s consider some of the additional advantages of this move. First off, the Rockies would be able to take advantage of platoons on a much more regular basis. As it stands now, many teams will have two players who get regular starts at a certain position, one that is better at hitting left-handed pitchers and one that enjoys more success against righties. Since the Rockies would now change pitchers after the first time through the opposing lineup, other teams could not as effectively utilize platoons.

     Another distinct advantage that this would give the Rockies is that they would not have to waste at-bats on offense by having their pitchers hit. If a pitcher is going to be replaced by a reliever in the following inning anyways, there would be no sense in ever giving pitchers at-bats (with the exception of maybe one at-bat for the starting pitcher). Rockies manager Bud Black would have to be careful about using too many bench players early in games for pinch-hit at-bats so he does not run out of options later in the game, but if Black used this strategy effectively, he could essentially have a low-end DH option for ⅔ of every game.

     The Rockies would also benefit from this strategy from a health standpoint. The aforementioned taxing effect does not just decrease performance for starting pitchers at Coors Field, it can also lead to more injuries by forcing pitchers to pitch through fatigue. Trainer Keith Dugger commented on the effect that Coors Field can have on the body back in 2012, “Your body feels different. You get dehydrated here faster. You have to pay much closer attention to nutrition. You have to be more vigilant, absolutely.” Considering that we are in an era that young arms are protected more than ever before and coupling this consideration with all the health problems that Coors Field presents, it only makes sense that the Rockies training staff would limit the workload of young pitchers in order to prevent injuries.  

     This strategy also makes sense from an organizational standpoint. The Rockies AAA affiliate is located in Albuquerque, which also has an attitude roughly a mile above sea level. By being able to groom young starting pitchers to occupy a peculiar pitching role in a similar environment, they will be more equipped to handle that role once they reach the big leagues. As a side note, the Rockies organization is currently filled with high-velocity arms that need refinement. In other words, arms that would fit perfectly in my proposed plan.

     As the free market currently stands, starting pitchers are far more expensive than relief pitchers. Despite three closers getting record contracts for relief pitchers this offseason (Mark Melancon, Kenley Jansen, Aroldis Chapman), relief pitchers will continue to make less money than starters because they pitch far fewer innings. For some perspective, Kenley Jansen has a career ERA of 2.20 and signed a 5 year, 80 million dollar contract this offseason with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Mike Leake has a career ERA of 3.99 and signed the exact same contract last offseason with the St. Louis Cardinals. Considering that average starting pitchers make about the same as elite closers despite being much worse on a per-inning basis, the Rockies could feasibly overpay for an array of high-end middle relievers to compile a staff that would have a lower collective ERA than their competitors.

     While I cannot deny that this is a radical solution to the Rockies problem, the 2016 postseason signaled that the game is trending this way anyways. The sabermetric community already supports the theory that increased bullpen usage limits run production, but managers have only heeded to this advice in the postseason. Considering the plethora of failed experiments by the Rockies over the years and the fact that in 23 years they have never won the NL West, the team has little to lose by implementing this strategy in the regular season. In fact, this is an incredible opportunity for the Rockies to get ahead of the industry, they just need management with the audacity to initiate the change.

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