Modesto, Calif. -- It's no accident that the Colorado Rockies have strategically placed their minor league affiliates in hitter-friendly environments. Throughout the organization, from sites like rookie ball's Grand Junction in the Pioneer League, to Triple-A's Albuquerque of the Pacific Coast League, the ball flies, runs come in bunches, and very quickly, pitchers learn the importance of keeping the ball down.
Perhaps, the thought process may in part be, when these pitchers get to Denver, pitching in altitude at a ballpark as offensively-skewed as Coors Field becomes something less of a shock to minor leaguers who have been dealing with the Pioneer League's high altitudes, McCormick Field's short right field porch in Asheville, the jet streams of the Pacific Coast League, and the brutal, unforgiving parks of the California League.
But as we found out both looking at the stats and talking to those familiar with the league itself, while the California League appears on paper to be one of the most unforgiving circuits for pitchers in all of professional baseball, things are not quite as simple as they seem.
"It's definitely a hitter's league, especially in the South Division," concedes Mike Gorrasi, the Executive Vice President of HWS Baseball who is tasked with overseeing daily operations for the Modesto Nuts. "The numbers some players and teams put up down there are ridiculous. But you don't see that in Modesto, in part due to the size of our ballpark."
Park factors back up Gorrasi's assertion; while Modesto is a hitter-friendly venue relative to, say, the pitcher-skewed parks of the Florida State League or elsewhere, Modesto's John Thurman Field plays relatively fair compared to stadiums in many other outposts of the league. But again, even despite some crazy games being played in the league and some wild home run totals put up in small, wind-swept ballparks, numbers alone will never tell the whole story.
"Sure, it's a hitter's league, but even pitching in Bakersfield, people talk about how close the wall is, but it's twice as tall," says Rockies relief pitcher Justin Miller, a Bakersfield native who pitched at the city's Sam Lynn Ballpark when he was a member of the Texas Rangers' organization.
"And with the air being thick down there, if you hit it up, it's not really going to go anywhere," Miller adds about Bakersfield's venue, which includes a 354-foot centerfield wall. "The ball just won't travel up. But if you hit a line drive, sure, it'll take off."
Few people know the California League better than its broadcasters, and that includes Donny Baarns—the voice of the Visalia Rawhide, the Diamondbacks' Cal League affiliate. He joined the organization in 2008 and stayed up until earlier this spring when he accepted a broadcasting job in the Pacific Coast League. And Baarns, for one, corroborates Miller's take on Bakersfield being less of a hitter's park than it's considered across baseball.
"Bakersfield can go either way," he admits, echoing Miller. "Even in Bakersfield, people say, ‘well, it's 354 feet to center field, what a joke,' but if you've actually been there, you know the wind blows straight in, and when you get the ball up, the wind cuts it down and it's much harder to hit it out there than people think."
Baarns is whip-smart, with the stereotypical sharp, cadenced delivery of a broadcaster, and he takes it personally in defending the league from detractors who disregard hitters' stats just by virtue of the circuit's reputation nationally.
"People who don't cover the California League, or who don't travel to all the different ballparks, which is almost everybody besides broadcasters, they tend to make a blanket statement and say, ‘well, it's the Cal League, and it's hitter friendly,'" Baarns argues. "Sure, it's a hitter's league overall, but there's some nuance there that a lot of people don't realize, including some really high level guys."
"For example, I saw one really well respected prospect expert tweet about a Rockies prospect, and he said, ‘oh well, the kid hit well in Modesto, but it's the Cal League,'" Baarns adds. "And I tweeted back at him like, ‘are you aware that it's 400 feet to left field in Modesto?' It's not like most of the other parks."
To say John Thurman Field is not like most of the other parks, as Baarns notes, is correct. While we've explored that more in depth in another feature in this series, it bears repeating: to go along with a 15-foot tall outfield wall, the Nuts have a short porch down the left field line (just 312 feet) that immediately shoots out into an extremely deep left-center field (a whopping 393 feet in the middle of the gap). Then, that circles into an even 400-foot shot to dead center. In other words, unless you can hook a ball right down the line, it takes some power to hit the ball out in Modesto.
"Yeah, our dimensions are pretty big, and pretty deep," Gorrasi says, laughing, knowing how much of an understatement that is. "Not that it's a huge deal, but when they name the All Star teams, midseason or postseason, it's tough for us to put an offensive player on it because we just can't match up statistically."
"But," he adds, "I would encourage your readers to keep that in mind when they're looking at stats, for offensive players particularly. You might see someone hit 25 home runs, 30 home runs in Asheville, but it's probably not going to happen here. It doesn't mean they lost their power, it's just different ballpark dimensions."
"And being Rockies fans," he continues with a smile, "I think conceptually, they probably kind of understand that."
John Thurman Field, home of the Modesto Nuts. Image via Jen Mac Ramos.
While the league's park factors and relative idiosyncrasies may be a point of contention for the prospect hounds, minor league junkies, and stat heads like us, there's a much larger benefit to some of the Central Valley's venues: player development. Pitchers, while they may hate what most of the rest of the league outside of Modesto does to their statistics in the short term, find it an invaluable way to prepare for challenges at higher levels.
