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Bob Apodaca: Pitchers need to realize altitude shouldn't change pitching ways

Former big league pitching coach Bob Apodaca talks Rockies pitching prospects with Purple Row. His influence can still be found throughout Colorado's minor league system.

Andrew Carpenean-US PRESSWIRE

"If you think all of our pitchers need to spend time in Triple-A, you are simply uninformed."

Without scorn or disrespect, former Colorado Rockies pitching coach and current pitching instructor for the minor league system Bob Apodaca emphatically renounces the call that Rockies pitchers must spend time in Colorado Springs.

"It isn't necessary," he says. "Maybe if your main pitch is a breaking pitch and we need to see how it does there and get you used to throwing it there, then absolutely Colorado Springs can be a useful tool. When we look at pitchers when we need to make the call-up, we look at who is the most qualified right now to help the team win and with a guy like Eddie (Butler) he was ready."

"His pitches work anywhere. He's got that heavy sink, he doesn't need his curve very often and has a tremendous fastball and change that look alike. In a perfect world for everyone's edification, sure we would send everyone to Colorado Springs, but it shouldn't be a paramount issue for a guy like Eddie."

This stands in stark contrast to much of the criticism I have been hearing surrounding this Rockies organization. Everyone seems to have their own opinions on how to best deal with the elephant in the room for Rockies pitchers: altitude

Coach Apodaca gave me a great line last year that he repeated again this season: "I don't care if you are pitching in Death Valley or Mount Everest, the fundamentals of good pitching remain the same."

I pressed a little further into the issue, trying to understand it better myself. At a recent bloggers panel event I gave that Mt. Everest line to the panel as they discussed whether altitude has become too much of an issue -- too much a part of the conversation -- by either management or coaches.

To me, that feels like conflating what the front office is saying to the public with what the coaches are coaching. So I asked, "How much do you actually coach to the altitude?"

"First and foremost it's a reality. To ignore it wouldn't be real and could be dangerous. But we don't broach the subject with our pitchers because we don't want to give them built in excuses for failure. What we try to stress is that if you are a numbers guy who just wants a low ERA and high strikeouts then you don't belong in this organization.

"We need guys who know how to win when things aren't going their way on the mound either bouncing back after a bad inning or a bag game. We need pitchers who can turn the page quickly, are mentally tough, and who have the right set of pitches to succeed here. So the focus has to be on drafting the right pitchers with the right pitches.

"It takes a tough SOB to pitch here."

"Once they get here," Apodaca continues, "it's about realizing that the altitude shouldn't change the way you pitch. Keep the ball low, don't be afraid to work inside, and know how to use the changeup. After that, identify your best breaking pitch for the purposes of being able to throw different speeds in different counts and being generally unpredictable.

"If we can do all that, we shouldn't need to talk about the altitude."

The main issue with the environment, he tells me, actually has little to do with how it affects individual games.

"We have a better understanding now of what altitude does to the body and we need to be aware of that. We know we need to be better prepared. The other guys have to pitch in the altitude, too, so if we can get our conditioning, rest, and workout routines right we should be able to turn the altitude into an advantage and stop thinking of it as a disadvantage."

So is it working? I asked the longtime pitching instructor what he thinks of all the pitchers that have had to make their MLB debuts this season.

"It tests the strength of the organization. We need to build more depth and had to call on it before we really wanted to. The idea was that Eddie would be the first of several waves of young pitching coming to the MLB every year now. We'd like to add one or two guys a year to keep the pitching staff young. Butler was the first guy we felt we drafted perfectly for altitude. He has high K rates and ground ball percentages but we also got high character and an athlete; two things we definitely target with our drafts."

It has been frustrating to watch a cavalcade of pitchers who don't look quite ready for the big leagues making starts for a team that looked like contenders in the first month. Still, it's hard to argue that the future doesn't look bright.

