Pitching has dried up in Colorado

Like the pre-humidor days, Coors Field once again a house of horrors for Rockies

Updated: June 24, 2012, 10:43 PM ET
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

Jeremy Guthrie went to the Colorado Rockies from Baltimore by trade in February with a mandate to eat innings and bring stability to a rotation short on proven commodities. Needless to say, the arrangement hasn't worked out according to plan.

Guthrie spent two weeks on the disabled list in May because of a bicycle mishap. He had two quality starts in 11 tries and was moved to the bullpen this week when the Rockies switched to a four-man rotation. Meanwhile, Jason Hammel, who went to Baltimore in the trade, is making the most of his Get-Out-of-Pitching-Hell-Free card. He's 8-2 with a 2.61 ERA and making a push for the All-Star Game.

Guthrie has been adequate on the road, with a 2-3 record and a 4.28 ERA, and a disaster at Coors Field, where he sports an ERA of 9.53 and has allowed 45 hits and nine homers in 28 1/3 innings. There's a school of thought that Coors inflicts more psychic damage on pitchers because of the spacious outfield than the onslaught of gopher balls. Guthrie does not matriculate there.

"I haven't had an issue with jam shots falling in front of an outfielder yet," he said. "My balls usually drop behind the outfielders."

For years, Coors Field was the brick-and-mortar embodiment of the challenges Colorado faced in building a contender. Coors-bashing was in vogue during the 1990s, when the best the Rockies could hope for was a random 17-win season by Kevin Ritz or the workmanlike effort of an Armando Reynoso. During the 1996 season, Greg Maddux allowed 11 hits in 3 1/3 innings and lost a game 19-8. Wrap your mind around that for a second.

Coors began to assume a tamer persona in 2002 with the introduction of the humidor, a storage facility that helped baseballs retain their moisture and offset the light, dry air of Denver. In 2009, Ubaldo Jimenez and friends helped Colorado's staff rank 10th in the majors with a 4.22 ERA, and the Rockies made the playoffs as a wild card for the second time in three seasons.

In hindsight, it was just a temporary reprieve. The ballpark on 20th and Blake has regained its swagger.

Some gruesome pitching numbers help explain why the Rockies are a nonfactor in the National League West this season. Manager Jim Tracy's team ranks last in the majors in ERA (5.32), batting average against (.296), quality starts (17), WHIP (1.59) and a passel of other categories we don't have time to list.

Injuries have been a killer. Jhoulys Chacin, the team leader in every major category in 2011, has been out since May with a pectoral injury. Juan Nicasio, who suffered a broken neck on an Ian Desmond line drive last season, is out with a knee injury. And the medical updates on Jorge De La Rosa aren't encouraging; his comeback from Tommy John surgery has stalled, and he might not return until September at the earliest.

The Rockies have tried recycling. In April, 49-year-old Jamie Moyer became the oldest pitcher to record a major league victory. The Rockies released him in May, and now he's burning it up for Baltimore's Triple-A club. Three weeks ago the Rockies signed Jeff Francis, who had opted out of his minor league deal with Cincinnati. Francis was a durable, reliable starter for the team from 2005 through 2007 before shoulder problems derailed his career.

The Rockies have tried a youth movement. But Alex White has taken his lumps, Drew Pomeranz is working to regain his velocity with Triple-A Colorado Springs, and Christian Friedrich has a 12.60 ERA in three starts at Coors.

Throw them all together into a pot, and you get a bouillabaisse of despair.

"Your clubhouse culture doesn't get tested until adversity really punches you in the face," Tracy said. "And we've been punched about as hard as you can possibly be hit."

Punching back

The Rockies made news this week when they announced they're going with a four-man rotation, with each starter limited to 75 pitches. Depending on your perspective, the move was either a desperate attempt to restore order from chaos or a bold example of outside-the-box thinking. But as general manager Dan O'Dowd is quick to point out, it was not a knee-jerk reaction to 2½ bad months.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Guthrie
Doug Pensinger/Getty ImagesJeremy Guthrie has a 9.53 ERA in five starts at Coors Field this season.

"The definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing over and over again and hope for a different outcome," O'Dowd said. "We're not giving in to the ballpark. At this point in time, we're just giving in to the idea that maybe the traditional way to do it isn't the right way for the Colorado Rockies."

A little perspective is in order. When Colorado's pitching numbers at home began to show marked improvement several years ago, it was suggested that the humidor had somehow produced a sense of "normalcy" -- that Coors had suddenly become like other parks. In reality, the humidor had simply produced a tamer version of Coors.

