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They were all warned pitching a mile above sea level would be tough on their arms and egos, but none of the Colorado Rockies pitchers was ready for the punishing reality that awaited during the franchise's debut season.
Their No. 1 starter spent most of the 1993 season on the disabled list with a partially torn ligament in his elbow. A 12-year veteran hit the waiver wire in early June with an ERA nearly triple his career average. And promising young closer Darren Holmes accepted a demotion to Triple A after completing the first month of the season with an ERA of nearly 18 and nagging doubts that his off-speed pitches would ever have the same bite at altitude as they did at sea level.
"My best pitch was my curve ball, and it wasn't doing what it was supposed to do," Holmes recalled. "I couldn't get it down in the strike zone to save my life. There was a lot of pressure on me to be the closer, and I was struggling mightily. It was horrible."
Solving the riddle of how to pitch at altitude has been Colorado's central challenge since the inception of the franchise, yet the Rockies aren't much closer to an epiphany now than they were during their inaugural season two decades ago. The franchise is last in the majors in ERA this season and has failed to escape the bottom five 16 times in the previous 21 seasons, a statistic that illustrates that the challenges of pitching at Coors Field go well beyond fly balls carrying further in Colorado's thin air.
Though Coors Field's architects attempted to ensure the ballpark wasn't too home run friendly by positioning the walls as deep as possible, the outfield being so vast actually makes it tougher on pitchers in some ways. Balls that would typically be caught in other stadiums fall in front of outfielders in Denver and singles that would easily be cut off elsewhere shoot through the gaps for extra-base hits.
The challenge of getting curve balls and sliders to behave the way they normally would also favors hitters. Not only do pitchers insist the dry, humidity-free air in Denver makes it harder for them to get the spin they need to snap off their off-speed pitches, studies also show the altitude causes curve balls and sliders to break as much as 20 percent less than they normally would at sea level.
Between the temptation to tweak throwing motions to compensate for the altitude and the impact of the thin, oxygen-deprived air on recovery time for sore muscles, pitchers are also at greater risk for injury playing for Colorado than other teams. The Rockies have done studies that show pitchers who throw 200-plus innings two or three years in a row in Colorado rarely avoid serious injury the following season.
"It's always going to be the toughest park to pitch in because there are so many unique issues," said Marcel Lachemann, who spent two seasons as a pitching coach for the Rockies and 10 more as a special assistant to general manager Dan O'Dowd. "You were going to give up cheap runs that wouldn't happen anywhere else, but if you could minimize that by not walking people and not getting frustrated, you were still going to have a chance to win the game. From a pitcher's standpoint, the only stat you could hang onto was wins and losses. Other numbers were not going to stack up against anyone else in baseball because you were playing against a stacked deck."
Since the Rockies believe altitude-related issues have played a role in the franchise only making the playoffs three times in 22 seasons, team officials have spent countless hours studying how to mitigate the effects of playing at elevation or use them to their advantage.
One of the major changes they made was the 2002 installation of the Coors Field humidor, a climate-controlled room used to prevent baseballs from drying out air in hopes that would make them easier for pitchers to grip and prevent them from carrying as far. Home runs have decreased from 272 per year at Coors Field in the last three pre-humidor seasons to 193 in the 12 full seasons since, but the switch doesn't appear to have made a dramatic overall impact since the Rockies' average finish is 26th in ERA pre-2002 and 25th since.
"The humidor made things a little better," said Jason Jennings, a starting pitcher for the Rockies from 2001 to 2006. 'The balls didn't shrink as much but they were still dry. They'd rub them up with that mud like they do everywhere else, but that mud would turn into a layer of dry chalk. I would sometimes take a little bit of water and rub that mud off because the mud did me no good there."
In addition to trying to diminish the impact of the altitude, the Rockies have also tried to tailor their pitching staff to be better suited to it than their opponents are.
They seek sinker ball specialists in the draft and free agency because they tend to give up the least fly balls and they grow their infield grass higher than most Major League teams to increase the chances that ground balls won't find holes in the defense. They also try to avoid older pitchers whose arms break down faster at altitude and pitchers who rely on big, looping curve balls since that pitch is the least effective at Coors Field.
