So dangerous is Coors Field to pitchers that the place should
come with a surgeon general's warning. It's not just that the
thin air in Denver turns fly balls into home runs, or that
pop-ups, flares, bloops and bleeders routinely fall for hits in
an outfield so big that not even Magellan could traverse it, or
that runners take extra bases with impunity, or that the
diminished pull of gravity renders breaking balls flatter than
Magic Johnson's late-night gig. Worse than all that, it actually
hurts to pitch in the mile-high home of the Colorado Rockies.
"You have to work so hard to pitch at Coors that the next day
I'm more sore than after pitching anywhere else," says Atlanta
Braves lefthander Tom Glavine. "I'm talking physically sore. All
over. You have to work so hard to keep your breaking ball down
and sink your fastball that it wears you out. You have to work
so hard to finish every pitch. I can't imagine having to pitch a
whole year there."
The Rockies have tried 61 pitchers in their five-plus years of
existence, the past 3 1/2 with Coors Field as their home after
two seasons at Mile High Stadium. Not one of those pitchers has
proved it's possible to win and stay healthy in Denver. Not one
starter has pitched three consecutive seasons without being hurt
or sent to the minors. They are a bunch of sore losers. "All
things being equal," Glavine said before getting toasted at
Coors in the All-Star Game last week, "I would never choose to
Darryl Kile did choose to pitch at Coors, which is like booking
a vacation to Beirut. A 19-game winner with the Houston Astros
last year, the righthander rejected an offer of $21 million over
three years to stay in Houston, where he had a career ERA of
3.51 at the spacious and climate-controlled Astrodome--more than
half a run better than his ERA in all other parks combined. For
$3 million more Kile tapped the Rockies. Think of it as combat
July 19, 1998
In the tradition of Bryn Smith, Greg Harris, Bruce Hurst, Marvin
Freeman, Billy Swift, Bret Saberhagen and Pedro Astacio, Kile
has been a qualified bust. Not until last Friday night, his
seventh start at Coors, did Kile win a game at home. That 11-2
victory over the San Francisco Giants improved his record to a
still unsightly 6-11 with a 4.95 ERA, including 1-4 with a 6.46
ERA at Coors. "Mark Grace once asked me, 'Why would you choose
to go pitch someplace where there's no gravity?'" says Kile's
agent, Barry Axelrod. "We said, 'Hey, maybe it's not Coors Field
and maybe it's not the altitude. Maybe it's making quality
pitches and being healthy. '...Or maybe not."
The Coors curse puts extra pressure on a Rockies general manager
who is always looking for more pitching. "The first thing I have
to do is find out how a guy has pitched here--you tell me, what
other general manager has to do that?" says Bob Gebhard, whose
job security is under question these days. At week's end
Colorado was languishing in fourth place with its worst record
since its inaugural season.
Former Rockies pitchers Hurst, Saberhagen, Smith, Swift, Andy
Ashby and Willie Blair have all been 15-game winners or
All-Stars, just not in Colorado. The greatest pitcher in Rockies
history--try using that title to get a table at the Rainbow
Room--is righthander Kevin Ritz, who is 39-38 since being
selected in the expansion draft. In 1996 he won 17 games while
becoming the franchise's only pitcher to throw more than 200
innings in a season. Then he blew out his shoulder last July,
came back in May, went 0-2 and returned to the disabled list. At
week's end the Rockies had more pitchers on the DL (five) than
in their rotation (four). Last year they put nearly an entire
staff (nine pitchers) on the DL.
Gebhard likes to point out that many pitchers have been shelved
by "freak injuries" not related to pitching. (In '94 Kent
Bottenfield was walking past a pitching machine when it misfired
and an errant ball broke his hand.) But former Rockies pitching
coach Larry Bearnarth notes, "Very seldom do you get a
one-two-three, 10-pitch inning. It just doesn't happen. There
are many, many more stress innings when you're pitching there."
