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At Coors, order ‘unders chilled’

May 14, 2002 4:27 AM

Professional athletes and sports fans have been known to light up a victory cigar after their team wins a game. At Coors Field, there have been few victory cigars for the last-place Rockies, although the stadium does have a giant humidor.

But the humidor is not for cigars. It’s for baseballs. In one of the more unusual sports stories in many years, the Colorado baseball team has installed a large humidor where 500 baseballs are stored. The plan has been to add 40 percent more humidity to the balls so they won’t dry out and shrink as much.

Coors Rundown

Category

 ’93-01

5/02

Runs at Coors

15.1

9.8

Category

At Coors

Away

Col ERA in ’02

3.91

5.68

Category

First 7 wks

First 4 wks

10 at Coors

8x in ’01

4 in 2002

In theory, a slightly more "soggy" core makes a baseball heavier and therefore less likely to be crushed for a home run in the thin Denver air. Too much offense and too many home runs wear down a pitching staff, which has been a major problem for the Rockies since entering the National League in 1993.

Sports bettors know Coors Field is a homer-happy park, and baseball totals are usually much higher there than at other stadiums. For example, in Colorado’s first game of the season at St. Louis, the total was 8½ for starting pitchers Mike Hampton and Matt Morris. In Hampton’s next two starts in Coors, the total was 10½ against Arizona ace Curt Schilling and 12½ against Dodger lefty Kazuhisa Ishii.

Coors Field in Denver sits nearly a mile above sea level and the air density is about 15% less than at sea level. The low air pressure results in less friction on the baseball. That lack of friction has two important effects, and both are detrimental to the pitcher.

First, the hurler on the mound has trouble getting a baseball to move or "break." Pitchers like Greg Maddux (change-up), Darryl Kile, Aaron Sele (curveballs), Derek Lowe (sinker) and Hideo Nomo (spilt-finger) all possess one devastating off-speed pitch. They throw other pitches, of course, but make their living by getting hitters out with one breaking ball that is extremely tough to hit. But if the thin air makes a ball less likely to move, that is a definite disadvantage for pitchers.

The other effect is that the ball flies farther when hit, resulting in more home runs and a hitter’s paradise. The career of Kile is a great example of this. Kile has an outstanding curveball and in 1997 at age 28, blossomed as an ace for the Houston Astros with a 19-7 record and a 2.57 ERA.

As a free agent, he took the money the Rockies threw at him and instantly became a major flop, going 13-17 and 8-13 the next two seasons. Kile’s confidence took a beating, but the major reason was that his best pitch — the curve — no longer had the same bite while playing half his games in Coors Field. The right-hander was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals and proceeded to go 20-9 in 2000 and 16-11 last year.

It was a surprise to many to see the Rockies throw big money a year ago at left-handed starters Denny Neagle and Hampton. They are not fastball pitchers, but excelled in their craft by throwing off-speed stuff. But they didn’t do anything in their inaugural seasons in Denver last year, with ERAs over five while combining to go 23-21.

The Rockies would prefer to have final scores closer to the league average, which is why they’re experimenting with soggy balls this spring. It’s had some effect, though baseballs have been heated to 90 degrees.

Scientific studies show that colder baseballs are harder to hit. It tends to reason that they’d be better off making the balls deader by refrigerating them, rather than keeping them in a 90-degree environment.

From 1993-2001, an average of 15.1 runs per game were scored in games at Coors Field. In April of 2002, there were a total of 9.8 runs per game.

Colorado started this season 8-8-1 OVER/UNDER the total away from home, compared to 11-5 UNDER at Coors.