The Pacific Coast League hosts some of the most hitter-friendly parks in all of the minor leagues. Its top three parks are capable of leading just about every other league in scoring. This is partially due to altitude, but it's also because baseball in the western PCL is played in some of the driest deserts in North America. But as the great Bob Dylan once sang, times are a changin, because two of the PCL parks will be using a humidor to limit the effects of dryness in 2013, with a third looking into future possibilities.
Last season saw the installation of minor league baseball's first humidor in Colorado Springs. Installed by the Colorado Rockies in their nearby Triple-A park, Security Services Field became a testing ground for minor league teams whose parks are skewed towards extreme scoring. While Security Services Field sits at an altitude above 6,010 feet, the real problem is the dry air. The humidor helps to keep a baseball from shrinking and becoming difficult to grip. A hard baseball can be as slick as a cue ball and comes off a bat like a rocket.
I interviewed Sky Sox Assistant GM Michael Hobson and he explained that the humidor helped normalize baseball for both hitters and pitchers last year. "From an anecdotal perspective, talking to hitters and pitchers as well as umpire crews there was a difference from past seasons. The sound of the ball coming off the bat sounded more natural and the flight of the ball is what you would expect at a standard park. All in all it was a positive result that mirrored the results what we've seen in Coors Field."
From a statistics perspective, the ballpark in Colorado Springs helped Sky Sox pitchers to their lowest team ERA in three seasons. This table shows the worst ERA teams in the PCL over the past three seasons:
2010 2011 2012 Average Colo Spgs Sky Sox 5.97 6.98 5.52 6.16 Albuquerque Isotopes 6.20 6.19 5.58 5.99 Las Vegas 51's 6.76 6.13 5.04 5.98 Tucson Padres - 6.31 5.56 5.94 Reno Aces 5.83 5.88 5.54 5.75 Salt Lake Bees 5.50 6.01 5.55 5.69
Colo Spgs Sky Sox
Las Vegas 51's
Salt Lake Bees
The Albuquerque Isotopes also have one of the most extreme parks in the PCL, and their parent club the L.A. Dodgers initiated the installation of a humidor, "With the intention to balance the playing field and normalize the game." according to Isotopes GM John Traub.
John also explained that when it comes to handling balls and the humidor, minor league teams must follow the same guidelines set forth by Major League Baseball as the Colorado Rockies do, "There is a baseball handling protocol that has been approved by MLB, which covers how long the balls have to be in the humidor before they are used, how long they can be out of the humidor before needing to go back in, when they have to be rubbed up, etc."
Before installing their humidor, the Isotopes reached out to the Colorado Springs front office and even though they're league rivals, found them to be very helpful. The Sky Sox shared documents with Albuquerque that included humidor specifications and then also provided a tour of their humidor and facilities while the Isotopes were in town for a series last season.
I've heard some fans speculate that MLB teams will occasionally skip Triple-A to avoid exposing their most talented pitchers to the extreme hitters parks of the PCL. Recently the Rockies called up Juan Nicasio and Edwar Cabrera directly from Double-A Tulsa and the Dodgers sent Ruby De La Rosa to the majors bypassing Albuquerque. However Michael Hobson doesn't see it that way, "The way I look at it, if you're worried about putting somebody here then why would you put them in Coors? That's a big curve, especially against big league hitters. If they think somebody is ready or the organization has a need, then they'll call them up. I haven't seen a pitcher where they made that conscious decision to skip us."
The point that Hobson made in our interview was without a humidor the biggest impact was on minor league free agent pitchers. Pitchers are less likely to sign with a club that plays in an extreme hitters park, they prefer to sign and play somewhere where they have a better chance to be successful. This is a valid concern, because the Rockies have struggled when it comes to signing big money free agent pitchers, but pitchers trying to make a comeback in a minor league role would provide a greater value at less cost and less risk to the club. So normalizing a ballpark with the help of a humidor could provide a market opportunity in this area.
The Sky Sox reaped the benefits of playing at home with a humidor in 2012 when they lowered their ERA to 5.52 down from 6.98 the previous season. Some of this success could be attributed to having Drew Pomeranz, Rob Scahill and Alex White in the rotation compared to the previous season when Alan Johnson and Greg Reynolds were the top starting pitchers.
So while talent may have been a factor in the Sky Sox pitching improvement as Hobson points out, a pitcher still needs to hit his spots whether he plays in a humidor park or not:
"A pitcher who walks more and leaves the ball up is going to get hit hard no matter where he plays."
The Dodgers meanwhile, added a humidor in Albuquerque to aid in player development as stated by Dodgers VP of Player Development Dejon Walker in an article for the OC Register, "For us, playing at high elevation, it's about trying to make it a fair playing field more than anything else. It's (also) about getting them to be consistent in their delivery and their mindset and how they're attacking hitters."
Using Jerry Sands as an example, Walker also points out that an extreme hitters park has a negative effect on hitters. In the past two season, Sands hit 55 home runs with a slugging percentage of .552 as an Isotope. Meanwhile in 251 plate appearances for the Dodgers, Sands has only four home runs and a .376 slugging percentage. Sands was part of two trades last season, the first bringing in Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett and Carl Crawford to the Dodgers and then another that sent him to Pittsburgh as part of a package in exchange for Joel Hanrahan and Brock Holt.
How many more PCL clubs will adopt a humidor to normalize their park? Sources tell me the Diamondbacks affiliate in Reno is possibly considering the next humidor addition. This trend may signify the initial acceptance of humidors in minor league baseball as a way of normalizing dry-altitude affected parks.
Six teams have consistently finished in the bottom of team ERA in the PCL over the past three seasons, with an ERA near or above 6.00 at different times. Listed below is a comparison of the most extreme hitters parks in the PCL contrasted with a former PCL park in Portland that was the most extreme pitchers park. The graphic shows some of the primary causes of high scoring in these ballparks.
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