As the Colorado Rockies continue to tinker with Coors Field in an attempt to stifle offense—even, sometimes, at the expense of their own players—their developmental path is littered with hitter-friendly environments. From rookie ball in Grand Junction, to Low-A Asheville, High-A Modesto, and Triple-A Albuquerque, there are some short porches around the organization that young pitchers must navigate.
But as I found out over the last several weeks between spring training conversations and some early informal discussions during the High-A Modesto Nuts' season—including a three-game series in Bakersfield, home of Sam Lynn Ballpark's 354-foot center field wall—those hitters' environments are a good thing.
"I look at it as a positive, something that can help me," says Sam Howard, a Rockies pitching prospect starting the year with the Nuts in the California League after spending his first two professional seasons in Grand Junction and Asheville.
"I don’t want to cruise through the minor leagues, and then get to Denver and have it be a totally different ballgame because of the elevation and how the ball flies up there," he says. "I like that I have to learn to pitch like that. And you always have that in the back of your head, so it makes you a better pitcher. You realize you have to be that much better to pitch in those parks."
Howard would know a thing or two about those parks, having struggled in one and thrived in another. Now, he is finding his way in one of the most offensively-skewed leagues in all of professional baseball—albeit in a home park far more fair to pitchers. Nevertheless, his experience more or less mirrors much of what I've seen from other pitchers in the Rockies' organization, and when done well, that ought to prepare the next wave of pitchers for a difficult environment in Denver.
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Not quite as high as Denver, Grand Junction, Colorado sits at just 4,593 feet in elevation, on par with much of the rest of the Pioneer League. And while Sam Suplizio Field plays big (including a 410-foot gap in left-center field), the ball flies where the rookie Rockies call home. It flies all over that league, really; the Pioneer League accounts for the most offense in all of professional baseball, and while some of that is undoubtedly just part of the growing pains of rookie ball, wind-swept high elevation ballparks are the norm at that level.
"It’s funny, my first day in Grand Junction last summer, [minor league pitching instructor] Doug Linton and I had this exact conversation," says Parker French, one of the Rockies' pitching prospects who now finds himself in Asheville this summer.
"Why have it any other way, if the ultimate goal is to get to Coors Field where it’s an offensive park? It prepares you," French adds. "It forces you to work down in the zone. You’re not getting any cheap outs. It’s not like the Florida State League, where you can throw a belt high fastball and they can hit it 400 feet for an out. You’ve really got to work for them."
The Pioneer League is unforgiving to pitchers. Image via Ryan Schoppe
Right-hander Devin Burke has pitched at five different stops in the Rockies' organization, and he points out Grand Junction specifically as a particularly unforgiving ballpark—even saying things not unlike we hear at the big league level time and again about Coors Field.
"If you don’t hit your spots, a well-hit fly ball should go out over there, but if you do hit your spots, you should be in control for the most part of the results," Burke says. "But a lot of the cities in the Pioneer League, especially in Grand Junction, as long as you make your pitches and get ground balls, altitude doesn’t really bother anybody."
"But," Burke pauses to add, "the home runs do go a little bit further."
Christian Talley unfortunately knows a thing or two about home runs in Grand Junction. The undrafted free agent gave up seven last summer in just 36 innings of work, and that learning experience made him more aware of pitching in some of these unique environments.
"You learn that the ball flies out pretty easy, pretty quickly," Talley says. "And you learn to really get the ball down. It teaches you, and it’s a good league to learn how to get the ball down."
"Grand Junction is different," he adds. "Being from south Mississippi, I'd get a fly ball back home, and it’s not really going to go anywhere."
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A successful season in Grand Junction gets a reward for young pitchers: a promotion to the full-season South Atlantic League and Asheville's McCormick Field, sitting at 2,200 feet above sea level, boasting a right-field fence not even 300 feet away from home plate, and putting up some of the most offensively-skewed numbers in all of minor league baseball.
Howard has been through that transition and succeeded; French will go through it this season. For Chris Forbes, the Rockies' player development manager, those transitions serve the developmental goals of young hurlers just as much as picking up new pitch grips or making mechanical changes.
"A lot of the first battles we face with kids coming out of high school or college is that they’ve never failed," Forbes says. "And here they are, coming into a situation where they are going to fail quite a bit. And guess what, we’re playing again tomorrow, too."
"Those outings are extreme, extreme learning opportunities," he concludes.
