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Is Coors Field creating a competitive disadvantage for the Rockies?

May 16, 2014, 6:55 PM EDT

Coors Field

A writer at Purple Row, SB Nation’s Rockies blog, by the name of “RhodeIslandRoxFan” penned a very thought-provoking column yesterday in which he hypothesizes that either the Sabermetric stat wRC+ is flawed when it comes to accounting for the effect of Coors Field, or that the Rockies’ home park is responsible for a very noticeable competitive disadvantage.

For those not familiar, wRC+, or weighted runs created, is a Sabermetric statistic found at FanGraphs. The plus sign, similar to OPS+, indicates that the stat has been normalized such that 100 is average. wRC+ takes the various contributions a player makes — hitting singles, doubles, triples, and home runs; stealing bases; drawing walks — and converts it into one single statistic telling you how many runs a player contributed to his team’s offense.

RhodeIslandRoxFan illustrates the disparity between the Rockies’ home and road wRC+ dating back to 2002, both when FanGraphs’ data begins and when the Rockies introduced the humidor. On average, the Rockies have posted a 99 wRC+ at home and 82 on the road. The 17-point difference is staggering, as the next-biggest gap is nine points, posted by the Diamondbacks, Cardinals, Braves, and Pirates.

While it is tempting to believe that the stat is not accounting for Coors Field properly, RIRF shows that the Rockies’ home wRC+ doesn’t differ terribly from the league average at home on a season-by-season basis. However, the Rockies’ road wRC+ does vary from the league average on the road. RIRF concludes:

The road numbers on the other hand tend to support the idea that the Rockies are operating at a competitive disadvantage to all the other teams in baseball. Like a drug addict not being able to function when they come off a high without a fix, Rockies’ hitters don’t seem to be able to function properly when they come off the high of hitting at Coors Field.

Of course, this is one study and isn’t by any means conclusive and exhaustive, but the author makes a very compelling argument. If you enjoy well-reasoned analysis, check out the full article.

  1. sabathiawouldbegoodattheeighthtoo - May 16, 2014 at 7:16 PM

    Perhaps a more expansive study, showing the effects on players who come to the Rockies from other teams, and those who leave the Rockies to go to other teams, and any subsequent changes in their approach, could provide a little extra context.

    I’ve often wondered about the indirect Coors has on players. My wife is a professional singer. She went to perform in Denver and they have oxygen tanks backstage as a matter of course. There are some obvious physiological challenges to performing physical acts at high altitude. Perhaps, as the body acclimates to such an environment, it has difficulty adjusting to denser atmospheres or something similar.

    It is one thing to observe a phenomenon, and yet another to get to the root of it.

    • tuberippin - May 17, 2014 at 3:27 AM

      Hitting-wise, it’s a mixed bag. Obviously this is just a cursory look-over, but:

      Larry Walker: 147 OPS+ in Colorado, 131 OPS+ in STL/MON
      Juan Pierre: 76 OPS+ in Colorado, a career-worst (career 84 OPS+)
      Juan Uribe: 71 OPS+ in Colorado, a career-worst (career 86 OPS+)
      Todd Hollandsworth: 116 OPS+ in Colorado, a career-best (career 97 OPS+)
      Preston Wilson: 102 OPS+ in Colorado, right along career OPS+ of 103

      Garrett Atkins completely fell off after leaving the Rockies, as did Brad Hawpe. Matt Holliday, however, did not. Vinny Castilla was markedly worse after leaving Colorado, but

      Colorado improved the OPS+ of some marginal players like Kaz Matsui and Ian Stewart, but didn’t seem to have much of an effect on guys like Jeff Baker or Jamey Carroll or Seth Smith, who were about the same outside of Coors as they were playing half their games there.

      Yorvit Torrealba was better both before and after his time in Colorado, which is interesting with him being a catcher and all. Chris Iannetta also saw a slight uptick in all-around offensive production leaving Coors. Perhaps the thin air taxes a catcher more than other positions out there.

