When they debuted in 1993, the Colorado Rockies knew playing baseball in the Rocky Mountains was an exercise in transplanting the sport to an environment unlike any other. They just didn't know how much of a distraction it would become. Baseball at altitude is the great game's overly gnawed chew toy—the bright, shiny object that distracts us from what's really wrong with the team in Colorado. Sure, playing in Coors Field might generate overrated sluggers or a rotation featuring starters with ERAs in the high 5.00s. But far more troubling than the inflated statistics is how the difficulties of mile-high ball have become a handy excuse for every Rockies failure.
Baseball in Denver is played nearly 4,200 feet higher than the next-loftiest stadium, Phoenix's Bank One Ballpark. In the thin, dry Colorado air the ball's seams face less friction—breaking pitches break less and fastballs lose their tailing action. Thus handicapped, pitchers have a harder time fooling hitters. To make matters worse, that same dry air means that batted balls travel farther. It's a climate that favors the hitter far more than anywhere else in the game's history.
From 1995 to 2003, the nine years since Coors Field replaced old Mile High Stadium, major leaguers hit .265 with a .333 on-base percentage and a .421 slugging percentage outside of Coors Field. In Coors, the Rockies and their opponents combined to hit .313/.374/.522.
Major League Baseball and the Rockies anticipated this, at least to some extent. The franchise's original general manager, Bob Gebhard, commissioned research to determine some rough guides on how much altitude would affect performance. Gebhard sensibly anticipated that hitters would want to come to Colorado, so he focused on developing young pitchers while filling out his roster with veterans lured from other teams. That seemed to pay early dividends: Veteran first baseman Andres Galarraga enjoyed a remarkable rebirth at the plate and Vinny Castilla went from being an iffy utility infielder with the Braves to a star third baseman.
Dante Bichette is the ultimate poster child for what hitting at altitude can do for your career. A strikeout-prone outfielder with modest power, Bichette soared to new heights in Colorado. Of his 262 career home runs, more than half—136—came at altitude, despite the fact that Bichette had 1,804 more at-bats close to sea level than at Coors Field. When he was finally traded away after seven seasons, Bichette's career petered out with remarkable speed. In the meantime, he'd gone from being a reserve making about $230,000 to a superstar with consecutive three-year deals that paid nearly $35.5 million.
While it's easy to pin their problems on thin-air sickness, the Rockies have only themselves to blame for their inability to push past .500. Enriched by a rabid fan base that gave the Rockies the best attendance in baseball from 1993-99, the real "Coors effect" was what happened to the team's payroll. The Rockies spent big money on modest talents like Bichette, second basemen Eric Young and Mike Lansing, and center fielder Tom Goodwin and dodgy veteran pitchers like Bret Saberhagen, Bill Swift, Darryl Kile, and Scott Karl. In overpaying for veteran hitters, the Rockies were compensating for a farm system that hasn't produced any talent beyond first baseman Todd Helton; in overpaying for veteran pitchers, they paid the price for their inability to develop young arms.
When Dan O'Dowd became the Rockies' GM after the 1999 season, he pitched ownership on something both necessary and simple: a scheme for evaluating player performance at altitude. O'Dowd promised to study every angle for how to play ball in Denver. And he did. The organization has studied what sorts of pitchers and hitters might derive bigger benefits from playing in Coors. They've looked at how the Broncos and the Nuggets have dealt with altitude. The problem is that O'Dowd took his ideas too far. Based on a theory that pitchers reliant on fastballs and change-ups might be less vulnerable in Coors Field, he shelled out infamously huge long-term contracts to Mike Hampton and Denny Neagle that handicapped the team for years.
The Rockies' attempts to solve the altitude riddle—they've even taken to storing game balls in a humidor to keep the baseball from getting as dry as its environment—would be ridiculous if they weren't so sad. If you put the Colorado teams of the past 10 years in a "normal" stadium—say, Comiskey Park—they still would have stunk. In fact, given that they've won only 39 percent of their road games, they probably would have been much, much worse.
If Coors Field stops the Rockies from winning games, it isn't supported by their record: Colorado does better than the average ballclub at home, winning more than 55 percent of its games over the last 10 years. The Rockies know how to win at Coors, and do. What they need to sort out is how to fix that miserable road record. Rockies hitters—usually struggling hitters—claim that the team is penalized by a hangover effect, where playing at high altitude leaves them ill-prepared to go on the road again and face snapping breaking pitches. As theories go, it sounds good, but a study by Baseball Prospectus' Rany Jazayerli shows that no matter the length of a homestand or road trip, the Rockies hit the curveball just as pathetically.
The team's home and road records lead to a basic conclusion: The Rockies' players aren't talented enough to win major-league baseball games anywhere. Colorado needs to stop drafting high-school football players who might one day become good baseball players and instead beat the bushes for players who already have high on-base and slugging percentages. Re-sign great players like Helton, whose stats don't nose dive when they leave Coors, and dump the guys who can't hit a home run in Miami. When it comes to pitching, the Rockies should take a cue from their single moment of glory, the team's trip to the 1995 playoffs. Build a rotation of cheap starters who can go a lot of innings—they're going to be out there for a while. Focus on crafting a solid bullpen: Relievers generally throw more fastballs and strike out more hitters than starters, and so are less dependent on balls in play.
During O'Dowd's four-year tenure as GM, the team has won 82, 73, 73, and 74 games. 2004 isn't looking promising either. The Rockies, off to a 3-4 start, are the consensus pick for last place in the NL West. "I think that the altitude issue has created a mind-set here, which has led to an attitude problem here," O'Dowd told the Rocky Mountain News this March. O'Dowd is right. The focus on the "problem" of playing baseball at altitude has distracted the Rockies from their real responsibility—to build a better baseball team by getting better ballplayers.