How is altitude really affecting pitchers?

Justin Edmonds

We hear from the Rockies all the time about the challenges of playing at altitude, but do they even know what that means?

Typically, the contents of a page with the current author’s name in the byline consists of a barely coherent 1,500 word rambling complete with charts and graphs that make it look more like the plans of a madman than actual baseball writing.

But today, dear reader, let the record show that by clicking on the Purple Row headline that brought you here, for once you will not have to suffer through such a fate, for this will not take long.

Like the rest of you, my reaction to the various adventures of Dick Monfort over the past week was all at once one of irritation, exasperation, and teetering on the precipice of nausea. That may seem overdramatic, but hey, sometimes profoundly stupid public stances have that effect on people. I’m not much of a political man, so I reserve these reactions primarily for the mind-numbing narratives generated seemingly in perpetuity from 20th and Blake.

But I digress.

During Monfort’s most recent P.R. tour (if it could truly be called that), one thought kept playing through my mind every time the issue of altitude was brought up: Do they even know how the altitude is affecting their pitchers?

It may seem silly on the surface, but has the general public ever gotten a straight answer on this from the Rockies?

Every study that I’ve encountered on the effects of altitude on pitches suggest that a fastball is the most negatively impacted pitch you can throw at altitude. It’s been pointed out in everything from a Fangraphs post over a year ago that pointed out that Carlos Gonzalez actually struggles with fastballs on the road rather than breaking pitches (contrary to popular belief), to Peter Keating’s write up in July’s issue of ESPN the Magazine on weather/altitude’s effect on pitches and how pitchers and hitters are reacting to this phenomenon.

Do the Rockies realize this? Because everything I’ve seen suggests that the organization still believes that a) breaking pitches simply don’t break at altitude (they do, just less break) and b) that Coors Field pitchers should avoid throwing breaking balls as a result (they shouldn’t, since less break actually means the ball doesn’t hang in the strike zone as long).

So just for fun, here’s a list of the starting pitchers in baseball who throw their fastball the least in the majors:

Non-fastball_starters_medium

Now, let’s narrow that down to the 10 pitchers who have pitched at least 10 innings at Coors Field over their careers, along with their OPS against at Coors:

Name IP OPS Against
35.2 0.724
63 0.921
48.1 0.7
66.2 0.758
24.1 0.648
32 0.84
Jorge De Le Rosa 411.1 0.734
10 0.743
81.2 0.761
25.2 0.978

A little bit of a mixed bag there, but bearing in mind that overall OPS at Coors Field this season is right around .793, and all of a sudden that group above looks pretty good overall.

I understand that for some of these guys, fastball numbers are impacted by their use of a cutter, but that only really affects a few of the names on our list, and keeps with the logic that mixing speeds and pitches is key for success at Coors.

Interestingly, searching through pitchers that throw the highest percentage of any one of sliders, curveballs or changeups didn’t yield much in terms of Coors Field success stories. I suppose that shouldn’t come as much surprise though. If a starter ranks in the top-10 in terms of his use of a secondary offering, chances are that it’s his only secondary offering. If you’re interested in seeing how well that works out for pitchers, see my column last week on Tyler Matzek.

Once again, we can make a fairly reasonable conclusion that mixing pitches and speeds is the key to success. This rings particularly true when you look at De La Rosa’s mix of pitches that have led to his gaudy numbers at Coors since 2011.

Yet when we hear Monfort speak, no mention of the skill set that has made De La Rosa successful at altitude, just "he’s won our last three."

Very insightful, Mr. Monfort.

I promised a shorter piece this week and I have told no lies. Rockies pitching will never improve until they figure out what type of pitchers work at Coors Field, and exactly why that is. Understanding what pitches are affected most by altitude is a big starting step, but the club still seems to be on the wrong track.

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