By Patrick Brewer, Lead National League Writer
For much of their twenty-three year existence the Colorado Rockies have been mired in mediocrity. In those twenty-three years they have managed only one NL pennant in 2007 and have made the playoffs only three times (1995/2007/2009). In their twenty-three year history they have only had a winning record six times. In more recent years they have struggled to find any consistency and are now finding themselves on the edge of another rebuild. Aside from their magic run in 2007 the Rockies have just never really found any consistency on their roster and have never been able to find sustained success. This begs the question: Are the Rockies just doomed for perpetual mediocrity? Or can this franchise one day find some sustained success and win a World Series title?
The Rockies are one of four expansion teams from the 1990s and have so far been the only one that hasn’t won a World Series (the Marlins and Diamondbacks both have) or found any sort of sustained success as an organization a la the Tampa Bay Rays (who have also yet to win their first World Series title). The Rockies were formed in the same year as the Marlins, who won their first world championship in 1997 as well as second title in 2003, and five years before the Rays and Diamondbacks who have been to a World Series and won a World Series respectively. While the Rockies did make a world series run in 2007 it was viewed by many as a bit of a fluke and they quickly fell back into their usual struggles the following year.
The Marlins started as a franchise the same year as the Rockies and have gotten two wild card berths, two AL pennants and two World Series titles in 1997 and 2003. The Diamondbacks who became a franchise in 1998 have already won five NL West titles and one NL pennant and World Series title. Finally the Tampa Bay Rays have won two AL East titles, two AL Wild Card berths, and have won one AL Pennant in 2008 but were not able to win the World Series. All three of the teams that were formed around the same time as the Rockies have all had more sustained success than the Rockies have had to this point.
In more recent seasons the Rockies have been snake-bitten by the same issues that they have had throughout their 23 year history. The offense is usually good (given the friendly confines of Coors Field) but the pitching has always been the aspect of their game that has dragged them down or doomed their seasons. Pitching was never going to be easy at mile high Coors Field but it has been much more of a detriment than was first anticipated. The Rockies consistently have strong offensive numbers but horrid pitching numbers have held back the team from success. Even in their surprise 2007 World Series run pitching was the problem that eventually brought them down.
The Rockies have tried no shortage of potential solutions to remedy these problems but none have borne any fruit. They have tried everything from humidors used on the balls to affect their flight path (started in 2002) all the way to unconventional pitching staffs to lessen the load on the staff and the potential damage done. Several studies have been done to establish that the humidors have had some effect in lessening home runs but nevertheless the pitching staffs have still had trouble with high ERAs. The Rockies have also tried unconventional four and six man rotations in order to either get more innings out of the best pitchers in the former case or save pitchers added stress in the second case. Neither of these unconventional types of rotations worked and both were quickly abandoned. Neither of these solutions have been able to fix the Rockies mile high problems and the poor pitching conditions have doomed many a Rockies team.
The offense has never been a real problem for the team but they have been unable to build a pitching staff that can sustain the mile high conditions. Never before has a team played its home games under such extreme conditions. There are teams that have offensive problems because of a close proximity to water and the marine layers that they experience (such as San Diego and Seattle) but never has there been a team playing in such an extreme offense-heavy environment. Baseballs hit at Coors Field are said to fly up to 10% farther given the thin air so far above sea level. The best thing for the Rockies as a franchise may be changing this environment in an attempt to improve their franchise’s chance for success.
The old adage goes “Pitching wins championships.” While the Rockies have not been too disadvantaged by bad defense, playing 81 of their games in Coors Field has greatly, negatively impacted those pitching prospects. In the year the Rockies got to the World Series their offense was top five or ten in all major offensive categories. On the other hand their pitching staff was in the bottom half of the league in all major defensive categories. For many years of the Rockies existence this has been a somewhat common theme for the franchise. The Rockies have been, to this point, unable to build a rotation that can sustain any sort of success while pitching at mile high Coors Field for 81 games every season.
All of this data on the Rockies pitching struggles at Coors Field begs the question: Will the Rockies ever be able to find any sort of sustained success under such extreme conditions or are they better off moving to a less extreme environment? I have not heard many suggest the Rockies should move out of Coors Field, or move out of Colorado altogether, but it may be what is best for the future of the franchise. No other team in the league (save for the smaller effect experienced by the Padres/Mariners) suffers from such an extreme effect on normal play from the surrounding environment.
A possible solution instead of changing fields/cities, advanced by many over the years, is the Rockies moving the outfield fences further back to prevent more home run balls. This would prevent a good amount of home runs from occurring but may have the added effect of more balls falling either in between fielders or in front of/behind fielders and could actually increase the run totals that are seen at Coors Field already. While this has been suggested by quite a few, it seems to have more negatives than positives at this points.
Another solution involves the Rockies signing specific types of players who can better pitch/hit under the conditions present at Coors Field. This includes pitchers with higher strikeout/ground ball rates in order to avoid fly balls and thus home runs and hitters with more home run power and gap power to take advantage of the thin air of Coors Field. The Rockies have seemingly tried both of these solutions in signing free agents, and while they have found plenty of offensive success, the thin air has negatively impacted the flight path of many different kinds of pitches and has had a negative impact on many pitchers ERAs and other more advanced statistics. For this reason, picking certain types of players has failed to change how the mile high conditions affect the play on the field.
A more palatable solution to the Rockies issues, beyond just moving locations or even moving out of the city completely is either making Coors Field into some sort of domed stadium, or building a domed stadium at a separate location. A completely enclosed stadium may be enough to cancel out the negative environmental effects of playing a mile above sea level and may be able to free up the Colorado Rockies to finally be a team with a focus on pitching. If the Rockies play under more neutral weather conditions that will not have as much trouble developing good pitching as well as enticing good pitchers to come pitch for them.
Playing their home games at a field with such extreme weather has clearly been a huge detriment to not only the Rockies pitching staff but to the success of the franchise as a whole. The Rockies have tried everything from the use of humidors, to unconventional pitching staffs, to altering stadium dimensions, to signing specific types of hitters/pitchers but nothing has seemed to work. It seems the only logical next step for the franchise, other than moving out of Colorado completely, is turning Coors Field into a domed stadium to attempt to lessen the effect of the thin, mile high air. Until that happens the Rockies may continue to be doomed to mediocrity in the long-term.