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Tuesday Rockpile: Is Coors Field the Demon, or is it the Sinker?

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Sabermetrics pioneer Bill James dropped a bomb last week, indirectly suggesting that sustained success with pitching at Coors Field is closer to impossible than we thought.

Is the pitch that made Aaron Cook's career also the one that broke it?
Is the pitch that made Aaron Cook's career also the one that broke it?

It would not be correct to say that the Colorado Rockies have never had success with pitching in their 20 years of playing baseball at altitude. The 2009 Rockies actually featured one of the best pitching staffs in the National League. It would be correct, however, to suggest the Rockies have never had sustained success pitching at altitude.

That is no secret; in fact, it is becoming the chief narrative nationally about the baseball team at 20th and Blake. Tyler Kepner allocated 100% of his recent column space in the New York Times to this topic. The digitial ink spent on the issue continues to grow exponentially while solutions are nowhere to be found.

Last week, Bill James gave a hypothesis which, if true, further damages the Rockies' chances at sustained success at altitude. One of the earliest theories for succeeding at Coors Field was inducing as many ground balls as possible. It makes perfect sense - limit the home runs and batted balls into the hundred acre prairie that is the Coors outfield.

But back to James' assertion:

What I have never understood about ground ball pitchers, and do not understand now, is why they always get hurt. Show me an extreme ground ball pitcher, a guy with a terrific ground ball rate, and I'll show you a guy who is going to be good for two years and then get hurt.

The Rockies' two best pitchers in franchise history, Ubaldo Jimenez and Aaron Cook, were very good groundball pitchers. Both struggles with injuries and/or completely lost effectiveness. We know of Brandon Webb. What could be the reason for this? Sabermetrician Craig Wright has a sensible theory:

I believe the big issue with sinkerballers is that most continue to have as good or even better sinking action when their arm is a little tired. That doesn't happen with a normal fastball, which tends to lose effectiveness when the shoulder crosses the line of fatigue. As I've said many times, the key point in managing a pitcher's workload is not about pitches or innings in general, it is about curtailing the pitches and innings when the shoulder is starting to stress from fatigue. We are inclined to be more careless with a sinkerballer in that regard. He is more likely to be left in a game when his shoulder is most vulnerable to being damaged.

This certainly makes sense. The dark theory that Colorado's best established weapon at altitude is also a weapon of self-sabotage is too poetic and painful to think about...but up until now, we only have anecdotal evidence with confirmation bias.

Bill Petti tackled ten years' worth of injuries over the weekend to see if there was a correlation between ground ball rate and injury frequency or seriousness. Petti's quick calculations found that.....there was nothing to James' hypothesis. In fact, his numbers suggest that sinkerballers are less likely to be injured, which also makes sense given their low frequency of breaking pitches.

Petti's research is hardly conclusive, but it does give this Rockies fan hope that a ground-ball minded staff may still succeed at Coors Field, someday.


Roster Battle Updates

When the Rockies signed Jon Garland, they purged their roster of most left-handed pitchers. Colorado elected to let Drew Pomeranz start in the minor leagues rather than fiddle around in the bullpen, optioned Josh Outman and Christian Friedrich to AAA and returned Rule 5 pick Daniel Rosenbaum to the Nationals. With that, the rotation is settled, and we can no longer say the hapless 2012 rotation returns with nary a new name. Garland will start for the Rockies in today's game against the Dodgers.

The Rockies also released Miguel Batista and sent down Tyler Chatwood, Rob Scahill, Charlie Culberson, Gustavo Molina, Corey Dickerson, Ben Paulsen, Bobby Cassevah, Jeff Manship, and Charlie Blackmon. Jordan Pacheco, Eric Young Jr. and Tyler Colvin still seem rock solid in their bench roles.

Bullpen: Rafael Betancourt, Matt Belisle, Rex Brothers and Wilton Lopez are locks. Adam Ottavino appears to be. With Outman's surprise demotion, two bullpen spots remain. Edgmer Escalona is out of options and would seem to have an inside track for one spot. The remaining spot would be up for grabs between Chris Volstad and Manuel Corpas. My guess is Escalona/Corpas.

Back-up Catcher: It will either be Ramon Hernandez, who is under contract for $3.2 million this year, or Yorvit Torrealba, who is not currently on the roster. The Rockies seem to favor Torrealba, by either trading or even possibly releasing Hernandez. My guess is Torrealba gets the role.

Utility Infield: It is down to Reid Brignac (who is out of options), Jonathan Herrera and DJ LeMahieu (who do have options). This leads Patrick Saunders to think Brignac gets the roster spot, but the battle is wide open. The Rockies could get creative here, keep Pacheco as the backup catcher instead of Hernandez/Torrealba, and choose two utility infield guys. My guess is Herrera, but would not be shocked if Brignac makes the club. He has hit very well this week.

Third Base: It will be Chris Nelson with Nolan Arenado in AAA, or it will be Nolan Arenado, with Nelson traded for scraps. My guess is Nelson to start.

So, for the record, the Rockies will have three pieces of the Ubaldo Jimenez trade in AAA Colorado Springs. They traded Alex White to the Astros, and White is a lock for the Houston MLB roster. The Astros are undecided whether to put him in the bullpen or rotation. The player Colorado acquired for White, Wilton Lopez, will indeed be on Colorado's roster.

Elsewhere, it is decision day for some former Rockies. The Philles have until 10a MDT to decide whether to keep Aaron Cook, while Jamey Wright remains a favorite for a spot in the Rays bullpen. Over the weekend, the Pirates released Brad Hawpe.


Rockies Links

Q&A: Jason Giambi, Hitting Guru | FanGraphs Baseball - One can see why Giambi is thought of as hitting coach material.

Rockies' Wilin Rosario evolving into major-league power hitter - The Denver Post - Can he hit 30?

Baseball Prospectus | Prospectus Q&A: Josh Outman - This is five years old, but an interesting look at a pitcher who certainly did not expect to be in AAA now.

Vetoed Trades, Part Six | FanGraphs Baseball - Paul Swydan wrapped up his offseason series talking about Curt Flood. The series started off with the two big trades that Larry Walker vetoed. The only he finally allowed stings a little.