      • straightouttavtown - May 17, 2014 at 7:12 PM

        Carroll is an OBP guy with no power. Coors does nothing for him. Jeff Baker was a better player in Coors. His number doesn’t reflect it because other teams only play him against lefties so his stat is skewed. Iannetta was a far player in Coors except for his last season. What are you smoking?

      • tuberippin - May 17, 2014 at 7:36 PM

        Look up Iannetta and Baker’s OPS+ numbers in and out of Coors Field. I went by the numbers on that one.

        It’s difficult because it wasn’t until the late 00s that the Rockies stopped fielding a ton of guys who were on the tail ends of their careers. Not a lot of homegrown talent until recently, so there aren’t a ton of guys who spent a good number of seasons in Colorado and then played elsewhere.

        Also, if the ball travels further on doubles and home runs, it would stand to reason that all hits are improved by the effects of the mountain air in Denver, so ruling out Carroll because he has no power is silly. As an example: Michael Cuddyer isn’t a power hitter (1 30-HR season, 3 20-HR seasons in 11 seasons), but before coming to Colorado he never had a season in which he hit .290 or better; last season, he hit .331 as a Rockie, and is hitting .314 so far this year.

      • straightouttavtown - May 17, 2014 at 11:14 PM

        Carroll’s strong suit is plate discipline. He has a higher career OBP than slugging percentage if I’m not mistaken. How is Coors Field’s thin air supposed to help you when your primary objective during every AB is getting walked? Almost every other middle infielder that ever played on the Rockies with a modicum of power have an extreme home/away split (ex: Chris Nelson, LeMaheiu).

        Jeff Baker was still considered a potential everyday player who can play all-around the diamond in his Rockies days. He played against a lot of righties during that time. Since then, he has been exclusively pegged as a lefty killer. Basically, the Coors effect on his stats was mitigated by the fact that he was miscasted as a possible every day player.

        Ianneta had a .895 OPS in 2008 and a .804 OPS the next season. Those 2 years were his heyday in Coors. Since leaving, he’s been a .730 OPS player and hasn’t had a slugging percentage above .400.

      • sabathiawouldbegoodattheeighthtoo - May 18, 2014 at 12:13 PM

        Thanks for looking into all this. I suppose as with most things, Coors giveth, and Coors taketh away. (I seem to recall saying that very same thing after a few low budget college parties)

  2. straightouttavtown - May 16, 2014 at 7:42 PM

    The problem with extreme parks such as Coors Field, Safeco Field, Petco Park, and to a lesser extent, Yankee Stadium, Arlington, and Fenway Park, is that you have trouble attracting free agents who are either looking to boost their stats for another big payday a few years later or looking to build a HOF case. Consequently, the Rockies have to overpay for pitchers (see Mike Hampton, Denny Neagle, etc) to blow away the competition because most pitchers would rather take less money than pitch in Coors unless they’re desperate like Roy Oswalt last year. The same rationale applies to hitters with the Mariners and Padres. The M’s have to overpay for Cano after what happened with Beltre, Sexson, and many others. I bet Cano is already regretting signing with the M’s and Seager, Nick Franklin, and Brad Miller are jealous of LeMahieu and Blackmon.

  3. vanmorrissey - May 16, 2014 at 8:26 PM

    As stated above, go the other way with pitching at Petco, Safeco, etc. Have to overpay if you can get any hitter at all to come to one of those teams, yet that’s where pitchers end up when at the end of a string to revitalize their careers. So when the Padres go on the road is it in their pitchers heads and they collapse? No, I doubt it. Don’t think it about it too much. It is probably due to the success at home gives them a relaxed feeling and the fact you’re never out of a game there lends confidence subconciously. Whatever, get over it.

    • Bryz - May 17, 2014 at 12:07 PM

      It’s not necessarily a “it’s in your head” thing, it sounds more like a physical/physiological thing from playing a mile above sea level. The Rockies hitters get used to that, then they play elsewhere closer to sea level and their bodies have a tough time adapting to the denser air.

