I recently read Charlie77's interesting post in which he speculated that climatic extremes -- and particularly the dry, hot years of 2002 and 2012 -- have an impact on baseball in Colorado. I wanted to speculate on some ways to think about this problem (climate affecting Colorado's game) and some ways to move beyond what is an intractable fact: Colorado is high and dry, and that affects how baseball is played here.
First some background about myself: I just submitted my PhD thesis and the topic was, broadly, how climatic and environmental change affect humans in marginal zones. Marginal zones are areas that are strongly affected by climatic and/or environmental change because they are already at the edges of where humans can successfully live. Think of Arctic zones, or deserts, places where it is difficult to grow food. I got interested in the topic because I am from Colorado and I've had a lifelong interest in things like water rights, desert and tundra climates, and how the intersection of human and environment clash in the Southwest. I then moved to the UK and also began to study high latitudes.
Ok, on to our favo(u)rite topic, the Colorado Rockies! As Charlie77 said and all of us who have lived there know, Colorado is a dry climate. Furthermore, the climate is unpredictable, and, based on our best projections of the current phase of climate change, is only likely to become more so.* Drier, hotter summers are predicted to become more common in the Southwest, Colorado included. We also live at relatively high altitude (for sport). I don't think we're going to abandon the Front Range Chaco-Canyon-style**, and we love our baseball, so instead we need to come up with some possible ways forward to play baseball in this place.
At this point I should say that, since I moved to the UK six years ago, I have gotten into cricket. The nerds of the Row will probably appreciate that I was intrigued by the sport after reading Douglas Adams' Life, the Universe, and Everything.*** I began to follow England's team and go to local games to watch a friend play. From this gateway, I progressed to joining a local team this year and even scoring some runs. Now we're at the point where I recently wrote a strongly-worded letter [ok, email] to the BBC complaining that they'd prematurely ended their coverage of a women's cricket match to broadcast something or other from Wimbledon.
So: cricket is a sport that people often compare to baseball. It involves bats, small balls with seams, runs, and batsmen (batters). There are bowlers (pitchers). There are fielding positions. There are wickets (bases???). Ok, so the analogy is breaking down. Cricket is actually quite different from baseball. However, there are three reasons why it is useful to think of the two sports as similar:
1. It's an easy way to explain cricket to Americans/Canadians and vice versa (as my Canadian friend discovered when she took a British choir on tour to a Giants game).
2. Psychologically, playing the sports is similar. Watching a bowler pace back to start his run up is very similar in its depiction of solitude to watching a pitcher move into his wind up. Neither game involves the crass countdown of a clock; they take place very much in their own time. Both sports involve the accumulation of statistics.
3. Most importantly to my point here, the actions of the game involve similar physics. Specifically, bowling/pitching and batting/hitting: the interaction of arm (throwing) and ball; and bat (hitting) and ball.
In 1993, when the Colorado Rockies took to the field, they were the first major league baseball team in a high-altitude, dry location.**** Major league baseball had previously been played at low altitude, relatively humid conditions. We knew about the differences between hitters' and pitchers' parks but Coors Field and the Rockies were an experiment into what would happen when the climate for baseball really changed. Now, almost 20 years later, we remain the only major league team that plays in these conditions. As Charlie77 and many others have noted, altitude and dryness have a definite effect upon play here. The question then becomes: what are we going to do about it? We have had the humidor for 10 years now and still, as Charlie77 argued, altitude and dryness continue to affect our play.
Therefore there seem to be three competing ways to address Colorado's issues:
1. High altitude/dryness require changes to how the game is played. This should be moderated through the use of technology. This is essentially what we are doing right now; we are using the humidor. However, as Charlie77 noted, the effect is still there. If our climate is only going to get hotter and drier, then the efficacy of the humidor will continue to decrease. One suggestion might be to take the balls out of the humidor not on the morning of the game, but immediately beforehand.