Asheville's McCormick Field. Image via Charlie Drysdale.
Last summer, Ryan Castellani went through those exact learning opportunities. A 19-year-old just one year out of high school, he was thrown to the wolves to deal with a difficult environment pitching at McCormick Field. And while Castellani mostly succeeded, albeit on a short leash as the Rockies tried to limit innings in his first full season, it's really all about the knowledge from Asheville that ought to extend into his time now in the California League and well beyond.
"You've got to be tough. Every park is going to be different, but it’s just about being tough and throwing your pitch, having confidence in that, and not trying to find an excuse," Castellani says.
"If they hit it out, you obviously did something wrong. It’s not the field's fault. It comes down to accountability and mental toughness."
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If Grand Junction and Asheville exist to prepare Rockies pitchers for Coors Field, it'll only be after those young arms come through the California League first. And while—perhaps ironically—the Rockies' home park in Modesto is exceptionally fair, virtually every other park in the league plays crazy. From Bakersfield's 354-foot center field wall, to jet streams that create pop-up home runs in places like High Desert and Lancaster, to offensively-friendly outposts in Visalia, Rancho Cucamonga, Inland Empire, and Stockton, pitching can be very, very difficult—and the league's reputation precedes itself.
"Talking to the guys from last year, they’ve been talking about the league every day," Castellani admits, laughing. "It’s funny, they say with Modesto we are really lucky with that being our home park, but I’ve heard about 50 mile per hour wind elsewhere in that league. They have wind-outs? I’ve never heard of that before."
Similar to his time in Asheville, though, Castellani already seems open to those 'extreme learning opportunities' Forbes is so fond of referencing.
"It’s set up right to weed out the pitching," Castellani admits of the Rockies' affiliates in Modesto and throughout the minors. "Who can be tough, who can pitch their game and mix it up and be effective wherever they pitch, rather than finding that excuse, giving up an homer and going, ‘ah, it was the wind.’ Like, no, it wasn't the wind. It was you."
Bakersfield's Sam Lynn Ballpark is a tough place to pitch. Image via Bobby DeMuro.
Burke, who's been through the California League several times, is still surprised by some of the ballparks and conditions around the circuit.
"That’s a league where hitters are the most comfortable, and my first year in that league, that was shocking," Burke admits. "Balls are going to get absolutely pounded if you make mistakes. So going back there and being able to review what I did the year before, make sure the ball is down and located instead of just throwing the right pitch in the right count, that really helps."
Even top prospects get knocked around in the California League; Kyle Freeland jokingly shuddered at his memories of pitching there.
"I pitched once in Bakersfield, and that was really something," Freeland says. "Visalia was one that got me pretty good. That was a launching pad."
Freeland pitched well in Bakersfield last summer, though he allowed four home runs in his one start in Visalia. But, just as you'd expect, Freeland also takes away more positives than negatives when it comes to the Rockies' High-A challenges for pitchers.
"You have to live low in the zone, work up and down, and really work hitters, because you know they are going to be squaring balls up," Freeland admits. "With those parks, you know the ball is going to be flying out. Really, it's an ideal way to prepare for Coors Field."
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What does this all mean, though? The Rockies have had these affiliates for years, and even before they were in rookie level Grand Junction and Triple-A Albuquerque, they had outposts in arguably more hitter-friendly situations at both levels. These pitchers—and others—must succeed in Denver for any of this to matter, and a few bright-eyed and bushy-tailed minor leaguers looking for the good in difficult environments won't change the big league club's recent lack of success.
Then again, the minor leaguers coming through the Rockies' hitter-friendly developmental environments this time around are a special group of players, and more likely to impact the big league club than what we've seen recently. And, theoretically, all this development in 'extreme learning environments' will go a long way to growing that impact.
"They seem to have set up all their minor league affiliates to be extremely effective for Coors Field," Castellani says. "They did it right. They set you up, prepare you for Denver the right way, and from there it’s just learning how to pitch in every park where you’re probably going to give up a good amount of home runs."
For Forbes, that's exactly the point.
"They need to get in these situations," Forbes says. "We can try to set them up in intrasquads or put them up during instructional league or whatever, but the game situations against competition in tough environments..."
"Look, it has to be like this," he adds. "You don’t want this to be an easy road. It’s not an easy road to the big leagues."
Pitchers preparing for a new season. Image via Thomas Wilson.