Building A Team In Coors Field

BALTIMORE, MD - Starting pitcher Jeremy Guthrie #46 of the Baltimore Orioles delivers to a Texas Rangers batter during the third inning at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

The Rockies have always had one of the strangest GM positions in baseball history. You could use pie charts and 5,000 words to explain why, or you could just mention this:

Masato Yoshii, 2000: 167 innings, 5.86 ERA, 99 ERA+

If you know what ERA+ is, you just read that line six times to make sure you read it right. If you don't, it's a stat that takes the league-wide offense and park effects into account, then sets it to a scale where 100 is an average ERA+. Or to get to the point, Masato Yoshii had a 5.86 ERA in 2000. Considering that he pitched in Coors Field, that was a league-average season.

It goes the other way, too. Jeff Cirillo hit .326/.392/.477 that season, and it was good for an even 100 OPS+. Colorado baseball was essentially Calvinball played on the moon. Dan O'Dowd's task when he became the GM of the Colorado Rockies was to sashay into the Boomerang Zone and figure out how to get his team to the Pernicious Poem Place without knocking over any time-fracture wickets. There had never been a job quite like it.

O'Dowd's first strategy was to buy pitchers. The Rockies hadn't had luck developing their own pitchers, so they purchased Mike Hampton and Denny Neagle. Those moves were colossal failures, as you can read in this amazing and thorough book available now from Amazon.com. No, I'm not up for a raise, and I resent the implication. Just buy the damned book.

After Neagle/Hampton, the Rockies became something of a speed-and-defense team. Then they were rebuilding. Then they weren't. Then they were. Then they won 39 of their last 38 games to make the playoffs and the World Series that one year. It was intense.

At some point, though, they fixed Coors Field. I don't know exactly who "they" is, but if they speak up, I'll send them a bouquet of roses. Baseball in Colorado became almost normal. Coors was still a hitters' park, but it wasn't an absurdity. This freed up O'Dowd to build his team almost like a regular GM might. He didn't have to think about filling his rotation with five sinkerballlers, and he didn't have to worry about what it meant that his entire team hit like Mark McGwire at home and Nick Punto on the road.

But O'Dowd still has to figure Coors Field out. It's still a wildly different park. He's been at the helm for 12 years, and he's still monkeying around with what kind of organizational philosophy works there. His latest attempt, it seems, is to acquire pitchers who don't allow a lot of hits on the balls that are put in play against them. From Dave Cameron:

With Guillermo Moscoso, Jamie Moyer, and now Jeremy Guthrie, the team has now acquired three pitchers who have lower than average career BABIPs. Clearly, the team is trying to stop giving up so many base hits, and they’ve now targeted guys who have a history of keeping guys from getting hits in other cities.

Balls drop in for hits in Coors Field more than they do in any other ballpark. Maybe it's a coincidence that O'Dowd has acquired those three pitchers up there. And, to be fair, the odds are much better that Moyer will be coaching in Colorado rather than pitching. But the Rockies have been aggressively pursuing middle-tier rotation options all offseason, and it sure seems like they've been of a similar, low-BABIP mold.

Will it work? Heck, I've been studying this for a little less than an hour. Don't look at me. The Rockies have been studying their situation for close to two decades now, and they still don't know exactly how to build the perfect Coors Field team.

The Guthrie trade, then, is a reminder of the quirks and difficulties and physics that make the GM spot for the Rockies a job one without peer. Did O'Dowd make a good move when he traded for Guthrie? Has he been making good or bad moves all offseason? Is he an above-average GM? No idea. Absolutely none. Even if the gambit of acquiring fly-ball pitchers fails, it'd be hard to blame O'Dowd. It's almost like he should get participation ribbons just for trying new ideas.

Maybe the Rockies will settle into an organizational strategy that works with the big outfield and thin air. Maybe they never will. Right now, they're actually inviting hitters to make contact and hoping that the pitchers have a repeatable skill that they're bringing over to their new park. It's a risk, but so is every other strategy that has been, is now being, and will ever be tried at Coors Field. Baseball's just different there, and discerning exactly how will probably fascinate and frustrate Rockies GMs for years to come. Glad it's not my job to figure it out.

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