Coors can wear down even the best pitchers, as the All-Star Game
proved. Sixteen All-Stars combined to throw 362 pitches,
including an outlandish 214 by the National League's best. Ten
of those 16 pitchers gave up at least one run in the American
League's 13-8 victory, including Glavine, who needed 57 pitches
to get four outs while surrendering four runs.
Put the Braves' Fab Four in Coors and even they wouldn't be so
fabulous. In 17 combined starts there, Glavine, Greg Maddux,
John Smoltz and Denny Neagle are 7-6 with a 5.73 ERA while
getting lit for a .328 batting average. Those numbers include
two shutouts thrown by Glavine--which is as many as all of
Colorado's starters have thrown in the park's 277-game history.
(One was last year by Roger Bailey, who hasn't pitched an inning
this season because of a back injury.)
Only six times has the winning team at Coors Field scored fewer
than four runs. Says Glavine, "You think if you give up four
runs there you have a good chance of winning. I don't think that
way anywhere else. Everywhere else my number is three." The
ballpark has never seen a 1-0 game. Simply put, until
Williamsport gets a major league franchise, Coors Field is the
greatest offensive park in the history of baseball. In each of
the three full seasons Coors has been open, Colorado has led the
National League in batting average, runs, hits, home runs and
RBIs. How could something so near to heaven be so close to hell
for pitchers? Try this Coors six-pack of factors.
1) THE 5,280-FOOT HOME RUN Let scientists quibble about whether
the thin air adds 7% or 10% carry to fly balls. The players are
the real experts. New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter was one
of many American League All-Stars who were shocked at how the
ball flies out of Coors. "I hit some balls in BP that I thought
were pop-ups and they went out--to the opposite field," he said.
In one of the first games at Mile High Stadium, Braves pinch
hitter Sid Bream checked his swing on an outside fastball from
Blair, and the ball sailed over the leftfield wall for an
opposite-field grand slam. Pitchers still tell this story around
late-night campfires when they really want to scare each other.
Moreover, the thin air can sap a pitcher's stamina. Boston Red
Sox reliever Tom Gordon had to sit down while warming up in the
bullpen during the All-Star Game because he felt fatigued. "It
takes a couple of days to get used to the altitude," Saberhagen
says. "Even when we came back from road trips, it was tough to
get adjusted to it. You've got to be in a little better shape
2) THE GREAT LAWN Outfielders have to play so deep because of
the thin air and to protect the huge gaps--420 feet slightly to
the left of centerfield and 424 feet to the right--that good
pitches are often dinked in front of them for hits.
In 1996 Smoltz pitched one of the alltime classic games at
Coors. In six innings he gave up nine runs on 12 scattershot
hits in a 16-8 loss, then said with dead sincerity, "I thought I
threw the ball well."
Maddux says that outfielders' playing deep hurts pitchers in
other ways. "Runners almost always go from first to third and
from second to home. That adds up and makes a big difference
over the course of a four-game series."
3) NEWTONIAN LAW Not even Sir Isaac could break off a decent
hook in Denver. Less gravity means less resistance means less
movement. Consider the knuckleball, the pitch that most relies
on resistance and movement. "When I was with the Dodgers," says
Giants pitching coach Ron Perranoski, "we did everything we
could to never pitch [knuckleballer] Tom Candiotti in this
place. His ball did nothing."
"Movement," Maddux says, "is the biggest difference. Not so much
with your best breaking stuff. But if you throw a not-so-good
curve or slider, it just spins and hangs up there."
In the second half of the '93 season the Rockies traded for
Harris, who had won 10 games with the San Diego Padres that year
largely on the strength of one of the best curveballs in
baseball. "In Colorado," Bearnarth says, "it just didn't curve.
It was more like a slider. It didn't move much. In general, he
just couldn't pitch there." Harris went 4-20 with the Rockies,
then 0-5 with the Minnesota Twins in '95, his last year in
baseball. Altitude ruined him.
Colorado catcher Kirt Manwaring says even sinking fastballs are
affected. "I notice a big difference at home and on the road,"
he says. "Sinkers just don't move as much at home." The best
pitchers in altitude are power pitchers with such outstanding
four-seam fastballs that they don't rely heavily on
movement--pitchers such as Pedro Martinez and Curt Schilling.
(In '96 hard-throwing Dodger Hideo Nomo pitched a no-hitter at
Coors.) Those pitchers, however, are rare.
4) THE HAUNTED HOUSE "It can scare you to death if you let it,"
Rockies pitching coach Frank Funk says. Ashby would sit on the
bench during batting practice and mutter, "I hate this
place"--and that was on days he was pitching.
"Mentally, I let it bother me more than I should have," says
Ashby, who was 0-4 with an 8.50 ERA in '93 before the Rockies
shipped him to San Diego. "I tried to be too fine, and I think I
lost a lot of my aggressiveness. We were always talking about
it. Eventually it's going to work against you."
5) THE FREUD FACTOR At Coors, only a pitcher's ego takes more of
a beating than his ERA. No Rockies pitcher has ever been named
an All-Star, pitcher of the month or even pitcher of the week.
Bearnath says, "I used to tell them, 'You're not going to lead
the league in ERA, you're not going to win the Cy Young Award,
you'll give up more hits and home runs than the other guys, so
you've got to be a little stronger than everyone else. There's
no disgrace in winning a game 8-6 or 10-5.'"
Says Glavine, "Kiss your ERA goodbye if you come here to pitch.
You can win, but if you win 15 to 20 games, you're going to do
it with a five-plus ERA. I don't know if I could do that. I've
established a certain standard for myself and to accept a
five-plus ERA is not a mental adjustment I could make."
Saberhagen gave up four runs in 6 1/3 innings in his Rockies
debut three years ago. The Coors crowd gave him a standing
6) STRESS MANAGEMENT Funk says the biggest trap for pitchers at
Coors is trying to make each pitch a perfect one, for fear that
anything less will get creamed. Multiply that anxiety times 100
pitches per game times 16 or 17 starts per year at home, and the
only question is, Which will be shredded first, a pitcher's
psyche or his rotator cuff?
"The good pitchers come in, and it really doesn't bother them as
much," says Bearnarth, now a scout for the Detroit Tigers,
"because they know they can give up their four runs in six
innings and then get out of town. The Rockies guy, he knows in
five days he has to go back out there again. The mental side of
it is taxing. The more I think about it, the most important
ingredient is not a particular style but whether the pitcher is
mentally strong. You're not going to be in the top 10 in ERA.
You have to be a real team pitcher."
Kile, who burns with quiet intensity, appeared to fit the job
description. Rockies manager Don Baylor says, "I think he
welcomed the challenge of proving you can pitch well in Coors
Skeptics predicted that Kile would be doomed at Coors Field
because the thin air would mute his best pitch, a hard curveball
with a famously big break. Kile knew this but was emboldened by
what he learned in losing 2-1 to Maddux in Game 1 of the
Division Series last year in Atlanta. Kile didn't have his A
curveball that day, which was apparent when Ryan Klesko whacked
one in the second inning for a home run. After that, Kile
shelved his hard style in favor of a slower, more controlled
curveball. He didn't give up another hit before leaving the game
after the seventh. It is the same approach Kile uses most of the
time at Coors.
"If you have the right mind-set, [Coors Field] can make you a
better pitcher," says Kile, who was 1-1 with a 0.68 ERA in his
only two appearances at Coors while with the Astros. "It forces
you to do things better. Because the margin of error is ever so
slight, I think it's making me better. I know it makes my
curveball better when I go on the road. Coors Field forces you
to do it right."
A career 77-76 pitcher through Sunday, Kile has been given the
job of No. 1 starter for the first time in the major leagues--in
the worst possible place and without his best weapon. He's
trying to be the one, as San Diego righthander Kevin Brown says,
"to say, 'O.K., I can buck the odds. I can tame the monster.'"
That burden was apparent even in the wake of his rare victory
last Friday. It was his first win in 11 starts, a drought in
which he tied Harris's franchise record eight-game losing
streak. As he sat in front of his locker after the win, he
answered questions from reporters with the somber, humorless
countenance of a pallbearer. "I have no A material," he said in
response to one writer's attempt to lighten the mood.
He looked and sounded like a man who knew he really had not won
anything yet. It was the look of a man who knew that in four
days he would have to climb up the hill at Coors Field again.
Rating the Stadiums
In order to measure the impact Coors Field has on scoring, Elias
Sports Bureau looked at how many runs the Rockies and their
opponents scored in games played at Coors from its opening in
1995 through the '98 All-Star break and compared that with the
average number of runs scored in each of the Rockies' road games
over the same period. Elias then did the same set of
calculations for the other big league parks, excluding the
Braves' (the club changed stadiums in that time) and the two
expansion teams'. When the stadiums are ranked in order of the
percentage difference attributable to the scoring influence of
the ballpark, Coors has far and away the greatest impact.
RUNS PER GAME PCT.
STADIUM (TEAM) HOME AWAY DIFFERENCE
Coors Field (Rockies) 13.65 8.76 +55.8
The Ballpark (Rangers) 10.90 9.78 +11.4
Three Rivers Stadium (Pirates) 9.65 8.95 +7.8
County Stadium (Brewers) 10.17 9.63 +5.6
Wrigley Field (Cubs) 9.59 9.15 +4.8
Metrodome (Twins) 10.65 10.20 +4.5
Fenway Park (Red Sox) 10.82 10.50 +3.1
Veterans Stadium (Phillies) 9.26 9.03 +2.5
Kauffman Stadium (Royals) 9.60 9.43 +1.7
Olympic Stadium (Expos) 8.78 8.67 +1.3
Tiger Stadium (Tigers) 10.55 10.44 +1.0
Kingdome (Mariners) 10.97 10.93 +0.4
Jacobs Field (Indians) 10.33 10.33 +0.0
Cinergy Field (Reds) 9.18 9.24 -0.7
SkyDome (Blue Jays) 9.29 9.35 -0.7
Edison Int'l Field (Angels) 10.20 10.29 -0.9
Busch Stadium (Cardinals) 8.83 9.09 -2.8
Camden Yards (Orioles) 9.82 10.18 -3.6
Yankee Stadium (Yankees) 9.77 10.17 -3.9
Oakland Coliseum (A's) 10.36 10.83 -4.4
3Com Park (Giants) 9.43 10.03 -6.0
Pro Player Stadium (Marlins) 8.70 9.32 -6.7
Shea Stadium (Mets) 8.47 9.44 -10.3
Comiskey Park (White Sox) 9.85 11.06 -10.9
Astrodome (Astros) 8.63 10.19 -15.3
Qualcomm Stadium (Padres) 8.66 10.23 -15.4
Dodger Stadium (Dodgers) 7.64 9.38 -18.5
Field of Hard Knocks
If you think the travails of the Rockies pitchers are strictly
their own doing, take a look at what these top pitchers have
done at Coors Field. An examination of arguably the 10 best
pitchers in the National League over the last three seasons
shows that virtually no one is immune to the effects of thin air
and wide-open spaces at Coors.
PITCHER W-L ERA INN H HR BA
Greg Maddux 1-0 8.74 11.1 19 1 .380
Tom Glavine 2-1 3.70 41.1 50 3 .311
John Smoltz 1-2 7.20 20.0 33 2 .375
Denny Neagle 3-3 6.23 39.0 49 5 .302
Pedro Martinez 1-1 3.43 21.0 17 5 .221
Ramon Martinez 2-2 4.94 31.0 32 6 .264
Kevin Brown 0-1 8.44 5.1 10 0 .417
Curt Schilling 1-1 5.54 13.0 14 3 .269
Andy Benes 1-2 6.59 28.2 37 3 .327
Hideo Nomo 2-0 5.26 25.2 23 5 .230
Totals 14-13 5.55 235.1 284 33 .300
SOURCE: ELIAS SPORTS BUREAU