The Rocky Mountain Highs and Lows
It’s not just drafting, pickups, and trades that make a dynasty league champion. It’s also the small week-to-week roster management decisions that add up over the course of the season. Beyond the must-start players, dynasty owners need to break down each player’s schedule, taking a look at how many games they play, where they are, and against whom. When it comes to pitchers, where the games are played often takes center stage, and in no place is this more evident than when Coors Field is involved. With the biggest effect on run scoring of all of the MLB stadiums, Colorado’s field poses the question: should owners sit almost all pitchers when they play in Denver?
Coors Field doesn’t discriminate in the world of run-scoring. When we break down all 30 big-league parks’ runs factors from both sides of the plate for hitters, Coors Field tops the list for both left- and right-handers alike. And it’s not just homeruns in the high altitude that leads to runs, as the most spacious fair territory in the league leaves ample room for balls to find green grass. The roomy outfield has led Coors to have two of the three biggest effects on doubles (trailing only Fenway’s treatment of left-handers) and top-20 singles and triples effects for good measure, as well. When balls put in play avoid gloves as frequently as they do in Colorado, even singles add up and doom pitching lines.
Taking a look at historic numbers, very few pitchers have been able to sustain success in Colorado. Among pitchers who have started at least five games at Coors, only Johnny Cueto has an ERA below 3.00. Of the top ten, only Ubaldo Jimenez and Jason Marquis have made at least 15 starts in Colorado and kept the ERA under 4.00. Scrolling down the list, you will find familiar names like Bumgarner, Greinke, and even Kershaw, though Kershaw has pitched much better there in the last few seasons. Aces pepper the list with unsightly ERAs, enough to scare more than a few owners away from starting their top guys in Coors.
In addition to the thin air and copious amount of fair territory, one of the reasons pitchers have struggled has been the effect the mile-high stadium has on certain pitches. Dan Rozenson wrote an excellent column for Baseball Prospectus a few years ago touching on the effect Coors has on specific pitch types. Rozenson’s study found that curveballs and sinkers were the two pitches most negatively affected by the thin air in Colorado.
To that end, fantasy managers should be particularly weary of running their starters who lean heavily on the curve and two-seamer. Here are a few of the most notable:
Aaron Nola: Nola is definitely a stay-away when he goes to Coors. Nearly 75 percent of his pitches this season have been curves or sinkers, and he ranks fourth in curveball percentage and 23rd with the two-seam deployment. He hasn’t had the bad fortune of pitching in Colorado yet, but his day will come, and when it does he should enjoy a day off from your active lineup.
Jerad Eickoff: Eickhoff doesn’t lean as heavily on the two pitches as his teammate Nola does, but he still throws the curve and sinker just under 45 percent of the time. The righty’s first start at Coors happened right before the All-Star break, and fantasy owners who rolled the dice paid the price when the Rockies pummeled him for eight earned runs in five and a third innings.
John Lackey: The curve and two-seam are staple pitches in the veteran right-hander’s deep arsenal, and he throws one of them a third of the time, generally quite effectively. But in Colorado, he has struggled mightily compiling a 9.18 ERA in three career Coors Field starts.
Jake Arrieta: Arrieta has thrown more sinkers than anyone in the league except Mike Pelfrey, with the pitch accounting for nearly 60 percent of his total. He uses his curve another 20 percent of the time. The pitch selection has led to his remarkable run of success the past three years, but it shapes up as a vulnerability at Coors. In his only start in Colorado (in 2014), the righty allowed nine earned runs and 13 hits in just five innings.
Adam Wainwright: In 2016, Wainwright has used his curve and sinker over 50 percent of the time, but unlike the four pitchers above, Wainwright has pitched very well at Coors in his career. In four starts, he’s compiled an ERA under 2.00, though he has only started one game there since 2009.
Rozenson’s study also found that sliders and cutters were two pitches that didn’t see a particularly negative impact in Denver. Because the slider and cutter both break similarly at Coors to how they move in other ballparks, pitchers who lean heavily on those pitches may have more of a puncher’s chance.
Johnny Cueto: Cueto uses his slider and cutter nearly one-third of the time on the mound, and he’s thrown the latter more than all but 15 pitchers this season. As mentioned earlier, Cueto has excelled at Coors in his six starts, compiling a 2.43 ERA, including a six-inning, one-run gem earlier this season.
Jeff Samardzija: Similar to Cueto, Samardzija leans heavily on his cutter, throwing 543 thus far this year – fourth-most in the league. He also places near the top-30 in sliders thrown. And llike Cueto, Shark has pitched well in his career at Coors, allowing just three earned runs in 15 plus innings. It is worth noting that both Giants hurlers have the misfortune of currently pitching in front of a poor outfield defense that ranks among the bottom-five in defensive efficiency against fly balls.
Dallas Keuchel: Keuchel’s slider and cutter combine to make up just over 37 percent of his pitch selection this season, and his slider usage ranks him among the top 15 in the majors. He’s never pitched at Coors, but because of his pitch selection, he has a better chance than most to succeed if the opportunity presents itself.
Corey Kluber: Similar to Keuchel, Kluber has never faced the Rockies in Colorado. But also like his fellow Cy Young Winner, Kluber’s pitch mix should lend itself well to the mile-high air if and when he does. Kluber’s thrown the twelth-most cutters in the league, and he also places in the top 40 in slider usage. With nearly 40 percent of his pitches numbering among those two, there’s a not-terrible chance for success at Coors.
Overall, Coors has been a wasteland for many a starting pitcher. The thin air isn’t the only thing that has led to runs; the spacious outfield and negative atmospheric effects on certain pitches has led to bloated ERAs and WHIPs in Denver. Pitchers that lean on curveballs and sinkers are almost definite stay-aways when they travel to Colorado, while pitchers who throw copious amounts of sliders and cutters may not see the same effect on their ERA. With the help of Rozenson’s excellent research, dynasty league owners may not need to auto-sit any pitcher travelling to Coors that week, as depending on their pitch mix there may just be a chance a pitcher comes out of Colorado (relatively) unscathed.