When Apodaca talks about waves of pitchers, names like Butler, Jon Gray, and Tyler Matzek may be the first that come to mind but remember Kyle Freeland will soon be joining Dan Winkler, Tyler Anderson, Christian Bergman, and a few others from Asheville (Alex Balog, Antonio Senzatela) and Modesto (Jayson Aquino) to give the Rockies some of the best pitching depth the system has ever had.

I asked him about some of that depth at the lower levels including Alex Balog, who pitched to some ugly numbers last year in Grand Junction but was moved up to Asheville anyway, where he has performed admirably.

"So what did you see from Alex that made you decide he was ready despite some struggles?" I asked.

"First, he had one of the most unusual injuries I've ever heard. He went in for a precautionary MRI to have something checked out and because of where it was his arm had to be pinned above his head," Apodaca took his own arm and mimed the awkwardness of the position, "and being in there so long he came out sore and never felt completely right last season."

I couldn't help but laugh at the absurdity. And I thought things were getting ridiculous at the major league level in terms of our injury ward.

"But he's got a great power arm and body," Apodaca says of Balog. "When I first saw him pitch I was like 'holy ... wow' so for him it's going to be about the learning the little things. The tools are there."

"With these guys we like to talk about 'areas of growth' rather than problems. We identify areas of growth for each player and monitor that closely until we can move onto another area. It's constantly growing and evolving and you have to be able to do that to be a successful pitcher at any level."

Balog's teammate Antonio Senzatela is having a nice season, especially for a 19-year-old in Low-A ball and Apodaca likes what he sees. "Has power and knows how to pitch up in the zone which can be rare. He has had so much success with basically one pitch (fastball) that for him it's all about adding more polish to his curve and change."

One pitcher who appears similarly to have a ton of room for growth (which is to say a lot of potential) is young Carlos Polanco, who was excellent in his season debut but was knocked around in his second game for Grand Junction. In fact, Apodaca compared Polanco to Senzatala favorably, saying their games are very much alike.

"For him, after his God and his family, baseball is the most important thing."

"You can see the attentiveness in his face when he is given instruction. He is making a very real effort to learn the language which can be a major benefit and not everyone does it. It can improve yourself as a player and your ability to understand instruction and communicate with the catcher but also just his life and going out to restaurants or whatever it may be; feeling comfortable in your surroundings."

How about on the mound?

"He is fearless. Great power for a slight frame that you just can't teach. And it will probably get even better as he fills out. He has a very good pitchers body. With him, it's all about learning his approach to pitching."

The other pitcher that I saw in Grand Junction that grabbed my eye was 2014 third round pick Sam Howard. This is interesting since I only saw him throw one batting practice session, but I got to watch from directly behind the cage, getting the batter's eye view ... and he was bringing it.

"Sam has a great workout routine. You seldom see a young guy with a routine he completely trusts and Sam knows and trusts his. He does it before bullpen sessions and every little thing. He is very aware for a young guy about his body being his main tool and needing to take care of it. He eats right, conditions right, and understands how quick the game can go away. His attention to taking care of his body reminds me of Clayton Kershaw."

His 6'3 frame and clean, repeatable delivery combine with what Apodaca calls "high aptitude for applying instruction. You can tell him something once or twice and see immediate improvement."

Howard looks a little bit like a left-handed version of Eddie Butler. No, not in terms of delivery or pitches, but in terms of being a wiry redhead who is stronger than he appears from a distance.

As we discuss each pitcher individually, I kept thinking back to what coach Apodaca said about the "waves" of pitching talent this organization hopes to see hitting the shores in the coming years. When discussing Christian Bergman's MLB debut he said, "You never know, it may work out it may not. Successful MLB pitchers come in all shapes and sizes and from all kinds of draft picks."

"Right now," Apodaca tells me, "we are just observing what our team of excellent scouts saw in these guys. We are learning their style so we can give better instruction. But I think we've done a great job of identifying what can be successful here (in Colorado) and Eddie is just the first of many to come."