“Barreling” in Colorado

My last trip of the regular season was a whirlwind through the West. Seven days, six games, in five ballparks:

  • On Thursday, September 16th, I took a late flight to Seattle, arriving after midnight
  • Friday night, I saw the White Sox play the Mariners at T-Mobile Park.
  • Early the next morning, I flew to San Francisco and saw the Mariners play the Giants that night.
  • Sunday was easy. Just an afternoon rematch between the Mariners and Giants at Oracle Field.
  • I was still in San Francisco on Monday. After lunch with a friend, I went to Oakland via BART to see the Royals play the A’s.
  • Now it was Tuesday, September 17th. I took an early morning flight to Denver to see the Mets and Rockies play at Coors Field.
  • It was to be a short, eighteen-hour stay in Denver. The next morning, I would leave on a 6:00 AM flight to Phoenix. The Marlins were playing the Diamondbacks at noon.

Coors Field

This wasn’t my first visit to Coors Field. Nomad the Younger, and I visited it a few years ago when she lived in Colorado Springs. I was looking forward to seeing it again.

History

Tropicana Field

Coors and St. Petersburg’s Tropicana Field, the stadium I visited on my previous trip have an interesting connection. St. Petersburg built Tropicana Field in 1990 with the hopes of luring a team to the area. As they did so, they also attempted to win a new expansion team. In 1991, they expected to win one of the two new national league teams. However, they lost out to Miami, who landed the Marlins. Denver was the other city awarded a franchise.

In 1989, Denver formed the Metropolitan Major League Baseball Stadium District to create a plan to build a new ballpark. This plan was a requirement to win their expansion franchise.

The following year, voters approved a .01% sales tax to fund the ballpark. The fee would eventually provide $168 million – about 78% of the project’s cost. The owners provided the other $47 million. 1

coors field

Since Coors Field would not be ready until 1995, the Rockies played their first two seasons at Mile High Stadium. Mile High is the football stadium where the Broncos play. As such, there are many more seats than the standard baseball stadium. The Rockies fans made good use of the extra space. In 1993, almost five million excited fans came to see the Rockies’ inaugural season. The following year, another three million attended games during a strike-shortened season. Over the two years, the Rockies drew over fifty-eight thousand fans per game. This demonstration of fan support encouraged the Rockies to add seven thousand seats to Coors Field. It opened with a capacity of fifty thousand. 2

A Neighborhood, Retro-Classic, Big Ballpark

Coors Field is a classic neighborhood ballpark, located in Denver’s LoDo (Lower Downtown) district. It’s just a short walk from Union Station and is bordered on at least two sides with stores, restaurants, and bars. As such, it helps fuel the area’s economic activity. Other ballparks, even if they are located in city neighborhoods, are separated from businesses by vast parking lots. These large, empty (or car filled), asphalt areas deter fans from frequenting nearby businesses, which diminishes the stadium’s economic impact.

Coors Field

Coors was only baseball’s second “retro-classic” ballpark. These parks have all the amenities of modern stadiums but resemble the “jewel box” ballparks of the early twentieth century. These aesthetic features include “green seats, bricks, stone and green exposed steel.”3

The first “retro-classic” ballpark, Baltimore’s Oriole Park at Camden Yards, opened just a few years before Coors. Interestingly, the architectural firm, HOK Sports (now Populous), designed both Oriole Park and Camden Yards. 4

Similar to Camden Yards, HOK wanted to instill a 1920s, and 30s feel in Denver’s new ballpark. As such, it includes an outer facade of hand-laid brick. There is a clock tower above the main entrance, and its location is close to the Union Pacific railroad tracks. 5

It also has an asymmetric outfield, similar to the ballparks of old. However, unlike Fenway Park and Wrigley Field, the two remaining “jewel box” ballparks, Coors’ outfield is enormous. It is the largest field in baseball, covering 2.66 acres, one-third of an acre larger than Fenway, baseball’s smallest. 6

Is High Altitude a Factor?

Coors’ vast outfield is meant to offset the effects of the ballpark’s high altitude. However, it is so large that it creates many opportunities for offense to dominate the game. Since, outfielders have so much ground to cover, balls that are catchable on other fields, fall in for hits. At the same time, the vast outfield and use of a humidor somewhat suppresses the excessive number of home runs. However, balls in the air still leave the park at incredible rates.

The home run explosion caused people to refer to the park as “Coors Canaveral,” referring to “Cape Canaveral” where they launch rockets.

“Coors Canaveral”

The supporting data are indisputable.

