When Position Players Get Away from Coors Field

There’s nothing at all strange about a city the size of Denver having a major-league baseball team. I’ve been to Denver. Not only is it big enough to have multiple gas stations — it’s big enough to have multiple kinds of gas stations. Where things do get strange is in the details. Denver, of course, is really high up, relative to where sea level is, and that makes for an unavoidably different baseballing experience. There’s nothing, really, to be done about it. Baseball in Denver’s played at altitude, so baseball in Denver’s a different sort of baseball.

Things happen differently there, and for that reason Denver’s a perfect case for why park factors have to exist for analysts to get anywhere. It’s simply an extreme hitter-friendly run environment. Now, when it comes to games in Denver, everyone, at least, is on a level playing field (literally!) (figuratively too). But there are games played outside of Denver, and additionally, there are players who are removed from Denver. Whenever a position player leaves the Rockies, people get worried that he’s going to fall apart, because he’ll miss the lopsided circumstances. With players who used to play in Colorado, there’s a tendency to be cautious, and perhaps even skeptical.

This could be observed after the Astros traded for Dexter Fowler. Not that Houston is going to slap Fowler in the face with a pitcher-friendly run environment, but Houston isn’t Colorado, and Fowler has big career home/road splits from his time with the Rockies. At home, he’s posted a .384 wOBA. Away from home, that’s dropped to .312, and there are plenty of people who believe his offense was just a product of the environment. This always happens when talking about Rockies. People are just disinclined to trust people who play and hit as Rockies.

Admittedly, I’m one of the wounded ones. As a Mariners fan, I experienced what became of Miguel Olivo after he left the Rockies. More memorably, I’ll never be able to forget the Jeff Cirillo catastrophe, and that one seems obvious in biased retrospect. Cirillo, with the Rockies, only really hit at home. So why would anyone think he’d hit in Seattle? What a terrible decision! But this isn’t analysis. Not worthwhile analysis, anyway.

Better to see what’s happened with groups. The Rockies have played in Coors Field since 1995. They’ve played full seasons in Coors Field since 1996. Since 1996, how have position players done after leaving the Rockies? How have they done staying with the Rockies? This should tell us more than individual anecdotes. Jeff Cirillo shouldn’t be considered representative of anything.

I looked for players who batted at least 250 times in consecutive seasons, and who spent the first of those seasons with the Rockies. I then grouped them by where they spent the second seasons, with the groups being “Rockies” and “not-Rockies”. Of the pool, 92 players stayed with the Rockies for both years. Meanwhile, 28 players moved on between seasons. I excluded guys who were traded from the Rockies during the second year, but I kept guys who were traded from the Rockies between years.

Let’s have a good time, now, with the data. We’ll start with the guys who stayed as Rockies, so as to build suspense while establishing something of an approximate control.

Year 1

  • .370 wOBA
  • 109 wRC+
  • 2.5 WAR/600

Year 2

  • .363 wOBA
  • 105 wRC+
  • 2.1 WAR/600

More or less identical numbers, with hints of a very slight overall average decline. Now let’s look at the guys who left the Rockies between seasons. How much did they end up missing Coors Field?

Year 1

  • .336 wOBA
  • 87 wRC+
  • 1.1 WAR/600

Year 2

  • .319 wOBA
  • 92 wRC+
  • 1.7 WAR/600

The players, on average, lost some points of wOBA, but then we’d expect that, and wRC+ corrects for that, and we actually see a wRC+ improvement. Same goes for full-season WAR. These players survived just fine. Obviously, there were guys who struggled, like Cirillo and Olivo, but then you have, say, Andres Galarraga. Or Matt Holliday. Chris Iannetta was the same hitter in Colorado and in Los Angeles. Seth Smith didn’t lose very much. And this data doesn’t include Larry Walker, who the Rockies traded in the middle of 2004. Walker hit well in St. Louis for a year and a half before he had to hang up his cleats.

