Since their inception in 1993, the Rockies have been plagued with a terrible curse. Despite being one of the best offensive teams in baseball at home, the lion quickly becomes a lamb as soon as they hit the road. In 2021, the road Rockies slashed a measly .217/.291/.352 while scoring 283 runs, both of which are a far cry from their offensive output at Coors Field. We hear about the constant struggles of changing elevation and the “Coors effect,” both of which are valid problems, but perhaps they can become a scapegoat to skirt the fact that it is actually possible to be successful on the road as a Rockie. Luckily for the Rockies, they have one of the greatest examples to look to that figured out how to hit on the road.
For 17 seasons in Colorado, Todd Helton was the epitome of consistency while playing on the road. In 1,106 games away from the spacious fields of Coors Field, Helton slashed .287/.386/.469 with 271 doubles, 142 home runs, and 547 RBI. Over the course of his career, Helton found a way to put the bat on the ball, limit strikeouts, and produce on the road while having to play half of his games at high altitude.
Helton’s greatest strength that led to this success was his otherworldly plate discipline. Each time he stepped up to the plate, Helton was determined to either put the ball in play or draw a walk, and it didn’t matter how many pitches he needed to see before he accomplished one of those feats. He managed the rare feat of ending his career with more walks than strikeouts and posted a 12.4% strikeout rate and 14.1% walk rate. Folks will dismiss many of his numbers because he did spend all his time with Colorado, but his discipline shined on its own on the road.
Out of the 1,175 strikeouts in his career, 661 came on the road for a 14.3% road strikeout rate. His 625 walks aren’t far behind with a 13.6% walk rate, but no matter how you look at it, Helton had no problem recognizing pitches on the road. He commanded the zone and it paid dividends in the results he produced. The ability to put the ball in play is a waning ability in today’s game as strikeouts continue to compound annually. In 2021 alone, the Rockies had six players eclipse 50 strikeouts on the road, a mark that Helton passed just three times in 17 years.
Making contact on the road is the biggest struggle the current Rockies have had the past few years, especially when they play the Dodgers or Giants. We won’t delve into the details of the 2021 season, but let’s just say that it wasn’t a lucky year for the Rockies. The team lacked in walks, excelled in strikeouts, and that led to the lack of runs and hits the team could amass. Helton’s recognition of the zone enabled his ability to make contact.
Dating back to 2002 (the furthest back I could find on FanGraphs) Helton only swung at 19.6% of pitches outside of the zone in his overall career, a number that translates well to the road. Compare that to the 68% of swings in the strike zone and you have a recipe for success with his contact on those swings registering at 76.6% out of the zone and 90.4% in the zone. His .317 BAbip on the road, along with the road discipline numbers, show that Helton knew the zone, recognized pitches, and sought to just make contact, and watch the good things happen as a result.
So, what can the Rockies learn to implement to emulate the success of their franchise icon? First and foremost, it’s getting better plate discipline. Strikeouts are an epidemic in baseball now and will continue to rise. Yes, pitchers are getting better, but the history of the game has been about the ebb and flow of advantages between pitchers and hitters. Currently, pitchers have gained the advantage due to the focus on the three true outcomes, so it’s time for hitters to start the transition back to an old-school type of approach.
Charlie Blackmon’s 2021 was the perfect emulation of what the Rockies need to do on the road. In 75 games on the road, Blackmon slashed .257/.344/.359 with 42 strikeouts and 21 walks, but he had a .311 BAbip. His power numbers have decreased, but Blackmon isn’t looking to launch the ball anymore, rather he is aiming to recognize pitches, draw the walks, or slap a single somewhere and avoid a strikeout at all costs.
When all is said and done, the Rockies must look to the examples of the past as they continue to solve the problem of playing on the road 81 games a year. Todd Helton’s Hall of Fame-worthy numbers is boosted by the fact that he conquered the struggles away from Coors Field for the good part of almost two decades. If the Rockies want to reach the playoffs again, they need to win on the road, and they need only look to “The ToddFather” for guidance.
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The biggest question for the Rockies heading into the 2022 season is who will take over at shortstop in the wake of Trevor Story. There aren’t many knockout options on the marke, and there are some middling options on the current roster. Still, one of the most perplexing and potential options is the idea that Ryan McMahon could get action at the position. RyMac showed his defensive prowess at third, but we could see him slide over, giving Colton Welker a chance to play every day.
Speaking of Welker, Nick Groke caught up with the young Rockie about his winter activities. Welker details his baseball routine in Florida to prep for the 2022 season, while also discussing his other activities, such as working with local youth. Welker is a top prospect for the Rockies, and after a brief cup of coffee in 2021, is looking to make a splash in 2022.
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