The Rockies' park is a mile above sea level. Arizona's Chase Field has the second-highest elevation in the game at 1,082 feet, and Atlanta's Turner Field is third at 1,050 feet. But Chase Field has a roof, and the oppressive humidity in Atlanta helps mute the effects of elevation. So Coors has a way of crushing a pitcher's morale like no other venue in baseball.

O'Dowd has been asking himself questions about Coors' impact on pitchers since he took over as GM in 1999. For example, are pitchers more likely to incur injuries because of the extra effort required to snap off a good breaking ball at altitude? And since Colorado's farm clubs in Grand Junction, Colo., Asheville, N.C., and Triple-A Colorado Springs also play at altitude, is that a factor in grinding down prospects before they even make it to Denver?

Colorado management had the luxury of overlooking some of those questions when the Rockies made the World Series in 2007 and set a franchise record with 92 wins in 2009. The brilliance of Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez helped obscure a lot of concerns. But O'Dowd knew things were different this year after the team's first two homestands, when the Rockies won games by scores of 17-8 and 18-9 and suffered losses of 9-8 and 13-9.

Two moments stand out for Tracy: On June 9, the Rockies' Tyler Colvin hit an opposite-field fly ball that looked like a potential double. The ball kept carrying and landed 373 feet from the plate for a home run. The next day the Angels' Mark Trumbo mishit a Friedrich curveball and popped it a row into the left field seats for a homer. Jaws dropped throughout the Colorado dugout.

"We're tackling a monster in Coors Field," Tracy said. "The ballpark this year has played as though we're in the pre-humidor era."

"Project 5183"

With encouragement from owner Dick Monfort, O'Dowd and his staff are examining the ballpark's impact on Colorado pitching from every conceivable angle. O'Dowd refers to the Rockies' ongoing quest to find answers as Project 5183 -- so named in honor of the ballpark's elevation.

O'Dowd has 10 years of data on weather patterns at Coors. He's commissioned studies on heat, humidity and barometric pressure on game days, and has yet to come up with any definitive answers. The average temperature in Denver spiked about six degrees in May and June of this year, so it's conceivable the weather might have played a role in the offensive carnage this spring.

The Rockies have examined how pitchers fare the third time through the order. They've looked at nutrition, rest and recovery, between-start bullpen regimens and a slew of other factors in their quest to formulate a long-term plan.

"Every year our pitching has been an art of survival," O'Dowd said. "We're just trying to figure out a model for sustained success rather than periodic success. There's a difference there."

Since O'Dowd is in his 13th season as Colorado GM, it's natural to wonder: Why is his front-office contingent still groping for answers after all this time? As the Rockies continue to get pummeled, it's ratcheted up the pressure on both O'Dowd and Tracy to come up with solutions.

"It's a fair criticism," O'Dowd said. "But for anybody to say that, they probably need to walk in the shoes of everybody who's been involved in this process. There's not a very simple answer to any of these questions.

"We've seen things all along, but we never [addressed them] because we were quasi-competitive. I'm sorry we're in this position. I certainly wish we weren't. But instead of looking at it as a setback, we see it as an opportunity to come up with a better vision for our organization."

Part of the agenda is finding a way to draft good pitchers and keep them healthy so they don't flame out before making it to Denver. The Rockies selected Stanford's Greg Reynolds with the second pick in the 2006 draft (just ahead of Clayton Kershaw and Tim Lincecum), and he was never the same after hurting his shoulder. Casey Weathers, their No. 1 pick the following year, hurt his elbow and has since moved on to the Cubs. And Tyler Matzek, Colorado's top pick in 2009, is trying to overcome major command issues with Class A Modesto.

Still, it's not as if the Rockies are bereft of promising arms. Friedrich was the team's first-round pick in 2008. White and Pomeranz, acquired from Cleveland in the Jimenez trade, were also first-round picks. And Chacin, 24, and Nicasio, 25, both have age and ability on their side.

"It's not like they're running a bunch of six-year free agents out there," an N personnel man said. "They have some quality young arms."

The Guthrie trade is a prime example of how everything has gone wrong in 2012. Guthrie refuses to blame Coors Field for his problems, and cites location issues and bad pitch selection as the biggest culprits for his lack of success. For the past week or two, he's been a human trade rumor, and the speculation is only going to increase as the July 31 nonwaiver deadline approaches.

Guthrie is resigned to the idea of pitching his way back into the Rockies' good graces in the bullpen.

"It's not my first choice," he said, "but they're trying to do what's best for me. I understand I haven't pitched well enough to even argue or fight this. They told me, 'You forced our hand to put you in the bullpen, and we'd like to see you force it back so we can put you back in the rotation.' I appreciated the truth to that statement."

Until Guthrie's numbers improve, he'll keep plugging away and trying to find answers to some very difficult questions. He has a lot of company this summer in Colorado.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer