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Can you imagine Coors Field as a pressurized dome?

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Baseball at Coors Field is a different beast than baseball elsewhere. We all know that. Altitude makes the ball fly farther and break less and the thinner air tires out players faster than their counterparts closer to sea level.

For years the Rockies have tried to figure out ways to deal with that, changing everything from roster composition to player usage to conditioning to the size of the fences. And, most famously, they have used a humidor in order to attempt to keep the baseballs from flying as far as they do when they get dried out.

In the latest Sports Illustrated Albert Chen has a fascinating story of the history of the Rockies efforts to deal with baseball at altitude. Some of those efforts were basically nuts:

They have hired a slew of consultants. For every idea that has been put in place, dozens have been discussed but either scrapped or set aside. Years ago officials considered turning the ballpark into a dome and pressurizing it to mitigate the effects of the thin air. More recently the front office and training staff discussed converting the entire home clubhouse at Coors Field into a hyperbaric chamber to help players recover in an environment where there’s a lack of oxygen.

That dome idea may be the most insane thing ever. Partially because of the cost and logistics, but mostly because one of the best things about Coors is the view. Good that got scrapped.

Beyond all of that, it’s a fascinating story, with a lot of time spent walking down memory lane. Sometimes their bad memories — Rockies’ bullpen coach Darren Holmes has to relive his memories of getting shelled at Mile High Stadium in 1993 — but some are just funny. Like how the Braves would manipulate their rotation in order to have whichever of their future Hall of Fame starter was having the best season avoid Coors starts so their stats wouldn’t get messed up and negatively impact their chance at a Cy Young Award.

Good times. For hitters anyway.

 

Astros exemplify the player-unfriendly bent of analytics

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Even as recently as a decade ago, Sabermetrics was a niche interest among baseball fans. As various concepts began to gain acceptance in the mainstream, players slowly began to accept them as well. Players like Brian Bannister and Zack Greinke were hailed as examples of a new breed of player — one who marries his athleticism with the utilization of analytics. This year, much was made of certain players’ data-driven adjustments, including Daniel Murphy and J.D. Martinez. Both had great seasons as a result of focusing more on hitting more fly balls instead of ground balls and line drives.

Statistics can clearly benefit players. They can also be used against them, and not just by opposing players. The Astros, who are in the World Series for the first time since 2005, are a great example of this. The Astros spent a few years rebuilding after a complete overhaul of the front office, which included bringing in analytically-fluent Jeff Luhnow as GM after the 2011 season. That overhaul instilled so much confidence that, in 2014, Sports Illustrated writer Ben Reiter predicted that the Astros would win the 2017 World Series. He’s only four Astros wins away from being proven correct.

The Astros’ front office, though, took advantage of its players at various times throughout the process. Their success is owed, in part, to exploiting its players. On Twitter, user @chicken__puppet chained a few tweets together exemplifying this:

At its core, analytics is about optimization: getting the most bang for your buck. If you read Moneyball, you know this. Wins Above Replacement (WAR) quickly became synonymous with the field and $/WAR was a natural next step. Sabermetrics defaulted to ownership’s perspective, so highly-paid players who performed poorly were scorned. Cheap players who performed well were lauded.

It is no mere coincidence that once most front offices installed analytics departments, teams stopped handing out so many outrageous contracts to free agent first baseman/DH types. Instead, teams focused on signing their young players to long-term contract extensions to buy out their arbitration years ahead of time, ostensibly saving ownership and the team boatloads of money. Teams began to pay close attention to service time as well. Service time determines when a player becomes eligible for arbitration and free agency, so teams that are able to finagle their players’ service time can potentially delay that player’s free agency by a year. The Cubs tried to do this with third baseman Kris Bryant in 2015, as Craig wrote about.

There is a very real ethical component to covering and being a fan of Major League Baseball, despite the common plea to separate sports from politics. The Astros and Cubs aren’t the only ones exploiting their players; the Angels, for example, made some odd personnel choices earlier this season that happened to allow them to avoid paying some players incentive bonuses. Every front office, in one way or another, games the system because the system is set up to benefit ownership first and players second. And if the likes of Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa can be taken advantage of so freely and openly, what hope does anyone else have?

Fans have been conditioned to group players and owners together as one group of rich people. In reality, the player earning $30 million has more in common with the office worker making $35,000 a year than with team owners. When fans hear about Correa making $507,500 instead of $550,000, or about free agent who wants a nine-figure contract, they wonder why he had the nerve to ask for so much money in the first place. We praise players, like Cliff Lee, who “leave money on the table.” Both the player and that fan, by virtue of existing and participating in this system, are locked in an eternal battle with those who cut their paychecks. Regardless of salary differences, the player deserves to benefit from the fruits of his labor as much as the office worker. Part of being a baseball fan should also include rooting for the players’ financial success and not just the owners’.

Praising the Astros for being smart and savvy will only create more incentive for other front offices to mimic these unethical behaviors. The whole theme of the World Series shouldn’t be about smart, analytically-inclined teams reaching the summit; it should in part be about teams getting ahead with a multitude of exploitative practices against their players.