L.A.’s Wrigley Field
Ballparks of Baseball

In its first year, teams hit 241 home runs at Coors. This sizeable amount was just seven homers short of the record for most home runs in a ballpark. Wrigley Field in Los Angeles, the original home of the Angels, set the record of 248 in 1961. However, Coors would likely have broken Wrigley’s record if the players’ strike had not shortened the season by nine games. 7

The next year, Coors easily broke the record with 271 home runs. It demolished that record in 1999 with 303 home runs. 8

Since 2000:9

  • Coors led MLB in runs scored eleven out of the last nineteen seasons. It was second in another five of those years.
  • Similarly, Coors led MLB in base hits in fourteen of the nineteen years, including the last twelve years, consecutively. Additionally, it finished second three times.
  • Coors tends to be near the top of the league in doubles and triples, as well.
  • Finally, it’s also been one of the top three home run ballparks in twelve of these nineteen years.

“Most Exciting Park in History”

The Rockies have a confounding relationship with the altitude question. While they publicize Coors as the “Most Exciting Park in History,” they tend to minimize the altitude as the cause.

Coors Field
Mile High Sports

For example, they acknowledge that a baseball travels 9% farther in Denver than at sea level. Using this estimate, they calculate that a 400ft home run at Yankee Stadium (sea level) would travel 440ft in Denver. However, they claim the offensive output is part of a general trend in the game. After all, they argue, other teams have more hits and higher batting averages than the Rockies. While this may be true, by focusing only on the Rockies output, they ignore the more accurate number of hits that all teams compile at Coors.

They also argue that Mark McGuire hit only one home run (of seventy) at Coors when he broke Roger Maris’ record. Additionally, a no-hitter and fourteen shutouts have been pitched there.

Finally, there is the wind. They claim that an average (ten miles per average) tailwind causes a 400ft home run to travel 430ft. “So, it’s easy to see how a good tailwind can beat high altitude for home-run hitting any day.” 10

However, holding the variables constant makes for a more accurate comparison. It’s preferable to assume that the same ten mph tailwind at Yankee Stadium is behind the hitter at Coors. Thus, at Yankee Stadium, there would be wind, while Coors would have wind and high altitude. If so, while the 400ft Yankee Stadium wind-aided homer would go 430ft, it would travel 473ft in Denver.

It’s hard to see how altitude is not a significant factor at Coors.

Altitude’s Effect on Baseballs – The Science

Three forces affect the way a pitched or batted ball behaves.

Coors Field
RPP Baseball Training & Development

The first is gravity. The other two, “Drag Force” and “Magnus Force” are aerodynamic and change with the altitude. 11

A baseball travels through the air due to the force that the pitcher or hitter applies. While the players’ actions are pushing the ball forward, “Drag Force” pushes the ball backward, slowing it down.

“Magnus Force” effects the way a spinning ball moves. A fastball’s backward spin has an upward Magnus Force, and thus it doesn’t drop as quickly. Conversely, a curveball’s topspin has a downward Magnus Force, that pushes it down. Sliders and cutters have horizontal Magnus Forces that make the ball move into or away from the hitter.

Drag and Magnus Forces are proportional to air density, which is lower at higher altitudes. Air density in Denver is 82% of that at sea level. That means that Drag and Magnus Forces at Coors are only 82% as effective as at Yankee Stadium.

While the lighter density allows a pitched ball to move faster, it also doesn’t allow it to spin as it should. Even though the ball moves more quickly, it tends to travel a straight path and is easier to hit. Then, when it’s hit in the air, the ball has less drag and goes further.

The Humidor

Denver Post

After the record-breaking 1990s, the Rockies wanted to reduce the number of home runs hit at Coors. A Coors Field engineer named Tony Caldwell suggested that they try storing baseballs in a humidor. Caldwell, an active outdoorsman, noticed that his leather boots became uncomfortable at higher altitudes because they dried out. He assumed that the same was happening to the baseballs and that they needed moisture. Caldwell felt that the ball’s dryness had as much of an effect as did the low air density. 12

In 2002, the Rockies experimented with Caldwell’s suggestion and stored their game balls in a humidor. The humidor maintained a consistent 50% humidity, which was higher than Denver’s 30% humidity. 13

The extra moisture made the ball heavier and thus reduced batted balls’ exit velocity. It also decreased the ball’s “coefficient of restitution,” meaning it didn’t bounce as high. Both factors made the ball less likely to travel as far when hit. 14

Did it work? Between 2002 and 2010, the Rockies hit 25% fewer home runs at Coors Field. Their home runs per game dropped from 3.20 to 2.39. In the same period, their home runs hit on the road remained relatively constant, 1.86 vs. 1.93. 15

While the altitude is still a factor at Coors, storing the balls in the humidor made its effect less extreme.

