The Colorado Rockies can be a successful team in Denver, they just need to figure out how to do it.
One truth is becoming self-evident: even if the Colorado Rockies figure out a way to tamp down the impact of the Mile High Effect—i.e. the impact that Denver’s thin air has upon batted baseballs—Coors Field will always be a hitter's park simply because of its dimensions.
At 347/350 down the lines and 420 to straight away center, Coors Field is an almost hilariously large ballpark. However, before the Rockies began packing balls away in humidors it was thought that simply building an enormous ballpark would help contain baseballs.
Once the humidor experiment was underway, Coors Field went from being a pitcher-friendly baseball container to being a hitter-friendly hit-producer. With preposterous alleys and enormous corner outfields, Coors Field is a nightmare for defensive outfielders in both clubhouses.
The ballpark remains a hitter’s paradise.
The course of baseball history has taught us some lessons about teams that play in extreme ballparks, namely that they must be able to perform away from home.
There are essentially four categories of hitting and pitching performance in baseball: hitting at home, pitching at home, hitting on the road and pitching on the road.
In order to succeed in baseball, a team has to be able to do two of these things well and probably needs to be above-average in a third category as well.
Teams that play in hitting or pitching moderate ballparks have the luxury of being able to build their teams any way they wish.
For example, both the Philadelphia Phillies and the St. Louis Cardinals have succeeded in recent years as hitting teams and as pitching teams. In the Citizens Bank Park Era the Phillies have succeeded as an “American League style” offense and now they are succeeding with once in a lifetime pitching. The Cardinals have succeeded with Dave Duncan disciple craft pitchers and have also succeeded as ball-bashers.
For teams that play in extreme parks, the bias of the home ballpark dictates what the team must be able to do away from home and teams that ignore this will have a hard time succeeding.
For example, in 2007 the Colorado Rockies finished second in the National League in runs scored and ninth in the league in runs allowed. This was the result of the Rockies hitting very well at home (.853 OPS) while finishing about average on the road (.730). The pitchers did poorly at home (4.34 ERA), but actually quite well on the road (4.29 ERA).
In 2008, the Colorado Rockies finished the season eighth in the NL in runs scored per game and 14th out of 16 teams in runs allowed. Unlike in 2007, the Rockies hitters did fine at home (.804 OPS) but poorly on the road (.699 OPS) and the Rockies pitching was evenly bad at home (4.83 ERA) and on the road (4.70 ERA).
This is a recipe that the Texas Rangers have finally mastered after many years.
The Rangers play in Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, which is one of the most hitter-friendly ballparks in baseball. Thus, it only stands to reason that the Rangers’ hitters are going to be able to hit at home, while the Rangers pitchers are going to have a hard time pitching there.
For years the Rangers featured an explosive offense buttressed by absolutely no pitching at home. For the most part, the Rangers did only one thing well: they hit great at home. Of course they also hit poorly on the road and pitched poorly everywhere.
The difference between the Rangers team of the last ten years and the 2010 Rangers team that went to the World Series is simple: the 2010 team was able to pitch at home and hit on the road.
Consider, for example, the 75-87 Texas Rangers of 2007.
The 2007 Rangers hit .277 with a .792 OPS at home but just .249 with a .717 OPS on the road. Meanwhile, the 2007 Rangers pitching staff had a 4.30 ERA at home and a 5.25 ERA on the road. A team can survive a 4.30 ERA at home, especially when they are hitting. The Rangers proved this by going 47-34 at home.
But on the road, no team will ever be able to succeed with a 5.25 ERA and the Rangers posted a 28-53 road record.
It was a different ballgame on the way to the World Series last year, though. In 2010, the difference between the Rangers’ hitters at home vs. on the road was shockingly narrow—the team hit .278 with a .769 OPS at home and .274 with a .743 OPS on the road.
Meanwhile, the pitching staff had even more surprises in store. The Rangers posted a shocking 3.65 ERA at home, which must be a Rangers Ballpark record, compared to a 4.24 ERA on the road, which in the American League is actually kind of fantastic—the two top pitching teams in the AL last season, Oakland and Tampa Bay, had road ERAs of 4.15 and 4.17, respectively.
The Rangers excelled in all four categories and as a result they went 51-30 at home and a respectable 39-42 on the road and won the AL West.
Simple as that.
So how do the Colorado Rockies ensure that they can do three of those four things well?
That, my friends, is a far more complicated question and the answer remains to be seen.