"Whatever league you are in, facing a little bit of adversity is ideal," says Chris Forbes, the Rockies' player development manager. "They need to get in those situations. It's not an easy road to the big leagues, and you don't want this to be an easy road. A lot of the first battles we face with these kids is that they've never failed, coming into a situation where they are going to fail quite a bit. And then guess what, we're playing again tomorrow. Those outings are extreme, but they are extreme learning opportunities."
Miller, though not in the Rockies' system when he went through the league, intrinsically took that same lesson from pitching in Bakersfield and around some of the High-A level's short porches.
"Take a place like Lancaster where if you hit anything, it's taking off. That really helps pitchers focus on hitting their spots, and becoming better pitchers," Miller contends. "You can't really become one of those heavers who just throws, you've got to work on your pitching. So it's good. You go there with a mindset that it's a hitter friendly league, and you start working on becoming a better pitcher."
Kyle Freeland, one of the Rockies' top prospects who made seven starts for the Nuts in 2015, agrees with Miller.
"It was a learning experience out there, where you have to live low in the zone, work up and down, and really work hitters," Freeland admits. "You know hitters are going to be squaring balls up, and with some of the parks, you know the ball is going to be flying out. It's definitely a learning experience to prepare for Coors Field."
"Visalia was one that got me pretty good," he adds sheepishly. "That was a launching pad."
On August 18, 2015, pitching for the Nuts, Freeland allowed six runs—including four home runs—on ten hits and a walk with just three strikeouts across a seven inning start in Visalia against the Diamondbacks' affiliate, taking the loss.
Visalia did, in fact, get him pretty good.
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It's not just park factors that make a league, though. One of the unique aspects of the California League, even in comparison to many of the regionally-focused minor leagues that dot the American landscape, is that all ten teams are concentrated in one state. Granted, California is a big state, but it makes for less oppressive road trips from city to city, a higher quality of play in turn, and, as we found out when learning a little bit about this business side of the league, even better synchronicity among ball clubs than might be expected elsewhere.
"The beauty of our league is that it's encompassed in one state, and one state only," says Mark Wilson, the general manager of the San Jose Giants, the San Francisco Giants' affiliate in the circuit. "That is a good thing. It's great for travel. The North Division is sensible, and then you pretty much have five teams all within the greater Los Angeles area down south."
While no trip is more than six or so hours by bus—a relatively short run compared to a few other minor league situations around the country—all that travel through desolate small towns, away from the major metro areas of Los Angeles and San Francisco, is not a bug; it's a feature.
"As far as the travel and bouncing around, it's good for these kids," Forbes says. "It's good for those guys to get on the bus and interact, and do the card games. Half the time they don't have cell service, so they are forced not to be on their cell phones. They've got to chat it up a little bit."
Jackson Williams, the Rockies' catcher who is today beginning a new summer in Double-A Hartford, played in the California League in 2008 as a member of the Giants' organization. It sure sounds like the minor league journeyman is still nostalgic about his time in San Jose.
"That's a fun league to play in, and the travel wasn't bad at all," he says. "These days I'd take bus rides over traveling all over the Pacific Coast League any day of the week. And San Jose was awesome, we had tons of Giants fans around every home game, the place would be packed. Our front office people and staff, they took really, really good care of us. It made the experience really, really good."
The Nuts' first base (home) dugout at John Thurman Field. Image via Jen Mac Ramos.
For a league that's been around now for 75 years, the good experiences Williams had from his time there leave him far from alone. In fact, for the league's general managers and front office executives, good experiences and good people are the crux of why the league has been around and continues to be strong nearing its eighth full decade.
"Fifteen years ago, we didn't have the front office talent that we have now," says Wilson, who has been with San Jose for the last 33 years. "I don't care what industry you're in, whether it's government, medicine, baseball, if you can attract talented people to work, the results follow. What I've seen up until this point is a lot of quality people working in our league, and we need to continue to attract the best talent, to make every operation a little bit better."
Gorrasi, who also raves about the circuit's front office talent that makes all the baseball possible, also sees an even simpler role where the California League can continue to over-deliver.
"We need to keep providing a good overall experience from promotions to fireworks, food, and more," he says. "If we can control the fan experience and environment, the baseball takes care of itself."
Hitters' parks or not, that fan focus is and will always be an axiom of minor league baseball. And of course, that attitude reflects the league as it looks back on its 75 years, and bodes well as executives look ahead to many, many more.
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Editor's Note: This is one piece of a special seven-part feature series Purple Row is doing today, to celebrate the beginning of another season of Modesto Nuts baseball. Below, you’ll find all the other parts of the series if you’d like to read through them and get a better idea of the Rockies’ High-A affiliate in the California League.
Click here to learn more about the Nuts' host families, and the story of one specific family that has hosted the likes of Trevor Story and Dustin Garneau.
Click here to read more about Mike Gorrasi, the man behind the Nuts' success in the community for the last 15 years.
Click here to read more about the long relationship between the Nuts and the Rockies, told by front office and player development executives.
Click here to read more about the city of Modesto, and how a community like that impacts what the Nuts do on and off the field.
Click here to read more about John Thurman Field, the Nuts' home ballpark that sits on a site that has hosted baseball in Modesto for a century.
Click here to see more pictures from Modesto’s John Thurman Field, to get a better sense of the ballpark the Nuts call home.
Unless otherwise noted, all images produced by and copyright of Jen Mac Ramos and Purple Row, and may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission. All rights reserved.
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