DENVER -- This just might be your father's Coors Field.In 2002, the Rockies began storing baseballs in an atmosphere-controlled chamber to prevent them from shrinking and becoming slick in an effort to give pitchers a fighting chance in the homer-happy ballpark. Coors Field didn't exactly become normal, but good pitching became more possible. So was winning, as the National League championship in 2007 and the playoff run in '09 can attest.
But the flying circus is back.
Todd Helton, who has played 1,068 career games at Coors, has noticed and doesn't need a tape measure to prove it."It's flying more; that's all I know," said Helton, who has hit four of his seven homers this season at home. "What do you want me to tell you? It just goes farther." Pitchers, especially those for the home team and more specifically the Rockies' starters, are being driven further up the wall than in years past. That's why the trend isn't necessarily a happy one. Colorado starters have a 6.28 ERA, which is on pace to eclipse the 1999 Rockies -- well before the so-called "humidor" came into use -- for worst in history, 6.19. The club goes into its game in Philadelphia on Tuesday having lost 10 of 11, which includes coming up empty during a six-game homestand. At 25-40, the Rockies need a major and immediate turnaround to become relevant in the National League West. Coors Field having turned against them lessens those already slim odds. "I wish I had an explanation," Rockies general manager Dan O'Dowd said. "It is significantly different, and we didn't anticipate that in our planning, as it has been somewhat consistent over the last five years."
STATS Inc. baseball editor Jeff Chernow crunched numbers that any pitcher would have a hard time consuming. Through 36 games at Coors, during which the Rockies have gone an uncharacteristic 15-21, the teams are averaging a combined 12.75 runs per game. The last time a season ended with Coors Field yielding more than 12 runs a game was 2004 (12.69). The park exceeded 12 every year from 1995, when the park opened, through 2004, with a high of 15.02 in '96. There have already been 280 extra-base hits, which is on pace for 648 -- most since 2004, also 648. The 108 homers translate over a full home schedule (81 games) to 243, most since 2001 -- the last pre-humidor season, which yielded 268. The rise is dramatic compared to last year's total. The combined batting average this season is .301; last year, that figure was .278. Combined slugging is up from .453 last season to .502. Pitchers from both sides of the field are struggling, but at least opposition pitchers get to leave after three or four games. The Rockies, whose pitching was stressed by two nine-game homestands in the season's first five weeks, are demonstrating that any place is better than home. For example, according to STATS Inc.: The Rockies have an overall home ERA of 5.91 -- more than a run above last year's 4.71 and the highest since 6.27 in 2004. The .374 batting average and .497 slugging average yielded are higher than any full-season marks since 2004 -- .388 and .501, respectively. Opponents' ERA at Coors is up over last season, but the rise is much less dramatic (from 5.07 to 5.77) and not out of line with the recent past. Their ERAs have ranged from 5.07 to 5.83 since 2004. The Rockies are hitting .289 at home, which would be in line for fourth lowest in club history; however, they have pounded opposing pitchers for a .506 slugging percentage, which would be the highest since 2004, also .506. The starters are suffering a special level of woe -- a 7.37 home ERA. The next-highest figure this season belongs to the Twins, 5.88 at Target Field. In the historically bad 1999 season, the final figure was 7.27. Visiting starters have a 6.16 ERA -- a full run higher than last year and the highest since 6.52 in 2003.
The humidor has been a subject of suspicion in the past. The Giants, most notably, accused the Rockies of somehow switching baseballs to their advantage late in the 2010 season, although Major League Baseball determined the accusation had no legs. But now, even Rockies fans wonder if the little chamber has been reset or unplugged or if it can be adjusted."We don't control the humidor settings," O'Dowd said. "That is handed down by the [MLB] New York office, so we can't randomly change those." MLB spokesman Pat Courtney said baseball operations is monitoring the regular reports on the humidor and is satisfied with how the balls are being stored.
