Lefties, southpaws, portsiders (and some ground balls) : The common sense series part II

Doug Pensinger

In Part II of the Common Sense Series, SBN Designated Columnist Cee Angi searches for left-handed hitters to take advantage of a left-hander-favoring park.

I had the pleasure of making my first-ever trip to Denver last week. As a southerner turned midwesterner, I haven't spent a lot of time out west. It was my first time at high altitude other than in the Smoky Mountains, and my first time seeing the Rockies, which are just as beautiful as everyone assured me they would be. The trip was short, but I had a couple of nice meals at Root Down, Linger, and the Cherry Cricket, and although the trip involved spending a lot of time in a medical center, I also got to see Coors Field...finally.

Now, I won't cheat and cross the park off of my "officially visited" list until I've actually seen a game there, but it's one of two parks left on my list of 15 outstanding stadiums that I have been most anxious to see (the other is Safeco Field). I've been assured that Coors Field is one of the nicest in the majors, but I'd be lying if I didn't admit the appeal for me is largely about park effects. For years, I've been fascinated by this ballpark that exists in a completely different environment than any of the 29 other teams, and I've often wondered if the Rockies really went all-in on exploiting the advantages of the ballpark.

That brings us to Part Two of my Common Sense series*: Capitalizing on the advantages of Coors Field. As with part one, some of the information that follows will not be new to you, but the Rockies have shown a certain ineptitude or reluctance in implementation.

*you can read Part One of the Common Sense series here.

When the Rockies were born 20 years ago, was easy to understand how befuddling the ballpark's characteristics seemed. Not that basic principles like physics and the effects of altitude were unknown (I asked my mom, and she said the baking instructions for high altitude have been on cake mixes since before I was born), but the specific effects on baseball were hazy at best and the metrics we use today in measuring park factors didn't have the same precision they do now. Bottom line: at this stage, given all of the scientific data that's available to identify the advantages and disadvantages of Coors Field, if the Rockies don't construct a roster tailored to the park, they are willingly setting themselves up for failure -- but that does not necessarily mean pure power bats in the old-school Dante Bichette style.

A good starting point for the current state of Coors Field is to look at the three-year park factors in the latest Bill James Handbook, which show the park is favorable to all hitters (duh), but exceptionally favorable to lefties. Over the past three seasons, the index for right-handed hitter's batting average is 116 and for right-handed home runs it's 126. For lefties, the index is 118 and 156 respectively. Compare this to the new Yankee Stadium, also a haven for left-handers, where the three-year park factor for home runs by a left-handed hitter is 153.

This tells us two things: The Rockies need left-handed hitters in the lineup nightly, but they also need pitchers who excel against left-handed hitters to tame the visitors. Only six left-handed hitters have slugged .500 for the Rockies in a full season -- Larry Walker, Todd Helton, Jeromy Burnitz, Brad Hawpe, Carlos Gonzalez and Tyler Colvin. Colvin and Gonzalez are prime examples of lefties excelling at Coors. Colvin's slugging percentage was .652 at home versus .413 away, and 11 of his 18 home runs came at home. Gonzalez's slugging percentage was .609 at home versus .405 away, and 13 of his 22 home runs came at home.

Even though the Rockies have the most hitter-friendly park in the majors, they've yet to capitalize on that as well as they could. Think about it: there have been 42 seasons of players hitting 50 or more home runs; 24 of those seasons have happened since the Rockies came into being. Yet, despite the run rates registering off the charts, and despite the park, no Rockie has ever hit more than 49 home runs. To me, that says that they haven't had as many good hitters as they should have. At this point, we know that the player most likely to have that success is a left-hander, given the park factors, so while there would be great benefit in acquiring a lefty who fits that slugging profile (someone like Todd Helton in his prime, alas), but more than that, there is a benefit to having more lefties in the lineup each night in general to bring some of the advantage back.

One thing is obvious: It's unlikely that Helton is that guy as he heads into what could be his last season (if his hip allows him to even have a last season), and given the park's proclivities, the Rockies simply need more left-handed plate appearances than they were able to get last season. The Rockies ranked 12th in the National League in plate appearances by left-handed batters, down from fourth in 2011 and first in 2010.

Since we know left-handed hitters are most lethal at Coors Field, and that applies to the opposition as well, having an arsenal of left-handed pitchers is also critical to tempering the bats. The Rockies got part of that correct in 2012: Left-handed pitchers faced 2,430 batters, the most in the league. The only problem was they weren't particularly good left-handed pitchers. The inability to develop left-handed pitching stands out as one of the organization's major failures. Jeff Francis is the team leader in WAR for left-handed pitchers, which says a lot, as does the fact that with just 26 starts for the team, Drew Pomeranz is already in the franchise's top 10 for career starts by left-handed pitchers.