Coors Must Be The Easiest Place to Hit Home Runs… “Barrels”

However, some suggest that even in lower altitudes, it’s easier to hit homers in some other ballparks. They argue that in those ballparks, even weak hit balls result in home runs.

Coors Field
INTOAROUTE

To hit a ball solidly, the ball needs to hit the bat at just the right spot. If the ball meets the bat too close to the handle or end of the bat, it won’t go that far. There are similar behaviors if the bat only hits the top or bottom of the ball.

In short, the ball needs to hit the barrel of the bat. The rate that they hit the barrel can be measured.

Statcast” (a system that captures very detailed data for everything that happens during a game), assigns a hit ball to one of six categories. It classifies hard-hit balls at a specific launch angle as “Barreled.” It calls slightly less well-hit balls, “Solid Contact.” There are also four classifications of weak hit balls. 16

A researcher found that there are six ballparks where weak hit balls leave the park at a faster rate than Coors Field. Thus, they concluded that home runs are easier to hit in those parks. 17

However, these ballparks are also smaller than the average ballpark and at least half an acre smaller than Coors Field. 18

Yes, Coors’ Altitude is a Factor in its Offensive Production

“Humidors or no humidors, Coors Field has been—and will continue to be—the most extreme hitter-friendly park in baseball due to its high altitude. It’s something the team has embraced.”

Rick Weiner 19

Clearly, in the 1990s, the altitude was a factor in the rate of home runs hit at Coors. In those years, it set records that still stand today.

Since then, the use of a humidor diminishes the number of home runs hit in Colorado’s high altitude. However, even with altered baseballs, Coors Field is still a hitter’s dream and a pitcher’s nightmare.

While some small ballparks allow for more weak hit home runs than Coors, twenty-three ballparks allow fewer. Additionally, Coors has the largest field in baseball and still allows for many soft hit home runs.

Moreover, while the size of Coors’ outfield helps control the number of homers, these dimensions enable many base hits. Coors Field leads the majors in most hits because outfielders have to cover so much ground.

All in all, my expectation for Tuesday’s game was that each team would score a lot of runs. While the expected offensive display did not happen, the perils of pitching at Coors were quite apparent.

Tuesday Night in Denver

Getting to Coors

Coors Field

Locating Denver’s airport, twenty-five miles from the city, always seemed like a royal, expensive pain. My transportation choices were either a costly taxi (now Uber or Lyft) or a rental car. Accordingly, my previous visit was strictly a driving affair. I stayed in one of the hotels near the airport and drove a rental to and from the city.

For this trip, I planned to use Uber, since the costs weren’t more than renting a car. Moreover, it would be safer because I expected to be tired when I left the ballpark that night. Better to have someone drive me.

When I arrived in Denver, I was surprised to learn that there was now a train from the airport to the city. It is just a 40-minute ride on the RTD to Union Station which is a short walk to Coors Field. Even better, there was a train stop near my hotel that I could get to on the hotel’s airport shuttle. After the game, I took the train back to the airport and caught the hotel shuttle from there.

It’s nice to find a ballpark where you can fly in, the morning of a game, and fly out late that night. Or, if there’s not a late flight, you can wait at the airport for an early one the next morning. Nationals Park in D.C. is perfect for that type of trip, and now Coors Field is as well.

Up to “The Rooftop”

As usual, I got to Coors Field a few hours early to experience the ballpark.

First, I walked from Union Station up Wynkoop Street towards 20th street and the brick ballpark that I could see in the distance. The walk took me past brick buildings containing bars and restaurants.

I turned right and walked up to the main entrance at the corner of Blake and 20th. This location is where you can see the clock above the entrance and the statue called “The Player.” The statue itself is quite nondescript and somewhat reminiscent of the Babe Ruth statue outside Baltimore’s Oriole Park.

Then I went inside, bought my Rockies cap, and made my way up to the Rooftop. The Rockies added “The Rooftop) to the upper deck over right field to attract younger fans. 20 It is a thirty-eight thousand square foot area with a series of bars and food concessions. You can spend the entire game there. Or, for the cost of just $16 for a Standing Room Only ticket, you can spend the entire game there.21 I’d enjoy spending time at The Rooftop if I lived in Denver.

