Into Thin Air

The All-Star Game returns to Coors in 2021. Get ready to watch 'em fly.

It goes like this:

I’ve been to Denver once. Not intentionally, mind you. My flight back home from Florida was connecting in Denver, and that second leg got grounded. I was with a group of… Well, we’ll just say they weren’t baseball fans. They wanted to hit the Holiday Inn, and snooze straight through to our rescheduled flight in the morning. But my ballpark antennae went up almost immediately. After all, when was I ever going to be in Denver again? Not that I have anything against Denver. I’m a big fan of the Rockies and, like – snow and such. I’m Canadian, after all. But it’s just that, when I decide I’m going to pay a visit to the U.S-of-A., I can’t say Denver is high up my list. I don’t know, maybe it should be. Pitch me, Denverites!

But I digress. Ever since the days of Larry Walker, Dante Bichette, and the Blake Street Bombers, I’ve considered the Rockies my second team. Being that Larry is from a few minutes down the road, dudes dig dingers, and that the colour purple is my absolute JAM, I’ve always clung to them – particularly in the (many, many) years that my #1 team were in the dregs. I fondly remember my legendary 40+ year Colorado Rockies Dynasty in MVP Baseball 2005 (you know, the greatest baseball game of all time). Rockies fans, you’ll be proud to know I won at least 5 titles (that I can remember). I appreciate them, though I wouldn’t consider myself a die-hard.

So there I am in Denver, and I know that I have to find a way to get to the legendary Coors Field. Is ‘legendary’ a word we traditionally equate with Coors? Maybe not, but it’s funny: perhaps no sporting stadium in North America is more uniquely synonymous with quirk and individuality than Coors. Fenway has the Monster; Wrigley has the Ivy; Yankee Stadium has a whole 12 years of history. But it’s like, with Coors, the name has come to entertain a certain vibe; a foreboding augury that is synonymous with pitcher exigency, or as the Mariana’s Trench of E.R.A. So many times in my baseball life, I’d heard ‘But he plays at Coors’ as though it was some sort of badge of shame. For hitters, it is a hovering asterisk that blocks out the sun of positive metrics.

Ask Todd Helton, Troy Tulowitzki, Matt Holliday, Dante Bichette, Larry Walker, and more recently – Nolan Arenado and Trevor Story. 16 different Rockies have won Silver Slugger Awards in the club’s 28 year history, but only one (Walker in 1997) has won an NL MVP. The closest Helton ever got was 5th in 2000 – and that was a year in which he slashed a monstrous .372/.463/.698 with 42 HR, 147 RBI, and an 8.9 WAR. Those numbers eclipsed the output from the four guys who finished ahead of him in voting, including the eventual winner, Jeff Kent. Although Denver has seen its fair share of Hall-of-Famers (and those who should one day be so), the ‘Coors Effect’ is lorded over their statistics like an algorithmic Sword of Damocles. There’s some legitimacy to that, as a quick glance at Park Factors would suggest – but it’s not as stilted as you might think.

Park Factor analytics shows that Coors tops (or bottoms) out on everything – except, funny enough, for Home Runs, likely a factor of the extended outfield and raised fences

As for pitchers, well, I don’t think I need to tell you. Coors is a maw. Breaking balls hang like they’re being tugged upwards by a frenzied swarm of bees – the effect of playing where air resistance is 20% less than at sea level. And the main compensation that the ballpark designers baked into the park – a deeper outfield – only serves to ratchet up the number of fly balls into the outfield that end up as extra-base hits. At 415 feet to dead center, it’s the second-longest distance in the majors (behind Comerica Park’s 420). Saying it’s a pitcher’s graveyard is cliche, and tired; no one volunteers to end up in the graveyard, and most of these pitchers volunteered.  It’s more like the octagon – only the opponent is an aggregate of peak-Anderson Silva.

Everyone remembers Mike Hampton joining the team in 2001 on a then-baseball record eight-year, $121 million deal. Having been one of the best pitchers in baseball for the Astros and Mets for the better part of a decade, surely this was the man to tame the demons of Coors? Never a lights-out fastball pitcher, Hampton had always relied on effective pitch mix, and usage of a slider and deceptive changeup to intercut an average velocity of 88.1 on the four-seamer. It was a solid mix that did him well, and he was surely too good to see his stuff vanish into thin air – right?

The result was nightly plates of meatballs. Hampton went from allowing a stellar 0.41 HR/9 with the Mets in 2001 to allowing a career-worst 1.4 in his first year with the Rockies. His repertoire exploded. A 6.15 ERA in 2002 as the nadir of it. All told, Hampton played out two years of that record-breaking deal, amassing a 21-28 record with a 5.78 ERA, and FIP, WHIP, and ERA+ numbers that were the worst of his otherwise-solid career.

In the years since the Hampton experiment, the Rockies have seen some success with pitchers – most of whom have been draftees who’ve come through the system. Ubaldo Jimenez famously defied the odds (and almost won the Cy Young) in 2010 when he went 19-8 with a 2.88 ERA and 1.15 WHIP. Remember that he started the All-Star Game for the NL that year? Jeff Francis had a few good years in the late-oughts, highlighted by his starting the first World Series game in franchise history. Kyle Freeland posted a franchise-record 8.3 WAR in a remarkable 2018 campaign, before collapsing the following year. Jorge De La Rosa pitched 9 very respectable years for the club and still holds the franchise record for strikeouts. There have been guys. Adam Ottavino was consistently one of the best relievers in baseball. But something always seems to happen to those guys. Sustained success has eluded them. Where else in baseball has decline been so precipitous, and simultaneously so predictable? Where else in sports is the playing environment such a harbinger of decline?