The most drastic experiment came during summer 2012 when the Rockies adopted a four-man rotation and limited their starters to 75 pitches apiece. The idea was to limit starters' exposure to a third or fourth run through the opposing lineup when batters typically start to enjoy more success.
Alas for the Rockies, the impact wasn't what they hoped. Colorado finished with the second worst record in the majors that season and abandoned the experiment soon afterward, a decision surely also influenced by the open hostility toward the experiment from their pitchers.
"For years, even when I first got there, we tried to figure out what the ideal, perfect pitcher is for Coors Field," Lachemann said. "The first thought is keeping the ball out of the air. The second was not a big breaking ball. We also found out that more than anything, the mental makeup of the pitcher was most important. You have to have someone who has the fortitude to realize that a high ERA goes with the territory but you can give up five or six runs and still have a good chance to compete to win the game."
What the Rockies have learned the past two decades is it's easier to instill that approach in a young prospect groomed in their minor league system than it is in a veteran free agent accustomed to playing in more pitcher-friendly ballparks. Colorado often will have to overpay to land a top free agent pitcher because few want to play there, and those they do land sometimes flame out spectacularly.
The original bust was Greg Harris, a veteran right-hander with a career ERA of 2.95 when the Rockies acquired him from San Diego before the trade deadline in 1993. Pitching a mile above sea level rendered Harris' trademark sweeping curve ball almost useless, contributing to his combined 4-20 record with an ERA of nearly seven in two disastrous seasons with the Rockies.
A more recent disappointment is Jeremy Guthrie, an above average starter for the past seven years with the exception of a four-month stint in Colorado in 2012. He signed a one-year, $8.2 million contract but couldn't make the transition to Coors Field and went 3-9 with an ERA of nearly seven before getting shipped off to Kansas City.
Of course, Colorado's most infamous free agent flops are Denny Neagle and Mike Hampton, former all-star starters signed to lucrative longterm deals by the Rockies before the 2001 season.
After agreeing to a five-year, $51.5 million contract, Neagle went 19-23 with a 5.56 ERA for the Rockies and missed most of the 2003 and 2004 seasons with shoulder and elbow injuries. Hampton appeared to be just the sort of sinker ball specialist who should have been able to flourish in Denver when he inked a then-record eight-year, $121 million contract, but he began tinkering with his mechanics during a nightmarish second half of his debut season and further deteriorated the following year when he went 7-15 with an ERA of 6.15.
"Mike was almost the prototypical guy you want to get — sinker ball guy, very good athlete, excellent competitor," Lachemann said. "If you had a conversation with Mike, he'd probably tell you the ballpark kind of got to him. The sinker that Mike had was just naturally the way the ball came out of his hand, but the lack of humidity started to affect him and he had to change his grip in order to manufacture that sink. Now you can end up with some delivery issues, and that's what happened with Mike."
Pitchers who came up in the Rockies' minor-league system enjoyed the advantage of being groomed to handle the challenges presented by Coors Field. Pitching coaches tweaked their repertoire of pitches to better suit Coors Field and drilled into their heads the importance of not allowing a bad inning to derail their confidence or concentration.
Jennings was primarily a two-pitch pitcher in college at Baylor, but opposing teams feasted on his slider during his first two months at Triple-A Colorado Springs. As a result, his coaches forced him to become less reliant on that pitch by implementing a rule that he had to throw 20 or more change-ups every start he made.
"A slider was always my bread-and-butter pitch, but I wasn't going to be able to rely on that if I was going to have any success in Colorado," Jennings said. "That change-up was a life saver for me pitching in altitude."
Holmes' unexpected two-week stint in Triple-A in 1993 turned out to be just as critical to his eventual success in Denver.
He learned to account for the reduced break in his curve ball and slider at altitude by increasing the spin he put on the ball and targeting the top of home plate if he wanted a strike and the front of the plate if he needed to entice a swing and miss. Though it was sometimes tough to readjust on the road, the change worked well enough for Holmes to regain his closer's job in 1993 and later become an effective set-up man the next three seasons in Colorado.
"I really changed my whole style of pitching," Holmes said.
To have success in a ballpark that gives pitchers nightmares, sometimes that's what it takes.
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