Throughout their near quarter-century of existence, the Colorado Rockies have largely failed to grasp how to build a pitching staff suitable for the unique challenges presented by playing baseball in a dry climate a mile above sea level. Twenty-four year-old Jon Gray is just the most recent in a long line of pitchers who will be tested by Denver's thin air and Coors Field's expansive outfield.
Stop me if you've heard that before.
Really, though, the Rockies have done all sorts of different things to attempt to field a competitive rotation. But from throwing out big free-agent contracts to taking on reclamation projects and building from within, nothing has been sustainable.
Most of the time, a lack of talent has been the main cause of the team's struggles on the mound. But, much like on offense, finding consistency between pitching at home and on the road has been an issue.
The Rockies seem to have a plan for fixing both things.
"We need to bombard the organization with high-ceiling, high-impact pitchers," general manager Jeff Bridich told reporters on Saturday. The Rockies did a good job of that by acquiring Jeff Hoffman, Miguel Castro and Jesus Tinoco in the trade that sent Troy Tulowitzki to the Toronto Blue Jays, and the team has increased its efforts in drafting those types of players in recent years, as well. That seems simple enough.
What about the other problem?
"We don't talk about Coors Field," farm director Zach Wilson told Purple Row earlier in the offseason. "Talking about Coors Field is redundant. I don't care where you pitch; if you don't have toughness, fearlessness and competitive desire, you're not going to succeed."
In theory, that sounds like just what the doctor ordered. But there's a lot of gray area there.
There are 20 years of history that support the notion that Coors Field is a nightmare for pitchers. The park is notoriously unforgiving to those who allow a lot of contact, even if they execute their pitches. As a result, it also penalizes walks more than any other major league venue. Being that high-strikeout, low-walk pitchers don't grow on trees, the Rockies have always had their work cut out for them.
But one particular rookie pitcher might just have what it takes in those areas to succeed at Coors Field -- if his mind will allow it.
Jon Gray struck out nearly a batter per inning while issuing a respectably low 14 walks in 40 2/3 frames during his first big league cameo. But his results at Coors Field were poor; Gray finished with an 8.27 ERA in five home starts. It was understandable, then, when Gray issued this quote to Nick Groke of The Denver Post back in September:
"I feel like my road numbers are good," he said. "But here, they're really bad. If I can just ... I don't know if it's setting my sights on pitches or what, but I have to make a change fast. I have to pitch here."
Perhaps in a roundabout way Wilson's strategy of not talking about Coors Field will help Gray. But would at least bringing up the fact that Gray is seemingly using the right process to get the wrong results be just as much of a boon for the top prospect's confidence?
As Eric Garcia McKinley wrote back in September, Gray's peripherals -- mainly, his low walk totals and normally beneficial batted ball profile -- were just as good if not better at home than on the road. Using that statistical proof to reassure the 2013 first rounder that his approach and execution were good regardless of where he pitched seems every bit as advantageous as completely ignoring the Coors Field stigma altogether. There's no reason not to acknowledge the elephant in the room.
Alas, Wilson and his staff believe their approach with their growing number of impact minor league arms will pay great dividends in the future -- even for Gray.
"It doesn't matter if it's in San Diego or Coors Field or Great American Ball Park -- if you don't go into a start with that type of mentality, you're not going to succeed," Wilson explained. "We don't talk about altitude. Is altitude part of our reality? Yeah. We understand we play at 5,000 feet. But we also understand that doesn't matter if you have the mentality to pitch, regardless of where you're pitching."
"If you climb up the mound with the right mindset, you will succeed," he added. "Jon's comments were probably taken out of context. I think he realizes, ‘I pitched well on the road, and I've gotta pitch better at home.'"
That wasn't always easy for Gray last season because of a strict workload limit. It doesn't appear that will be an issue heading into 2016, per the Rockies' GM.
"The plan is for him to come in and hopefully occupy one of those spots in the major league rotation and have at it," Bridich said.
"That's the hope right now."