Of course, the best part of The Rooftop is its view of the Rocky Mountains. Unfortunately, the mountains are far from Coors, so the view is not as immediate as the bay at Oracle Park or PNC’s view of the Pittsburgh skyline. However, the mountains are still impressive, and this is the only part of Coors where you can see them.

Watching The Mets and The Scoreboard

One of the best parts of a season of baseball travel is seeing your favorite team at many different venues. During my journey through all the MLB stadiums, I was able to see the Mets play ten times. I saw the Mets twice in Spring Training; a third game was rained out. Then I saw them on opening day in Washington D.C. and in Philadelphia on Jackie Robinson Day. Later, in May, I saw them in San Diego and in July, twice at home against the Yankees. Then, in mid-July, I saw them play twice in Minnesota. Now, two months later, I was seeing them for the last time. And I was watching the scoreboard.

Stadium Journey

If a baseball fan is lucky, they get to watch their team in a pennant race. That kind of joy doesn’t often happen for Mets fans. However, this year, the Mets were sprinting for the finish line. Mets fans everywhere were watching the scoreboard every night to see if they were winning and if others were losing.

When the Mets arrived in Denver, they still had a slim chance of making the playoffs. With twelve games to play, they were four games behind Milwaukee and tied with the Phillies. All three teams were chasing the fading Cubs.

However, they still had a chance and were playing great ball. After a desultory first half, they were ten games under .500 at the All-Star break. Then they went on a tear, winning forty-six of their last seventy-two games. Over that period, they were the fourth hottest team in baseball. 22

They gave fans hope, and hope is all that matters to a baseball fan.

Tale of Two Pitchers

The Mets’ Marcus Stroman faced the Rockies’, Tim Melville.

Marcus Stroman
Jim McIsaac

The Mets acquired Stroman from the Toronto Blue Jays, a few months before at the trading deadline. Since then, he had not pitched well, and the Mets were hoping he would regain some of his old form. In his five and a half years in Toronto, Stroman was one of the better pitchers in the game. 23

Twenty-eight-year-old, Stroman is a diminutive 5’ 7” and 180 pounds. 24 When he is on, Stroman is perfect for Coors Field. He throws a mixture of sliders and cutters that dart in and away from the hitter. Their movement forces the hitter to hit a lot of ground balls. Remember, in the high altitude; it’s better to keep the ball on the ground and thus in the ballpark.

Melville was one of the “feel-good” stories of the Rockies’ season. He was a twenty-nine-year-old rookie, finally getting his shot to pitch regularly in the big leagues.

Coors Field
Tim Melville
SBNation – Purple Row

It was quite a change of fortune. Melville started 2019, working at “Little Miss BBQ” in Phoenix, Arizona. Still, in Phoenix on opening day, he watched the Red Sox play the Diamondbacks in the stands with his girlfriend.25

Then the Rockies purchased Melville’s contract from the Long Island Ducks in May. Previous to his stint in Long Island, Melville spent most of a decade bouncing around baseball. Over the years, he played in the Royals, Tigers, Reds, Twins, Padres, and Orioles organizations. In August, he made his first major league start of the year. 26

Melville’s Night

“I just got away from what I was doing — keeping the ball down”

Tim Melville 27

For the game’s first five innings, Melville and Stroman kept the opposition scoreless. Each had the same line after the fifth – no runs, two hits, no errors. 28

Melville faced only fifteen hitters, in the early innings (the minimum number possible), as he paired each baserunner allowed with a double play. His effectiveness was due to his ability to keep the ball down. In those innings, he struck out two and gave up nine ground balls, and two liners. There was only one fly ball. 29

Pete Alonso Twitter (@ESPNStatsInfo)

Everything changed in the sixth inning. After Todd Frazier led off the inning with a ground ball single, Melville hung a slider to Ahmed Rosario. A “hanging slider” is a breaking pitch that doesn’t break. Instead, it sort of hangs in the middle of the strike zone and begs the hitter to hit it. Rosario deposited the pitch in the left field seats.30

With one out, Melville left another slider up and over the plate, and Brandon Nimmo hit it out of the park. 31

Finally, with two outs, major league-leading home run hitter, Pete Alonso worked a three-ball, no-strike count. Not wanting to walk Alonso, Melville threw a fastball down the middle, and Alonso “barreled” it 467 feet. 32

We can overemphasize how Coors’ altitude affects a game. Pitching the way Melville did in the first five innings works everywhere, and his sixth-inning approach works nowhere. However, the strategy is especially crucial at Coors.

