Colorado’s Rocky road

How do you solve a problem like Coors Field? The Rockies are still trying to figure it out.

Topics: Baseball,

Here’s my assessment of the Colorado Rockies, in its entirety, from my baseball season preview: “How do you win playing in that crazy ballpark? I don’t know. The Rockies don’t know either.”

Ha ha. Easy for me to say. I don’t have to try.

The Rockies began play in 1993. They played two years in Mile High Stadium, then moved to Coors Field. In both parks, Denver’s thin, dry air has turned routine fly balls into home runs, routine hitters into sluggers and very good pitchers into gopher-ball servers.

In the franchise’s nine-year history, Colorado has tried two different strategies. At first, the Rockies loaded up on power hitters — Andres Galarraga, Dante Bichette, Vinny Castilla — and tried to outslug everybody. I always thought that was an odd approach. If your stadium creates home runs for you, why not build a team that can pitch, play defense, run, all skills that help you anywhere, and let the home runs happen on their own, at least at home? When Dan O’Dowd took over as general manager in 2000, he appeared to agree with me. He put an emphasis on pitching, speed and defense.

And here’s the thing: The old way seems to work better. The Rockies made the playoffs as the wild card team in 1995, their third year, and finished a little better than .500 the next two years. O’Dowd and manager Buddy Bell took over following two losing seasons, one each under managers Don Baylor and Jim Leyland. The Rockies finished two games over .500 in 2000, 16 games under last year.

Now I’m back to thinking the original strategy is the better one. Coors Field is so weird that I’m not sure a team that can win there can also win elsewhere. How weird is Coors? Last year, the Rockies and their visitors averaged 13.1 runs per game there; in all National League games not played at Coors Field, the two teams combined for an average of 9.2 runs. The Rockies’ ballpark creates a 42 percent jump in offense. It’s a whole different game there.

The formula for the Rockies to win the National League West, it seems to me, is for them to go about 60-21 at home, and maybe 35-46 on the road, and then hope that 95 wins gets the job done that year. I won’t bore you with the numbers, but throughout their nine-year history, the Rockies have been good for roughly 35 wins a year on the road. It’s their home record that determines their overall success. Play well at home, as they did in 1995-97, and it’s a good year. Play poorly at home, as they’ve done each of the last four years except 2000, and it’s a long season.

“I do think for us to win we have to be a dominant team at home,” O’Dowd, 42, told me last week as we watched his Rockies beat the St. Louis Cardinals for the second time in three tries in their season-opening series at Busch Stadium. “But hopefully we can do that with enough balance that it also lends itself to being a good team on the road too, because really, what works there should work other places.”

I asked him, simply, How do you win at Coors Field?

“Well, we’ve asked that question a lot.” he said. “I think after being here for two years, one, you need an extremely balanced club. You need to be deep in a lot of different things both at the major league level and the minor league level, because you have to carry 12 pitchers, pretty much, even though we’re not doing it now. Because of your limited bench, your guys on your bench have to be able to do a lot of different things for you rather than just come up and hit. You’ve got to be able to play positions, hopefully multiple positions.”

He said the Rockies need a good, deep bullpen because of the wear and tear on their starters at Coors Field, and they need a steady supply of good relievers because of the wear and tear, in turn, on them.

“I think that Coors Field can get to you mentally, pitching-wise, because it can change you at times from being the kind of pitcher you are,” he said. “Meaning that if you’re a guy who relies on heavy movement, then all of a sudden in the hot summer months, what I’ve learned over the last two years is that because of the lack of humidity the ball really dries out. It almost begins to feel like a cue ball. So it’s difficult to just have that natural movement that you have other places. So if you try to start creating movement, where you never had to do that in your career in the past, that can mess you up, because it can change your mechanics and your style of pitching, and mentally it can change who you are a little bit. So yeah. It’s not an easy place to figure out.”

Coors Field can mess with the hitters too, and it affects how the Rockies fare on the road. Jay Alves, the club’s PR chief, mentioned that Colorado hitters often struggle at the beginning of road trips that follow longer homestands because they’re suddenly seeing pitches that break sharply, which, as O’Dowd said, pitches don’t do at Coors. Last year, in first games of road trips that followed homestands longer than one series, the Rockies averaged 2.8 runs per game and went 1-9. It works in reverse as well. In first games of homestands that followed road trips longer than one series, the Rockies scored 7.4 runs per game and went 5-4. (Colorado averaged 6.8 runs per game at home overall.)

“What’s been a little confusing is to see what happens to good hitters” at Coors Field, O’Dowd said. “Sometimes their splits, home-road — I still haven’t figured that part of it out. Obviously it hasn’t affected Larry [Walker] or Todd [Helton]. It didn’t affect Juan Pierre last year, albeit it’s only his first full year in the league, but it has affected other players dramatically. Like Jeff Cirillo it affected dramatically. Whether that’s mental or physical I haven’t determined yet. I’m not sure I’ll ever know the answer to that.”

Walker, the Rockies’ marquee player, barked publicly this spring that the team wasn’t doing enough to put together a winner. O’Dowd says he takes comments like that in stride. “It’s just frustration of wanting to win,” he said. “I understand that. And nowadays, you know, the players, front office, the fans look at a correlation between winning and payroll. And there is some correlation. But in our case we can’t look at that correlation because our payroll this year is, you know, 19th, 20th, 21st in the game, depending on how you want to calculate it. It is what it is and we just have to figure it out with the means we have. No sense complaining about it. It’s not going to change.”

The Rockies have talented young players up the middle, with Pierre in center, Juan Uribe at short and Jose Ortiz at second. Ortiz has some pop, but that’s not a slugging trio. They fit into O’Dowd’s strategy of turning away from power in favor of other aspects of the game. If they play as well as they’re capable of playing, if stars Helton and Walker stay healthy, if solid role-player types like Todd Hollandsworth, Benny Agbayani and Todd Zeile have good years — it’ll still all come down to pitching, according to O’Dowd’s formulation, and the Rockies probably don’t have enough. And that’s the problem, always.

“I’m not sure even if we had Randy Johnson or Curt Schilling or those kind of guys in our rotation, I’m sure they’d be good, but I don’t think they’d be as good as they are pitching elsewhere,” O’Dowd said.

The Rockies have Mike Hampton and Denny Neagle, who haven’t been as good in Colorado as they’ve been elsewhere, and not much more.

“I think we have a good little ballclub,” O’Dowd said. “And I think we can have stability for the first time since I’ve been here since we don’t have to make moves to reflect payroll. So I think this club will gel. It’s a good group of guys. Whether it’s talented enough to compete for a division title I don’t have any idea.”

And that’s where we came in. I think the Rockies should load up on sluggers again and try to pound the rest of the league into submission at Coors Field.

Meanwhile, the Rockies followed their St. Louis success by getting swept in a three-game set in Los Angeles. In their home opener Monday, they lost to the Houston Astros, 8-4.

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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