2. High altitude/dryness require changes to how the game is played. This should just be accepted and even encouraged as taking the game to a new and interesting place, as it is in cricket. They have much more experience with dry and high altitude conditions. Particularly in sub-Saharan Africa and the Indian subcontinent, there are many cricket pitches that have one or both conditions. Perhaps because it started in England (and stayed there, unlike that other English-invented game, baseball), weather and other climatic conditions are incredibly important to the game. If you listen to cricket match commentary (and I highly recommend it!), you will hear endless discussions not just of the weather during the game, but also of the conditions of the pitch as they have been affected by the weather. In some cases, games have been called off due to dry conditions affecting the pitch (and preparing the pitch for different weather conditions is very important). Altitude is also a recognised difference in cricket, as this amazing article including a picture of the Coors Field humidor demonstrates. As in baseball, this relates most to bowling (pitching) and to batting*****. For example, Wanderers stadium in Johannesburg is at 5700 feet above sea level; there South Africa was able to beat the world record top batting score (previously Australia's 434/4 if anyone out there wants to know). However, the bowlers who play there have adjusted their style; as in Colorado, balls thrown do not have the same kind of movement as they do at lower/wetter conditions. Therefore bowlers throw different types of bowls (pitches). This is similar to, oh, say, not trading for a flyball pitcher to play at Coors. It seems obvious to say that, but it relates to how we should recognise that Colorado is not other places; baseball at Colorado is not the same as in other places.
3. All of this is in everyone's head. We've seen a lot of pitchers fall apart in Colorado. We've also heard the national sports media stigmatise players who have played the majority of their careers in Colorado because of the "Coors Effect". And the Rockies have certainly had some impressive home/road splits in their time, suggesting that they know how to play at Coors better than other teams because of the amount of practice that they get. However, what little statistical information there is out there about this, the effects seem to have been greatly exaggerated, both in the minds of players and in the minds of people who write about the sport; I'm thinking of the obsession some NL West teams/followers have with the humidor or lack thereof. I'm thinking of the recent disintegration of Jeremy Guthrie (who hopefully is doing better). Baseball is notorious for being a sport that can mess with the minds of players. The Rockies should play on this psychological element and try to intimidate other teams with the "Coors Effect" while telling their own players that it's all imaginary. Of course then when someone gets traded they'll have to have their tongue cut out, but that's fine; it will be a good incentive for retaining star players. Seriously, though, the Rockies could easily play head games, particularly with opposing pitchers (Tim Lincecum?), about the effects of altitude and dryness.
Now that I've taken a tea break and discussed this with some British people, I'll present my conclusions: playing in the dry, high altitude conditions present a special challenge to the Rockies. I argue that, like in cricket, we should embrace that and make the game of baseball a bit more interesting. We can play with our pitching; perhaps even other teams will make an effort to use different kinds of pitching at Coors. If MLB had more than one team playing in similar conditions, then other teams might start changing around their rotations to plan for trips to these types of stadiums; certainly NL West teams might consider it. Unlike in cricket, baseball teams are somewhat hemmed in by the schedule of their rotation, but with some planning this could be different.
These aren't really concrete conclusions, per se, just some things to think about. Maybe the differences between the two sports are too great to be really drawing a useful analogy here. I think there's a case to be made to play with altitude more than we do in baseball; to make it a strength and a feature, embracing Coors Field as just a different form of baseball rather than a problem to be solved. Part of me hesitates to say this, since baseball is such a game of tradition -- but the other part of me is intrigued by imagining new aspects to the game.
In further conclusion, here's my favo(u)rite pitcher, Jeff Francis, talking about the humidor. And here's a bonus video of James Anderson (my favo(u)rite bowler), bowling for England.
*If you are interested in this topic, or any of the others mentioned here, I can recommend some reading for you.
**Chaco Canyon, and related archaeological landscapes like Mesa Verde, was almost certainly abandoned sometime around AD 1250-1300 due to a lengthy drought in the Southwest; this was probably preceded by a period of starvation, leading to cannibalism, although the evidence for cannibalism is somewhat controversial.
***In which (SPOILER ALERT!) aliens show up and steal the Ashes during The Ashes, one of my favo(u)rite scenes in the books.
****Yes, yes, the Diamondbacks. What of them? I spent a lot of time this morning researching the Diamondbacks and seeing if they are in any way analogous to the Rockies and the answer is: sort of, but. But their ballpark is weird and sort of negates the effect of the dryness, and they are also only 1,150 feet above sea level.
*****One difference between bowling and pitching is that, in bowling, the ball must bounce once between release by the bowler and reaching the batter. As a result, how the pitch is (wet and squishy versus dry and hard; made of clay versus made of a different kind of soil) affects how the ball bounces, which is obviously not something that baseball has to contend with.