Stroman’s Night

“We couldn’t solve him.”

“He had “good movement in the hitting area”

“We just didn’t square many pitches up”

Bud Black, Rockies Manager 33

Stroman was better than Melville and able to avoid hard-hit fly balls. He scattered just four hits over seven innings while striking out seven and inducing six groundouts. Most importantly, He allowed the Rockies to hit only six balls in the air. 34 Likely, none of them were “barreled.”

“Never did Stroman sweat much in this one. He allowed just four hits, retiring 13 of the first 15 batters that he faced while leaning more heavily on his cut fastball than in any previous start.”

“During Tuesday’s start, Stroman “figured something out with my cutter,” using his mechanics and grip to increase or decrease the break of it as he saw fit. Given newfound confidence in the pitch, Stroman threw a season-high 42 cutters, mixing them with 33 sinkers that broke in the opposite direction.”

Anthony DiComo35

On this specific night, Stroman showed people how to pitch at Coors Field. Next time might be different, but that’s why I love the game. There are no sure things.

Back on the Train

The Rockies finally scored with two outs in the bottom of the ninth. Charlie Blackmon, “barreled” a 3-2 changeup into the upper deck in right field, 445 feet away. The ball likely landed near The Rooftop, where I had a hot dog and a beer before the game. However, I didn’t see the home run. I was already on the train, heading back to the airport to shuttle back to my hotel. I had to be up early the next morning to travel to Phoenix.

Another great day on the road.

Thanks for reading my article.

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  1. Thomas J. Brown Jr., “Coors Field (Denver),” Society for American Baseball Research
  2. MLB.com – Coors Field History
  3. Wikipedia – Baseball Park – Retro Classic
  4. Thomas J. Brown Jr., “Coors Field (Denver),” Society for American Baseball Research
  5. Ibid.
  6. Cork Gaines, “CHART: MLB Ballpark Sizes Show The Immense Difference Between Fenway Park And Coors Field,” Business Insider, March 26th, 2014
  7. Thomas J. Brown Jr., “Coors Field (Denver),” Society for American Baseball Research
  8. Ibid.
  9. Data compiled from ESPN.com-MLB Park Factors
  10. MLB.com – Colorado Rockies – Coors Field History
  11. See – Alan M. Nathan University of Illinois, “Baseball at High Altitude,” The Physics of Baseball, for references in this section.
  12. Patrick Saunders, “Tony Cowell’s humidor brought Rockies baseball at Coors Field back down to Earth,” Denver Post, May 13th, 2017
  13. Alan M. Nathan “Baseball ProGUESTus: Home Runs and Humidors: Is There a Connection?” Baseball Prospectus, February 25th, 2011
  14. Ibid.
  15. Ibid.
  16. MLB Glossary – Barrel
  17. Manny Randhawa, “Which ballpark ranks easiest to go yard?” MLB News, June 21st, 2017
  18. Cork Gaines, “CHART: MLB Ballpark Sizes Show The Immense Difference Between Fenway Park And Coors Field,” Business Insider, March 26th, 2014
  19. Rick Weiner, “Ranking MLB’s Most Hitter-Friendly Ballparks, by the Numbers,” Bleacher Report, April 13th, 2014
  20. Nick Groke, “Rockies’ Rooftop party deck at Coors Field ‘another dimension,’ Dick Monfort says,” Denver Post, April 2nd, 2014 – Updated April 27th, 2016
  21. Susan Stapleton, “Where To Eat and Drink at Coors Field, Home of the Colorado Rockies,” Eater Denver, April 1, 2019
  22. See – MLB.com – Interactive Standings for all win-loss data.
  23. Anthony DiComo, “Stro Show on display in Colorado during victory,” MLB News, September 18th, 2019
  24. See Fangraphs
  25. Samantha Bradfield, “Tim Melville was the feel-good story of a lost season,” SBNation – Purple Row, November 7th, 2019
  26. Ibid.
  27. Thomas Harding, “Melville matches zeros early, sunk by HRs in 6th,” MLB.com September 18th, 2019
  28. MLB.com Boxscore
  29. Fangraphs – Play Log
  30. MLB.com Boxscore
  31. Ibid.
  32. Ibid.
  33. MLB.com – “Black on Melville, loss to Mets,” MLB.com
  34. MLB.com Boxscore
  35. Anthony DiComo, “Stro Show on display in Colorado during victory,” MLB News, September 18th, 2019

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