There's some hope that Rex Brothers could have a future in high-leverage situations, as he struck out 28.1% of batters faced in 2012; there's also hope that Josh Outman continues to look as sharp in the spring as he did in the Dominican League this winter. The Rockies have several long-relievers they might decide to trade now that the four-man rotation experiment is over and if they do, looking for left-handed specialists should be the top priority.

The struggle of the Rockies to find pitchers who can be successful at altitude is already epic, and we're not going to solve it here, but it's worth noting that the too-simple-to-be-true idea that ground-ball pitchers can defeat Coors Field is true and has already been proven by the Rockies from 2006 to 2010, when they either led or were among the league leaders in ground-ball/fly-ball rate and concurrently received some of the best pitching in organizational history. The chart below shows the Rockies GB/RB Rank in the NL, as well as their ERA+ rank in the same season.

Year

NL GB/FB Rank

NL ERA+ Rank

2000

5

4

2001

15

8

2002

8

13

2003

10

10

2004

7

15

2005

9

12

2006

4

4

2007

1

3

2008

3

9

2009

2

5

2010

3

2

2011

6

8

2012

12

13

The bad news is that these groundball pitchers are hard to find -- aside from Jeff Francis, all of the Rockies' current starters are below league average in GB/FB. The low GB/FB rate makes a big difference when comparing this season's struggles with the success in 2007 and 2009, when they were first and second in the league in GB/FB respectively. The Rockies have Jhoulys Chacin and Jorge de la Rosa set to make their return in 2013, but neither matches the profile for pitchers who will have long-term success at Coors. Unfortunately the Rockies can't clone Trevor Cahill, owner of the best GB/FB in the majors, or lure him from the Diamondbacks, but if they are serious about adding another pitcher with a high GB/FB ratio, Justin Masterson is available. Masterson was sixth in the majors this season, and has career 1.29 GB/FB rate, which is a Rockies' dream, considering league average is .80.

The Rockies have some better GB/FB pitchers in the bullpen, though the effects of the four-man rotation have made it much harder to assess the talent in the ‘pen and which pieces will remain. Using a more conventional bullpen will benefit the Rockies since they'll now have the roster spots to focus on specialty pitchers, and as mentioned before their priority should be not only for those effective against lefties, but those who can induce groundballs and get strikeouts. Of those already on the roster, Matt Belisle and Adam Ottavino can get strikeouts, and Tyler Chatwood and Alex White meet the GB/FB criteria.

Of course, the ground-ball emphasis isn't a panacea on its own. First of all, it has been argued that because fastball movement is retarded at elevation, pitchers who throw a sinking fastball lose sink and get hammered. Then there's the idea that Rockies pitchers have to get strikeouts, because the safest way to avoid being punished by a hitter's park is to keep the ball at home plate. Of course, guys who rely on the sinker often aren't high-strikeout pitchers, so we're already at cross-purposes. Rockies pitchers should also have excellent command and control, the former so that they can overcome the problematic effects of retarded movement and the latter so that they limit baserunners -- if home runs are inevitable, at least let them be solo home runs. Strikeout pitchers also often walk batters, so again, we're bumping up against the natural order here.

Still, we can dream. The problem is, having named all the qualities a pitcher may need to succeed at elevation -- ground balls, great control, and strikeouts -- is that we've just described Greg Maddux in his prime ... and he had a career 5.19 ERA at Coors (4.56 if you include his games at Mile High Stadium). That kind of pitcher comes around once in the life of a franchise, if that. The winning Rockies team is going to get everything else right and hope that their pitchers might have at least some of these qualities going for them -- Ubaldo Jimenez's strikeouts, Aaron Cook's ground balls.

The Rockies are not expected to make many moves this offseason, so I'm granting all of you the right to bitch, moan, and send a strongly worded letter to the general manager if anyone they add to the 40-man isn't left-handed (or capable of inducing ground balls). When an organization isn't in a position to work out blockbuster deals or spend money on free agents, even the smallest moves make a difference, and the biggest benefit will come in the form left-handedness.

Cee Angi is one of SBN's Designated Columnists, one of the minds behind the Platoon Advantage, and the author of Baseball-Prose. Follow her at @CeeAngi.

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