Tuesday April 19th, 2011

This is the 10th season in Denver for one of the key fixtures in Rockies' history -- the Coors Field humidor, which has now been around long enough to acquire Hall of Fame eligibility and veto power over trades.

The humidor, formally known as the Environmental Storage Chamber, or ESC, has helped make baseball in Denver look more like baseball everywhere else. Before the climate-controlled storage room, baseballs would dry out in the low-humidity environment at altitude, and thus fly farther, creating a pinball-styled version of baseball.

Coors Field, with its vast outfield, remains a hitter's park, but the humidor has muted the impact on offense. Rockies pitchers love the ESC. But make no mistake: Even with the ESC, Colorado pitchers remain challenged in ways unlike any other pitching staff in baseball, and those challenges are why the team's fast start on the mound is subject to skepticism.

Rockies starters began the season 9-1 with a 3.60 ERA before Esmail Rogers was pounded by San Francisco Monday night. General manager Dan O'Dowd has done a shrewd job building a quality staff filled with young power arms -- steering clear of two types of pitchers that don't fare well at Coors: old pitchers and breaking ball pitchers. The rotation, with ace Ubaldo Jimenez returning tonight from the disabled list, is made up entirely of pitchers 30 and younger who average between 90 and 94 mph with their fastball: Jimenez, 27, Jorge De La Rosa, 30, Jason Hammel, 28, Rogers, 25, and Jhoulys Chacin, 23.

Colorado's challenge, however, is to keep its pitchers healthy and effective while they constantly adjust to switching between games at altitude and at or near sea level. Former Braves pitcher Tom Glavine long ago observed that he was more sore after making a start at Coors Field than anywhere else. Why? Because pitches don't break as much at Coors Field, Glavine said pitchers have to work harder to "finish" every pitch. If that's true for a visiting pitcher making one or two starts at Coors Field per year, what is the toll on the pitchers who must make 15 to 17 starts there?

Like miles on your odometer, all innings are not acquired equally. The ones at altitude are the equivalent of miles driven in New York City traffic. Here's one way to judge the difficulty of taking the ball consistently for the Rockies: the number of 200-inning seasons thrown by pitchers from each National League franchise since Colorado entered the league in 1993:

The Braves have been phenomenal about keeping starters healthy. I have no idea what excuse the Reds and Pirates might have, but the Rockies no doubt are harmed by the wear and tear of pitching at altitude. No Rockies pitcher ever has thrown even three consecutive seasons with at least 200 innings. No Rockies pitcher age 32 or older has thrown 200 innings even once; the place is tough on older muscles and bones.

To figure out why pitching for the Rockies, even with the humidor, is so different from pitching for any other club, I spoke to Bob Apodaca, the pitching coach for Colorado since the 2003 season. What emerged was a survival guide for pitching in Denver, with these rules to pitch by:

1. Train less at home. Rockies pitchers need to cut their side sessions and workouts whenever they are on a homestand. The altitude requires the body to expend more energy to do the same work done at sea level, so the Rockies make sure their pitchers taper their workouts when they are home.

2. Chew gum or suck lozenges when pitching. The humidor may control the humidity of the baseballs as long as they are stored, but it can't do anything about the air in Denver. The dry air causes dry fingers, which makes it more difficult to maintain a grip on the baseball -- which also becomes slick once it is out of the humidor. Less grip means less spin, which means less movement.

So Apodaca recommends that his pitchers keep a steady supply of saliva in their mouths by chewing gum or sucking lozenges. The recent rule change that allows pitchers to put their fingers in their mouth on the mound (as long as it is followed by wiping them on their uniform) means they can keep their fingers moist more readily. A little bit of pine tar (wink-wink) can assist as well -- if it were legal to do so, of course.

3. Cultivate two different breaking balls: one home, one away. Apodaca said altitude so diminishes the movement on breaking balls that his pitchers have to recalculate their aim every time they switch from home to road. Breaking balls on the road have a much bigger bite than breaking balls at home, so the pitcher must have two different aiming points to have a breaking ball wind up in the same place.

4. Never slack on physical therapy. It's true, Apodaca said, that his pitchers are more sore at the end of homestand than at the end of a trip. That means they must make sure they get the proper recovery treatment, such as massage and hydro-therapy.

Apodaca pointed out that visiting pitchers experience the Coors Field effect: the rigors of pitching there show up in their next start. It makes sense, but I found no statistical support that it caused them to pitch much worse. In 2010, visitors threw at least six innings at Coors Field 42 times. Their combined record in their next start was 14-16 with a 4.03 ERA -- almost exactly the same as the average NL ERA (4.02).

Colorado is off to a 7-1 start in road games -- all of them in the Eastern time zone (series wins in Pittsburgh and New York). Last year the Rockies were 8-16 in the Eastern time zone while winning none of the seven series they played there.

It's a terrific start for a franchise with one winning road record in its history (41-40 in 2009). But it's only just a start. The real key for Colorado is how its pitchers hold up over the long haul -- which may be important for every team, but is harder to do in Denver than anywhere else.

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