Presumably, part of what we’re seeing is regression to the mean. Some of the players who left Colorado might’ve been doing so after performing unusually poorly, so we’d expect a bounceback. What we don’t see is any evidence of devastation, post-Coors. Yeah, there are individual cases of guys who couldn’t hack it anymore after leaving Colorado. But sometimes players just get worse. Garrett Atkins got progressively worse with the Rockies. Juan Uribe was dreadful in his sophomore season before taking a step forward, and then taking another step forward after joining the White Sox. Basically: we have park effects, and park effects seem perfectly able to make sense of Rockies position players. They play in a weird environment half the time, but taking that into account is what math is for.

Certainly, you can never be sure of a guy. The Astros can’t be sure that Fowler is going to adjust well to a new park. But you can never be sure of a guy under any circumstances, and Rockies players might just make people unusually aware of that fact. In fairness, they do spend half the time facing pitches that move differently than they would around sea level. But that’s a big part of why Colorado’s road numbers tend to look kind of lousy. Their home-field advantage sort of causes a road-field disadvantage, and then when you remove players from the team, they don’t have to worry about pitch-movement adjustments so much anymore. They can just hit curveballs that always move like regular curveballs. Historically, there’s a greater number of position players who did fine leaving Colorado than position players who didn’t. You can’t let Jeff Cirillo or Vinny Castilla stand for too much.

To close with a general idea: home/road splits tell you a lot about what’s happened. But wRC+ tells you more about what’s going to happen. Sometimes a player really might be a product of his environment, but those cases are less frequent than one can be led to believe.

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

28 Responses to “When Position Players Get Away from Coors Field”

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  1. Umpire Weekend says:

    And you have to consider that Olivo and Cirillo were in their 30’s when they switched to the Mariners.

    Just like Robinson Cano

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  2. Ian R. says:

    I wonder if there’s any bias in this data regarding the personnel decisions the Rockies have made. That is to say, it’s possible that the Rockies have done a better or worse than average job of retaining good players and letting bad players go.

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    • Ron says:

      I wonder if this works for most teams. Do players who get a significant amount of playing time get better or worse the year after they leave a team. I am sure there has to be a study on this.

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      • Ian R. says:

        On a tangentially related note, I remember seeing a study with fairly similar methodology that looked at pitchers who joined and left the Braves during the ’90s. The intent was to demonstrate the impact of legendary pitching coach Leo Mazzone, but presumably the Braves front office also deserved some credit for acquiring pitchers who were at or close to their peaks.

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  3. A Guy says:

    this is a good article. i enjoyed reading it.

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  4. Jeremiah says:

    In my mind, the second to last paragraph describes the root of the problem. Everyone knows that baseballs are easier to hit in Denver, and they travel further when hit. But most baseball players don’t have to adjust to several inches worth of different pitch movement once a week or so. Take a look at Holliday’s splits: his wRC+ on the road went up after leaving the Rockies. Perhaps he was still maturing as a hitter, but it seems that not having to make that adjustment enabled him to hit better on the road.

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  5. That Guy says:

    How about run this backwards? How have hitters faced in their first year with the Rockies, compared to their last year with their previous team?

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  6. The Number Games says:

    Maybe the unexpected wRC bounce is a sign that park adjustment is punishing Denver players too much? Not sure how that stat is produced…

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    • Resolution says:

      As a Rockies fan, I generally feel that Rockies players are punished a bit via wRC+. I also tend to feel that Padres and Mariners players are also punished. Basically I think wRC+ is pretty great for most teams but like any model becomes a little less accurate at the extremes…though perhaps it’s getting more accurate over time as the sample sizes of data collected in these parks increases…

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      • jfree says:

        I would agree. More specifically, virtually all saber stats use statistical measures created for a normal distribution. But normal distributions make very rigid assumptions about outlier data. Notably, that the outlier data is mainly a function of random variability – rather than something very non-random. There is nothing random about pitch movement at Coors – or batted ball behavior – or a slew of other things there. There will be no regression to the mean given a large enough sample size. Because the non-random factor (altitude) is permanent to Coors and unique to Coors. IOW – Coors does not fit into a normal distribution that does not factor in altitude – and there is no reason to factor in altitude at any other park. Statistically, Coors is an outlier that should be excluded and any normal distribution-based statistics will be less meaningful/significant. But since we aren’t going to exclude Coors – and we aren’t going to be stats purists either – then we have to simply accept that Coors data is going to have a large systematic error/bias.