In recent years, the Rockies have put an emphasis on a certain type of pitcher. Jimenez may well have been the harbinger of this philosophy, as his stuff – high-velocity fastball, heavy spin rate on the breaking pitches – was the archetype for what the Rockies would build staffs around in the future. But it is still such a crap-shoot. German Marquez is archetypal of this – in his fifth full season with the Rockies, he has developed into a respectable, Rockies-level ace. That is, he has posted a positive record, with a manageable ERA (4.21 career) and solid strikeout numbers (9.1 K/9 career). He is a fastball-heavy pitcher (51% of his pitches thus far in 2021), with high spin on his breaking stuff. The club truly thought that Jon Gray would break the trend, but he has had a middling, injury-riddled career into his age-29 season. There is hope that big lefty Austin Gomber – the centerpiece in the Nolan Arenado trade – can be a reliable arm moving forward, but he’s already 27 and has hardly shown above-replacement stuff. The Rockies are in another rebuild in 2021, and are likely to off-load All-Stars like Trevor Story and Charlie Blackmon in the coming months and years. Expect more futures. Expect pitchers to come, and expect those pitchers to be touted as potential ‘Coors Breakers’. Don’t trust that touting. Those pitchers don’t exist. Of course, I’m not sure they’ve ever actually drafted a Jacob DeGrom. Or what they would do with them if they did.

Hardly a Murderers’ Row, but Ubaldo’s 4 years of dominance are the clear outlier

Back to me. We’re in the cab on the way to the hotel, and I ask the cabbie if Coors is on the route. I’m pretty certain he said it wasn’t, and so it might’ve taken some convincing, but I managed to get a drive-by. From what I recall, the ballpark is adjacent to one of the major highway arteries.

And it’s exactly what I expected, and what I had seen for all those years: a beautiful ballpark. A normal ballpark, mind you. I don’t know what I expected, though – a fun-house? A launchpad? Having listened to stories of the ‘Coors Effect’ for years, I guess I expected that the stadium would be shrouded in some kind of purple haze, or that I’d see a BP dinger zip-lining its way to the moon. But no, there it was: a normal, beautiful, idyllic ballpark cast against the backdrop of some pretty gorgeous mountains. I was satisfied, if a little flummoxed.

2021 sees the MLB All-Star Game return to Coors for the first time since 1998. The home run derby will, of course, be must-watch TV. But so, too, will the ball-game itself. 1998’s barnburner, in which the AL defeated the NL 13-8, remains the highest-scoring All-Star Game in history. The starting lineups featured a combined 10 Hall of Famers, and three guys (Bonds, McGwire, & A-Rod) who have their own asterisks to reckon with. The pitching staffs were soaked in talent. This year will undoubtedly be the same. And you’ll likely hear repeated narratives on how the park itself will lend to a more exciting, explosive ball-game – Jacob DeGrom or otherwise. Speaking of DeGrom, it’s worth noting that the future Hall-of-Famer has pitched at Coors three times in his career, going 2-1 with 4 ER, 1 HR allowed, and 24 strikeouts. Extrapolated, those are still ace numbers. I don’t know, maybe the Rockies should try and swing a deal for him? Just a thought.

The bottom line is that having the anomaly that is Coors Field in baseball is fun. It’s fun – for fans at least – to dissect the ‘Coors Effect’, to follow the storylines of pitchers who try to conquer the mountain only to see their breaking-stuff become leaden, and to see what would be routine fly-outs at Citi Field or PNC clear the fence in right-center. I suppose it’s not fun if you’re the Rockies pitching coach, or Mike Hampton, or someone betting their mortgage on the under. But then, in all those cases, you know what you’re getting. It wasn’t fun for Larry Walker and his supporters, who actually had to argue that the 2nd player in MLB history to amass 300 HR, 200 SB, and a career OPS of .950+ was worthy of the Hall of Fame ‘despite his ballpark’. OK, arguing on behalf of Larry’s greatness is actually always fun.

The legendary Todd Heltonthe longest-serving roster player in franchise history – was asked many, many times over the course of his career how the ‘Coors Effect’ might’ve influenced his stats. You have to imagine he got pretty tired of having to apologize for it. Towards the end of another MVP-caliber campaign (that would go largely unrecognized), he delivered an awesome quote that just about summarizes it: “Is Coors Field a good park to hit in? Yeah. So are Wrigley Field and Camden Yards. I didn’t design the park, I just play there.”

That just about sums it up.

Design by Michael Packard (@designsbypack on Twitter @ IG

Daniel MacDonald

Daniel is a graduate of the University of Edinburgh, Scotland (2014), and has carried his love of baseball drama and storytelling across oceans and continents. He remembers exactly where he was sitting and what he was wearing when Kerry Wood struck out 20. You can find him talking baseball and music on Twitter @danthemacs

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