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An introduction to the difficulties of playing outfield at high elevation

Colorado Rockies news and links for Wednesday, February 7, 2024

Regarding the Colorado Rockies, the conversation about the effects of playing at altitude is dominated by offensive results and the difficulty of pitching. Bloated ERAs and inflated power numbers are all the rage in conversation but at RockiesFest last month, outfielder Nolan Jones brought up another oft-forgotten aspect of the game that altitude influences; defense. Specifically, he talks about the challenges of playing in the outfield.

“I think that I had trouble going back on balls last year,” Jones said in a panel, “Obviously, [it was] pretty much my first time playing the outfield last year, but when I would go on the road and then come back home that first day, I would miss fly balls in the outfield.”

He continued, “The line drive stays up — it does not come down. I dove for line drives last year that hit me in the wrist. It’s learning those small things: the fly ball that looks like it’s going to be a blooper? It doesn’t come down, so I don’t have to take my first three steps in. I can wait, read it, and if it’s over my head, I can go back.”

(For full context of these comments and other notes from Rockies Fest, check out Renee Dechert’s article).

This topic of discussion became popular in our very own Purple Row Slack channel, and it got us thinking: How much does altitude truly affect outfielders in Colorado?

When talking about the challenges of outfield defense, the dimension of a stadium takes a starring role. Fenway Park has the Green Monster, Yankee Stadium has a short porch, and some places like Coors Field have vast acreage to cover. Teams often adjust dimensions like lowering walls, building a fence higher, or even moving walls further back like the Baltimore Orioles did. Dimensions are a huge factor, trying to aid or control some aspect of the game at their ballpark. But for the Rockies, there is an added challenge of dealing with altitude that extends its thin, wispy grasp on all aspects of the game.

Hitters have a challenge adjusting on the road. Balls move differently at altitude, this isn’t new information. Reduced drag and Magnus forces at home result in tighter pitches at lower altitudes. The Rockies tend to struggle offensively because the ball moves differently. Humidity, denser elevations, weather environment, and gravity, all contribute to the challenges of hitting and pitching. These same challenges extend to outfielders for the Rockies.

As Jones mentioned, he noticed that reading fly balls was a challenging adjustment from sea level to altitude. Due to the effects on batted balls, Jones had to adjust on the fly from his natural instincts. A diving catch at sea level could actually end up a routine play at Coors Field.

I noticed this sort of effect while interning with the Northern Colorado Owlz of the independent Pioneer League in the summer of 2022. When I had free time on game day, I would grab my glove and head to a space in the outfield to help shag fly balls.

Despite living my whole life in Colorado, I noticed that line drives weren’t coming down. In fact, the ball continued to rise and on more than one occasion I had to leap to snag the line drive. Fly balls off the bat that appeared to be catchable continued to carry well over the outfield fence. It was a surreal experience.

So in my own small way, I can corroborate Jones’s claims about playing in the outfield. Learning this, it makes the accomplishments of both Jones and Doyle in 2023 that much more astounding, along with the rest of the incredible Rockies outfielders they have had in the past.

Considering the ground they have to cover and the adjustments to batted balls at altitude, they both deserve more credit than they have already received for their defensive accomplishments. If they play further back expecting the deep fly balls, there is a likelihood of more bloops for hits. If they play too shallow, too many balls will sail over their hands for extra bases. It’s a difficult balance to find, especially considering all the different profiles of hitters heading to the plate.

In a 2014 study by Eliza Richardson, she aimed to explain offense at altitude, but also included this interesting tidbit about fielding:

“Thrown balls are more likely to sail at higher elevation, increasing the number of errors. If a player is slightly out of position or loses track of a fly ball, he will have less time to correct his mistake because the ball will arrive more quickly at high elevation. If a player doesn’t get to a ball at all, that will probably be scored a hit, but if he just barely gets there and the ball glances off his glove, that will most likely be an error, even though the real culprit is the enhanced flight of the ball at altitude. Both sailing throws and missed catches will lead to more men on base due to errors, again consistent with this dataset.”

Let’s also not forget the known effects that altitude has on the body when it comes to aerobic activities like running which are more taxing than anaerobic activities like swinging a bat.

Advanced defensive metrics like defensive runs saved, ultimate zone rating, and outs above average are all wonderful stats, but they still fall short of painting the full picture. Many defensive stats view Rockies outfielders quite harshly in several aspects. There are so many park-adjusted stats for hitting and pitching, but why not for defense? We have things like OPS+ and ERA+ which are great, but how do we find a way to put outfielders on a normalized stage? In doing research, I couldn’t even find a way to simply look at defensive splits for home and away which feels like a bare minimum type of thing to help evaluate.

I wish I had further quantifiable information to share in this article, but that’s the point of writing this. This is only the beginning of what we at Purple Row hope is a chance to research further and help ourselves understand playing the outfield in Colorado.

Be on the lookout for other articles throughout the season aiming to discuss the lack of statistics or getting perspective from players about playing in the outfield. Altitude has been a mystery for the Rockies for 31 years, and some questions still need answering or at least need more clarification. As writers, we hope to at least help shine a line and uncover some answers that could hopefully help somewhere down the line.

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