Maybe the best way to know if the ball has taken on the slight changes that the atmosphere produces is to ask a veteran pitcher -- like left-hander Jeff Francis, who pitched for the club 2004-10 and returned this month."The ball, to me, felt the same," said Francis, who gave up 10 singles and eight runs in 3 1/3 innings against the Angels on June 9, yet he didn't blame the ball. "I don't know. People need a reason for things." One theory is the Mile High air is different this year. Many a science fair has been won by a student tracking higher temperature with home run increases, especially when baseball fans are judging. The temperature at all games is announced. This season, the average at Coors is 69.8 degrees, with six of the past eight games at 81-91. Last year's average was 61.7, with three games in the 80s in the first 36. "I don't think anything has changed, unless something has changed," veteran slugger Jason Giambi said. "I know it's been really dry. They've got all the wildfires. Maybe that has been a factor. But I don't know. People ask me, but it's hard to tell." Former Colorado outfielder Seth Smith, who was in town with an Athletics team that broke out of a team-wide slump with a power display during a three-game sweep of the Rockies, said before one of the games that it seemed the ball flew more consistently than in the past, and the ballpark already has good conditions for offense. "No lead is safe here, obviously," Smith said. "Not only do a lot of balls go out here, but the outfield is so big, that sometimes it just seems like it's hit after hit and that leads to a lot of runs being scored." Two players who are in unique positions to judge how the ball comes off the bat insist Coors isn't playing differently. Center fielder Dexter Fowler already has a career-high eight home runs, seven at home. Left fielder Carlos Gonzalez has hit 12 of his team-high 17 homers at Coors. From their defensive positions, they can judge how the ball comes off the bat and how it carries. Both say there has been no change in the balls they hit or the balls they chase. "I just think people are making more contact, better contact," said Fowler, who said some changes in his own approach account for the higher number of home runs, although he battles strikeouts. Gonzalez offered an explanation for the rise in extra-base hits -- poorly located pitches. From left, he can't see the exact pitch location, but he can watch how his infielders are playing for an idea of preferred location. "If you're playing [the Angels' Albert] Pujols and he hits it the other way, it's because the pitcher missed his spot," Gonzalez said. "We're supposed to throw that ball inside, but Pujols extends his arms and goes the other way. That's when we get in trouble. If you don't pitch well, they're going to score a lot of runs."
Rockies hitters have their issue; a .232 road batting average that's fourth lowest in the Majors. But the starting pitchers are too busy finding their way to criticize hitters.Of the 10 Rockies pitchers who have made starts, two (Christian Friedrich and Drew Pomeranz) are rookies, and four others (Alex White, the injured Juan Nicasio, Guillermo Moscoso and Josh Outman) entered the year not having spent one wire-to-wire season in the Majors. Veteran Jamie Moyer was released after some rough starts, right-hander Jeremy Guthrie has struggled to find his footing at Coors and is being mentioned in trade rumors, and potential ace Jhoulys Chacin was 0-3 with a 7.30 ERA before admitting he was injured and going on the disabled list in early May. The Rockies believe they have the makings of a good staff as long as the best of the young starters learn without being broken by their own park. For example, Friedrich (4-3, 5.60 ERA) has a scary home-road ERA split -- 12.60 at home and 2.10 away. Friedrich, 24, insisted he doesn't know the numbers, which might be a step toward maintaining sanity. But he noted that he pitched successfully at Triple-A Colorado Springs at 6,531 feet. "I didn't have an issue," said Friedrich, who gave up 10 hits -- three home runs on two poor changeups and a weak curveball -- and nine runs (eight earned) in four innings against the Angels in his last home start. "The reason in the last start was making a bunch of mistakes. "Everything's been going fine. I don't think it has anything to do with the park. It's a matter of execution." Francis, part of a rotation with Aaron Cook and Ubaldo Jimenez that pitched through some dark times before the postseason runs, sees the same possibilities out of the current group, as long as pitchers don't use youth, or the park, as an alibi.
"You want to be great the next time you step on the mound," Francis said. "I don't step on the mound without being really confident that's my day. We all think the next time out there we're going to go out and throw nine shutout innings."That might sound stupid to people reading that. I don't think you can play at this level not thinking that. You can't go out there thinking, 'Man, next year, I'm going to be really good,' because that day you're going to be terrible. If you don't think you're good now, then you're not thinking the right way."
Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Hardball in the Rockies, and follow him on Twitter @harding_at_mlb. Jane Lee contributed. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.