This annotated week in baseball history: May 22-28, 2008

On May 23, 2008 Richard went to his first game at Coors Field. Today, he writes about the park’s history.

This was my first—and, thus far, only—game at Coors Field. It was a pretty good game, highlighted by Matt Holliday hitting both a game-tying home run off Billy Wagner in the bottom of the ninth and later a walk-off single in the thirteenth. But despite all that, that is not the game I most associate with Coors Field.

Instead, that honor (such as it is) falls to a three-game series the Yankees played in Denver in 2002. The Yankees were a quality team that year and took two of three from a terrible Rockies team caught between the end of the Blake Street Bombers era and the beginning of their recent renaissance.

Though the franchise had started using the humidor that season, they apparently were still working on getting the settings right as the game was pure Coors Field baseball. Over the weekend series, the two teams combined for 70 runs in three games, including a laughable 20-10 Yankee victory in the opening contest.

I only half-remember the details of the games, but what I truly remember was John Sterling’s radio calls. Sterling spent the entire three-game series simply astonished at the kind of baseball that Coors almost inevitably produced. Mostly, Sterling sounded the same way I did when I moved to London to study abroad and discovered that not only could you buy gin in the supermarket, you could buy beer at the movies.

Of course, for Rockies’ fans, that was nothing new. From the day it replaced Mile High Stadium as the Rockies’ new home, Coors Field set a standard as a hitters’ haven previously unseen in baseball history among permanent parks. Since 1996—the first year the team played a full schedule at the park—the Rockies have never scored fewer than 740 runs in a season, and ranked in the top three in runs scored nine times.

The numbers were even more impressive in the team’s pre-humidor days. During the six years of full seasons at Coors, the Rockies averaged almost 920 runs per season. These impressive numbers came despite the Rockies often carrying several bats in their line-up whose presence would otherwise render it hapless. The 1999 Rockies, for example, scored more than 900 runs—only one team had more—despite running out the likes of Henry Blanco, Kurt Abbott and Neifi Perez regularly.

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The big ballpark in Denver. (Richard Barbieri)

Early in the park’s history—and during the time at Mile High—otherwise smart people were seemingly fooled by the park and convinced that truly mediocre (or worse) players were worthy of starting roles.

Players like Vinny Castilla, the aforementioned Perez and Jeffrey Hammonds ate out for years on the back of their wildly inflated Coors Field numbers.

Castilla, for example, batted .304 with a .904 OPS in 1997, winning himself some mild MVP support, the Silver Slugger award at third base and finishing third in the NL in OPS.

But Castilla’s numbers, as you well know, were truly nothing special and a Coors Field illusion.

Neutralizing Castilla’s statistics to a National League average reduces his average to .278 and overall OPS to .833; that change is enough to drop Castilla from tenth in OPS to out of the top 25.

Perhaps the most famous Coors Field illusion is Hammonds. After an All-Star season in Colorado where Hammonds—owner of a .783 OPS up to that point—hit .335 with a .924 OPS, the Brewers signed him to a three-year contract. And Hammonds, to the surprise of almost no one outside the Brewers’ front-office, posted a .720 OPS during two and a half injury-plagued years in Milwaukee.

Unfortunately for some Rockies, this principle can also ill serve them the other way. Truly great hitters like Larry Walker and Todd Helton—who could hit in any park in baseball—are sometimes unfairly painted with the same brush as Potemkin sluggers like Hammonds and Castilla.

Walker’s 1997 MVP season was no doubt aided by Coors Field, but even when adjusted to a league-average run environment for the NL that year would be excellent: .338 average, 87 extra-base hits and a 1.083 OPS. (Of course, were it not for the Coors boost, Walker probably would not have won his MVP that season over fellow worthies Mike Piazza and Craig Biggio.)

Despite Coors’ (reasonable) bandbox reputation, it is actually one of the larger parks in the major leagues. The shortest distance in the park is straight down the left field line, which comes in at 347 feet; it is 350 down the right field line. Coors’ left field gap comes in at 390 feet, which is within 15 feet of the center-field distance at a number of parks.

(In fact, at the Rockies game I attended—and others, I assume—they ran a promotion in which a fan had to dash from the left field wall, switch the base at second, and then cross the first base foul line in some small amount of time to win a t-shirt. This was all set, I believe, to the William Tell Overture. It was a great promotion, but hard to replicate elsewhere; at Fenway Park you could do such a thing without breaking a sweat.)

Coors’ long distances—it is nearly as far to right field—were created to help to prevent games from being a farce of dueling home runs. It did help in that regard, but it also made Coors Field a haven for extra base hits, triples in particular. Three separate Rockies players have led the league in triples, including Dexter Fowler, who legged out 14 last season.

Incredibly, though it opened in 1995, only three National League stadiums are older than Coors Field, and one of them—whatever they’re calling Dolphin Stadium these days—will be closing for baseball purposes after this year. But there is no indication that the Rockies are unhappy with Coors Field, so it seems likely to remain their home for many years to come. And, thus, it will continue to hold the title of baseball’s greatest hitters’ park.

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Comments

  1. Richard Barbieri said...

    One of the things I thought about including—but didn’t make the final draft, obviously—was the question of what was more of a Coors illusion: average players like Bichette looking great, or really mediocre ones like Neifi Perez looking acceptable?

  2. Bob Rittner said...

    Perhaps the ultimate Coors Field illusion was Dante Bichette. His OPS there was over 1.000. When neutralized at BB-Ref, it exceeds .800 just 3 times, and except for 1995, not by much. He was second in the MVP voting once and an all-star 4 times, but outside of Coors was average or worse.

  3. Paul E said...

    Richard:
      Before we send Todd and Larry to Cooperstown:

    Helton:
      Home:  .355/.452/.625 33HR/123RBI (per 162G)
      Away:  .291/.392/.481 22HR/ 83RBI (per 162G)

    Walker:
    In COLO:  .390/.461/.709 41HR/121RBI (Per 162G)
    Balance:  .282/.372/.500 27HR/ 92RBI (per 162G)

      Of course, Walker visited Colorado (and probably raked) and then decided to make it home when the Phillies preferred and signed Gregg Jefferies….

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