The Colorado Rockies have been a professional baseball team since 1993. And while the team's fortunes have been more negative than positive, even during its best of times (postseason appearances in 1995, 2007, 2009), the Rockies have been known as a franchise who has had great hitters but terrible pitchers. The altitude has always been an issue in Colorado, as their home stadium of Coors Field is exactly 1600 meters above sea level. This has resulted in the flight of a baseball to have a mind of its own, with a lot more home runs, extra base hits and total runs scored in Coors Field than in any other baseball stadium. According to scoutingbook.com, in a survey taken from the seasons of 2010-2013, Coors Field produced a total of 143 runs for every 100 runs scored in every other MLB ballpark. Coors Field produced 145 home runs for every 100 hit in any other ballpark. This has been a problem from the inception of the franchise.
What is the cause of this extra offense?
Perhaps the best solution is to move the team back to sea level, which would be out of the state of Colorado and its surrounding areas. Well, maybe that proposition is a little too drastic and not at all practical. Pitching in Coors Field has been an issue since 1993. The Rockies generally have some of the worst pitching numbers in the entire sport and the majority of it can be traced to playing their home games in the higher altitude of Coors Field. Of course, the thin air allows for the ball to travel much better which allows for fly balls to go farther and higher in the air. But it also impacts the ability for a pitcher to execute a proper pitch. Pitchers are trained to keep the ball down as they pitch and the altitude makes it near impossible. History shows pitches kept up in the strike zone are generally the ones that get hit hard, and subsequently, over the fence. So, if the ball travels at such a ridiculous rate and a pitcher is unable to keep the ball down according to the game plan, what reason would a pitcher choose to pitch their home games in such a hitter friendly park?
Does a home grown Rockies pitcher have a chance in the Major Leagues?
This fact is impacting the draft as both high school and college pitchers are trying to find ways to avoid being selected by the Rockies. To provide some research, a tally was made by all of the Rockies draft picks in the history of the franchise (from 1992-2012). This tally included all pitchers drafted in the first three rounds of the draft pitching at least 50 innings in the major leagues. And finally, all pitchers included in this research had to pitch in the major leagues for the Rockies.
The results showed only one pitcher drafted in the first three rounds has pitched to an earned run average less than 4.53 with the Rockies and out of the 12 pitchers in the study, only four pitched to an ERA less than 5.00 with the Rockies.
The most recent top three round draft pick to pitch in the major leagues for the Rockies is Eddie Butler. Butler, a first round draft pick in 2012, has pitched to a 6.04 ERA. Chad Bettis, the Rockies second round draft pick in 2010, has a career ERA of 5.22. Christian Friedrich, the Rockies first round pick in 2008, has a career ERA of 5.81. Among pitchers who have only pitched for the Rockies, 2009 first round draft pick Tyler Matzek is the only anomaly with an ERA of just 4.06 in 24 career starts.
Out of the other seven pitchers, all of whom pitched for both the Rockies and at least one other major league baseball team, Jeff Francis, Jason Jennings, and Aaron Cook all stand out. They stand out because they are the three pitchers who were home grown that have had the biggest impact in the history of the Colorado Rockies franchise. Francis (first round of 2002) pitched to a 4.96 ERA in his career in Colorado. After he left, he pitched to a 5.04 ERA. Jennings (first round of 1999) pitched to a 4.74 ERA in Colorado, over 6.00 after he left. And Cook (second round of 1997) pitched to a 4.53 ERA during his time with the Rockies, 5.65 after he left. All three pitched their best baseball in Colorado but their higher earned run averages suggest the altitude and thin air likely impacted their performances during home games.
The final group of pitchers all seemed to improve once they left the Rockies organization. Greg Reynolds (first round pick in 2006) pitched to a 7.47 ERA in his time with the Rockies and had a 5.52 ERA elsewhere. Shawn Chacon (third round pick in 1996) pitched to a 5.20 ERA in Colorado and a 4.67 ERA elsewhere. Jamey Wright (first round in 1993), who by the way will be in spring training with the Los Angeles Dodgers, pitched to a 5.40 ERA in Colorado and is at 4.43 elsewhere. Fellow 1993 draft pick Bryan Rekar (second round) pitched to a 6.54 ERA with the Rockies and 5.33 afterwards.
There has to be some uncertainty over the recently drafted and developed Colorado Rockies pitchers. 2013 first round draft pick Jon Gray struggled in his first taste of big league ball last season. The same could be expected for 2014 first round draft pick Kyle Freeland and 2015 second round draft pick Mike Nikorak.
How about bringing in an established free agent pitcher?
So, if the Rockies are having a hard time developing pitchers, for whatever the reason is, another option is free agency. Even though there were other free agent signings, Mike Hampton and the late Darryl Kile are prime examples of pitchers who signed big contracts to pitch for the Rockies. Hampton, who signed an eight year deal for over $100 million because he liked the Colorado school district, pitched to a 5.75 ERA in his two seasons with the Rockies but had a 3.72 ERA during the rest of his big league career. Kile, who signed a five year contract with the Rockies, pitched to a 5.84 ERA in his two seasons in Colorado but had a 3.70 ERA for the Astros and Cardinals. Both pitchers were traded after the second season of their long-term deal.
This has become a situation where solutions are minimal if they even exist at all. The Rockies as an organization may have to do something unprecedented. If you look at the changed in the standard free agent baseball contract, it continues to include more guaranteed years and more guaranteed dollars. And all one would have to do is ask a pending free agent star pitcher is they would ever sign a long term contract with the Colorado Rockies, and the answer would be comical. The truth is, the biggest and most lucrative contracts in baseball right now would not be enough to convince a star pitcher to risk the potential change in effectiveness to pitch in Colorado. One thing that has not be attempted is for the Rockies to set a parameter, one which consists of offering a top pitcher well over what their top offer is, in both guaranteed years and in dollars. In other words, make a top starting pitcher choose between a much less offer and pitching in Colorado. In some instances, yours truly iss sure some pitchers would leave the money on the table. But the Rockies have never had a top pitcher in all of major league baseball on their roster. It is time to see how the best in the game can fare in the worst of pitching environments.