How to Pitch in Colorado

I was recently doing some research for an article when I came upon an interesting tidbit: Colorado rookie pitcher Jeff Francis has been better at home. Not a little better, mind you, but a heck of a lot better. His career ERA on the road is an ugly 6.54. At home, the man is an ace at 4.71. Okay, that doesn’t sound that impressive, but remember Colorado has had a stable park factor of over 1.4. This season, it’s 1.416. If you adjust his home ERA, it’s 3.33, which is ace material.

Anyway, Francis’ great home performance got me wondering: What does it take to pitch well for the Colorado Rockies? The problems caused by pitching in Denver are well-documented: The high altitude suppresses most breaking balls, the large outfield means that a lot more balls fall for hits, there is a “Coors Hangover Effect” that many pitchers have complained of, and eventually, the high run environment just seems to mess with most pitchers’ psyches.

But there are certain players who can avoid that and those are the players who most interest me. Well, those guys and the pitchers who have been just plain bad, because everyone loves to watch a train wreck. So I compiled a list of all Colorado pitchers with at least 75 innings pitched in a season using the Lahman database, and then added scouting information. This eliminated 18 of the 83 pitcher seasons for which scouting information was unavailable. I then found the pitchers with the 20 best and 20 worst runs allowed per nine innings figures, forming the two groups I wanted to study.

I mentioned in the above paragraph that I entered scouting information about each pitcher into my database, and you’re probably wondering exactly what that constitutes. In The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers, Bill James introduced a method he called “Pitcher Codes” under which pitchers could be categorized based on their pitch type, handedness, etc. Their best pitch would be labeled a “1”, their second-best pitch a “2”, and so forth.

Using information from the book, and a scouting database I myself have compiled, I did exactly this, adding a score from 1-5, with 1 being the best, for their level of control. And then the fun started. Let’s take a look at the pitchers who did the best with the Rockies:

                One     Two    Three    Four    Five
Four-Seam        5       4       -       -       -
Two-Seam         12      -       -       1       -
Curveball        1       5       6       1       -
Slider           -       6       7       1       -
Changeup         1       5       4       6       -
Split-finger     1       -       1       -       -
Control          1       7       8       4       -

The labels across the top correspond to the number assigned to a player’s pitch. For example, 5 pitchers’ best pitch was their four-seam fastball. As you can see here, there are a lot of pitchers whose best pitch was a two-seam fastball, a lot of OK changeups, and, surprisingly, a little over half of all pitchers had a slider or curveball as their second-best pitch. Also, you might notice, 80% of the pitchers had above-average to average control.

What about the bad pitchers? What made them so different from the good? Let’s see:

                One     Two    Three    Four    Five
Four-Seam        6       7       -       4       -
Two-Seam         9       -       2       1       -
Curveball        3       2       7       4       2
Slider           -       7       4       3       -
Changeup         2       2       7       7       -
Split-finger     -       2       -       -       -
Control          -       3       9       7       1

A couple things jump out at me. First of all, 33% less pitchers throw two-seamers as their best pitch in this group. And secondly, the pitchers who did poorly in Colorado had much worse control. Almost half were below average, and only three of 20 were above average, whereas there were eight pitchers in the top group with above-average control.

Let’s also take a look at the four Rockies pitchers this year who have an ERA at home that is no more than 10% higher than their ERA on the road:

Pitcher           Four-Seam  Two-Seam Curveball Slider Changeup Split-finger Control
Marcos Carvajal       -         1         -       2       3         -        3
Jeff Francis          -         1         2       -       3         -        3
Brian Fuentes         -         1         4       3       2         -        4
B.K. Kim              -         1         -       3       2         -        4

All four throw a two-seam fastball as their best pitch, and all four have a breaking ball and a changeup as their second- and third-best pitch (not necessarily in that order). Their control is not as good as could be expected, but it’s not horrendous either. In short, they pretty much fit into the “prototype” of a successful Rockies pitcher.

You might notice Francis is one of the pitchers on this list. It’s obvious that he does have the stuff to be successful in Colorado. More so, I think the fact that he came through the Rockies system has had an effect on his pitching as well. Pitching at Triple-A in a high-altitude city like Colorado Springs (and successfully, I might add) helped shape his style, and he’s now just used to pitching thousands of feet above sea-level. This might suggest that to have a good pitching staff, the Rockies should be developing their own pitchers instead of making big free agent signings.

But the next time you talk about what kind of pitchers the Rockies want to sign or develop, you should know that guys with good control and good two-seam fastballs are the most likely to succeed.

References & Resources
The Neyer/James Guide to Pitching

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