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        • Resolution says:

          There is a chance to increase sample size by including the minors and some PCL parks – the Sky Sox play at 6k feet and I believe some other teams are either at altitude or in extreme run environments (ABQ). This may help provide more clarity on how to calibrate for altitude….though it may introduce other issues…

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    • Cicero says:

      If you look at guys like Eric Young sr or Matt Holliday who spent their physical prime in Denver but posted better wRC+/OPS+ elsewhere in their 30s it would seem to agree

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  7. Tangotiger says:

    Jeff for a better control make sure that both groups have players who each have an wRC+ of over 100. That should make both groups equivalent in year 1.

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  8. Big Jgke says:

    I’m kind of shocked that the Rockies have only had 92 players post consecutive 250 AB seasons in almost twenty years.

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    • Jon L. says:

      From 1996 to 2013 is 18 years, or 17 back-to-back seasons. With 8 regular spots in the lineup, you have 8*17 = 136 chances for back-to-back seasons of 250 AB from full-time players. If only full-time players were in the picture, 92/136 = 68%!

      Of course, in reality, there are probably some platoon and utility guys in there. Still, it doesn’t seem lower than expected, even it it looks lower than expected.

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  9. DD says:

    Hard not to notice that the second group starts with a Year 1 wOBA of .336 and wRC+ of 87, compared with a .370/109 for continuous Rockies. Perhaps this data is weighted toward worse players who are more apt to decline than the studs posting .360+ wOBAs?

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    • Ryan says:

      Look at who makes up some of those 92 data points:

      Todd Helton – 13
      Larry Walker – 7
      Carlos Gonzalez – 4
      Dante Bichette – 3 (.876 OPS, 113 HR in 4 seasons)
      Vinny Castilla – 3 (.889 OPS, 159 HR in 4 seasons)
      Troy Tulowitzki – 4
      Matt Holliday – 4

      So 38 of the 92 data points belong to 7 of the 8 hitters in Rockies history to make multiple all-star games.

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      • tz says:

        What’s amazing is that Bichette and Castille each had a wRC+ not much over 100 during that stretch.

        Pre-humidor Coors Field + late 90’s MLB = some truly crazy numbers.

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  10. Plucky says:

    While I can understand sample size considerations for why you did this analysis in this way, lumping pre-humidor splits with post-humidor ones is not exactly an apples-to-apples comparison. Baseball in Denver is a different kind of thing, but post-humidor baseball in Denver is also a different kind of thing than pre-humidor baseball in Denver

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  11. John C says:

    Basically, players who are truly good have no problem coming and going from Coors. Mediocre players like Castilla, who have just figured out a way to exploit Coors, struggle when they leave.

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    • Cicero says:

      Maybe but look at it like this Castilla was awful in 2000/01 in TB(but so was Burrell) and in ATL in 02 but look at it like this

      granted he had a slg spike in 04 but you are talking about a guy who hit .287/.352/.534 on the road in 97 with 19HR. You are under estimating Castilla

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  12. tz says:

    Just for fun, click this link, then under the “Neutralized Batting” section near the bottom, choose the “2000 Rockies” option


    If only. First-ballot HOFer Willie Davis

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    • LookItUp says:

      Using the 2000 Rockies always produces some amusing and absurd results. E.g. if you do it for Ichiro it shows him getting 320 hits in 2004. Barry Bonds: 93 home runs in 2001. And so on.

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  13. Eno says:

    What about Cuddyer? I don’t have the info in front of me, but I believe his splits show he is better on the road, surprisingly.

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