  4. Mark - May 17, 2014 at 11:04 AM

    While it’s an interesting article, there is one glaring omission – the Houston Astros. They played in the NL until 2012, so if you compare their home/road splits during their NL years you get this result:

    98 wRC+ at home, 83 wRC+ on the road, for a 15 point difference. If you include the AL years and look at the data until 2014, you have a 14 point difference.

    When you look at that, all of a sudden the Rockies aren’t alone on some island as a team that has a massive difference between home and road splits. I think that changes some of the conclusions we should be making.

  5. paperlions - May 17, 2014 at 11:06 AM

    The biggest problem with Coors (or any high offensive environment) is that your pitchers have to throw more pitches to get the same number of outs in neutral or pitcher friendly environment…by the latter part of the season, your pitchers (and especially your bullpen) will be far more worn down than those of other teams. That effect probably manifests each year, but the accumulative effects likely are greater.

    • gloccamorra - May 17, 2014 at 12:25 PM

      The thing is, the pitchers are more consistent with home/road splits than the hitters. Last year the staff pitched to a not-very-good 4.44 ERA at home and 4.45 on the road.

      The hitters though, went from .293 at home to .246 on the road and scored 162 fewer runs on the road than at home – 2 fewer runs per game! This year, it’s .349 at home and .251 on the road, and they’re scoring 7.42 runs/game at home, 3.96/game on the road.

      Players SHOULD be more comfortable at home, and even great hitters like Tulo have better stats at home than the road, but the splits are outrageous, even for Tulo (.593/.667/1.056 at home vs. .247/.375/.519 road). MLB needs to assemble a blue ribbon panel to investigate. This should not be left to sports writers.

  6. wesleyworrell - May 17, 2014 at 12:31 PM

    Greater thinkers than myself have summarized the comedy of statistics pretty well:

    “There are three types of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics” Benjamin Disraeli.

    Or possibly the words of Lewis Caroll might be even better:

    “If you want to inspire confidence, give plenty of statistics. It does not matter that they should be accurate, or even intelligible, as long as there is enough of them.”

  7. chris6523 - May 17, 2014 at 12:50 PM

    I’m not a big sabermetrics guy, but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see the difference. Among the Rockies most productive offensive players, there has always been a huge home/road disparity. In the early years it was Larry Walker and Dante Bichette. Both those guys were MVP candidates who had extremely average numbers on the road. In 2007, one of the biggest reasons Tulowitzki got beat out by Braun for ROY were the extreme differences in home/road offensive stats for Tulowitzki. In 2010 Carlos Gonzalez was an MVP candidate, but his candidacy was killed by the fact that his road BA was 100 points less than at home and he only had 8 homers on the road compared to 26 on the road. Take a look at Tulo’s splits this year. His OPS is nearly double what it is at home compared to on the road. Compare these numbers to the typical splits to guys like Cabrera, Fielder, Pujols, Braun and Votto. With these other guys there is almost no discernible difference between their home and road numbers. There is always at least a 30% dropoff in numbers for the Rockies guys.

  8. rockstardaddy - May 17, 2014 at 1:43 PM

    As a Colorado resident, I’ve always thought that the disadvantage for the Rockies has been acclimating to lower altitudes after home stands rather than any advantage gained at home. The batters constantly have to adjust to a different pitch flight on the road (more break, different bat reaction) and the pitchers in turn have to adjust to different break trajectory and location because of how the seams of the ball react to the air. The humidity/size of the baseball at Coors is somewhat regulated, but you can’t change the aerodynamics of a baseball for ‘thinner’ (or ‘thicker’) air.

  9. bkool37 - May 18, 2014 at 11:12 AM

    My guess and that is all it is, is that away pitchers aren’t used to how their breaking balls will react and more pitches get left in easy to hit locations or the fastball becomes too predictable. When they go on the road and those breaking pitches work correctly for the opposing pitcher the stats adjust greatly for CO hitters.

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