Unfair Measures

Coors Field
The ability of altitude to make Ty Cobbs and Babe Ruths of merely good players is the defining characteristic of baseball when it is played a mile in the air and what makes baseball at Coors Field so bizarre. (Paul Cunningham - Getty Images)
By Thomas Boswell
Sunday, October 28, 2007

DENVER

Is baseball, as played here in mile-high Coors Field, really baseball at all? Before we go there, let me grab your attention.

Imagine two players. Both bat 600 times a year. In a long career, the first hits .367 and averages 39 homers and 138 RBI. The second, in four years, hits .364 while averaging 39 homers and 138 RBI. Both have averages as good as Ty Cobb and more RBI a year than Babe Ruth. So, they might be the two best hitters in history.

Now, let's look at two other players, prorated over 600-at-bat seasons. In his career, the first man hits .295 and averages 25 homers and 92 RBI -- good stats, but not all-star stats for a first baseman. The second hits .273 with 19 homers and 82 RBI. The Nats' Ryan Church?

The two superstars in the first example are Todd Helton and Matt Holliday of the Rockies -- when they play at home.

The players in the second example are also Helton and Holliday -- when they play on the road.

Every other player who has started for the Rockies in the World Series is a variation on this pattern, except one -- Brad Hawpe, who performs identically at home or away. The ability of altitude -- and high altitude alone -- to make Cobbs and Ruths of merely good players is the defining characteristic of baseball when it is played a mile in the air. Yes, every fly ball travels farther, maybe as much as 10 percent, though experts disagree on how much. Yes, every pitch arrives at the plate sooner, perhaps adding six inches to a fastball. And, yes, all pitches designed to curve do not break as much. Curveballers think Coors is hell on earth.

However, it is the compounding effect of all these factors that makes baseball here so bizarre. Because the ball travels so far, the fences must be pushed way back to prevent nightly home run derbies. Coors's fence from deep left-center field to deep right-center field measures 424, 415 and 420 feet. No other park is nearly as remote. This creates enormous gaps in the alleys for outfielders to defend. As a result many balls -- routine outs in every other park -- fall to the grass. Contact, rather than quality of contact, gets inordinate value here. Helton, for example, has averaged fewer than 75 strikeouts per season.

Altitude also changes the essential nature of pitching. A hurler with a good fastball and hard sinker or slider will gain a few inches in speed here and be slightly more effective than elsewhere in avoiding solid contact. Change-ups work, too, since hitters often top them. However, the pitching values established in the sport's other 29 franchises are invalidated here. A high-quality curve or splitter or knuckleball -- any pitch that must break a lot, rather than swerving a little at the last instant -- is devalued.

The Rockies required years, and tens of millions of dollars in squandered contracts to free agent pitchers who depended on big breaking balls, to realize they had to customize. The infield grass here was allowed to grow as high as an infielder's eye to help ground ball pitchers. Finally, this season, Rockies pitchers meshed with their milieu so well that they allowed only 34 more runs at home than away.

Now we come to the ironic beauty of this World Series. You'd think there couldn't possibly be another team with such an extreme preference for its home digs as the Rockies, who hit .298 with 103 homers and 478 runs in Coors Field, but only .261 with 68 homers and 382 runs on the road. But there is another similar club -- the Red Sox, who hit .297 with 472 runs in Fenway Park, but batted .262 with 395 runs on the road.


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