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Coors Field Conspiracies

by Matt Smith

Home field advantage is a common theme throughout sports. Local knowledge can help you get an edge over your opponent, whether that’s knowing how to play centre field in Minute Maid Park or how a pitch will play on day four in a Test Match at the Oval.

Familiarity is said to breed contempt, but it also brings comfort. Arsenal began a new era in a new stadium yesterday and it will be interesting to see how long it takes them to settle in after ninety three years at Highbury. Man City showed in their first season at the City of Manchester stadium that leaving a well-loved home isn’t easy and a 1-1 draw against Aston Villa wasn’t exactly the fairytale beginning Gooners had hoped for. That being said, the St Louis Cardinals have a 35-24 record at the new Busch stadium so far this season (compared to 30-33 on the road). Maybe keeping the same name helps?

When it comes to home field advantage it’s hard to think of a more extreme example than Coors Field. Colorado is a unique place in the Major Leagues, as Baseball-reference.com explains:

“air pressure in Denver is about 15% lower than at other parks that are near sea level. Reduced air pressure reduces aerodynamic forces on the baseball by the same amount. That results in less movement on breaking pitches, making them easier to hit, and less drag on balls in flight, letting them fly further”.

The Rockies tried to counter some of these effects in 2002 when they installed the “humidor”. This may sound like a Dr Who alien who uses jokes as a means of paralysing his victims, but it is in fact a room at Coors field in which they store their baseballs. Due to the relative lack of humidity in Colorado, the baseballs were apparently drying out while in storage before being used in games. They can now create a stable environment in the humidor to replicate the conditions in Missouri, the home of Rawlings who manufacture the baseballs.

The shift at Coors Field from a batters bandbox to a relative pitchers paradise has done more than raise a few eyebrows. Debates have raged about the legality of the humidor and whether allowing the Rockies to mess around with the balls is ethical. Ever since the team’s inception many people have tried to answer the question of how you create a competitive team in the Coors Field environment. The Rockies are implying that you can’t, and the humidor is merely creating a balanced playing field rather than giving them an unfair advantage.

Part of the Rockies’ problems in recent years has been their fixation on the Mile High environment, rather than the environment itself. A good team will win games whatever the conditions and would be able to capitalise on the Coors Field effect just by being more familiar with the surroundings than their opponents. Now, the argument against this is one of reputation and perception. The Rockies have struggled to attract quality pitchers, ostensibly because they fear their career ERAs will be blown apart (along with their hanging breaking balls).

Paying over the odds for Mike Hampton and Denny Neagle in 2001 (combined contracts worth $180 million) didn’t exactly work out. Then again they serve to enforce my point; you need good players and both were overrated and overvalued. Hampton for instance finished 2002 with a 7-15 record and a 6.15 ERA before being shipped to Atlanta. Other potential signings may look at this and think “I’m not going near Coors Field”; however Hampton’s ERA was better at Coors than on the road in 2002.

As of today the Rockies are only four games behind Cincinnati in the NL wild card race. Part of their success has been due to the improved showings of their starting pitchers compared to previous seasons. For instance:

Jason Jennings – Career ERA = 4.70, 2006 ERA = 3.34

Jeff Francis – Career ERA = 4.67, 2006 ERA = 3.38

Aaron Cook – Career ERA = 4.56, 2006 ERA = 4.09

And more importantly, while Cook’s 2006 ERA at Coors (4.07) is virtually identical to his overall figure, Jennings (2.83) and Francis (2.96) have been considerably more effective at home than on the road.

So have the Rockies perfected the humidor effect in 2006 after four years of use? Possibly, but not necessarily in regards to improving their own performance. Talk of conspiracies has filled the thin Denver air recently with opposing players publicly questioning the strange goings-on. Jeff Cirillo even suggested the Rockies are using different sets of balls; one set for them and one for their opponents. Cirillo’s comments suggest the key with humidor is the impact it has on the visiting teams, but not in the way he claims.

After several years struggling with the psychological block of “how do we compete in Coors”, maybe the Rockies have found a way to turn the problem on to their opponents. Thanks to the humidor, now it’s the visiting team who are finding it difficult to concentrate in the thin air.

Whatever the truth, with or without the humidor, Coors Field is undoubtedly unique. In the increasingly corporate and generic world of professional sports, that should be celebrated.

Further reading

There’s a great article all about Coors Field and the recent controversies on the New York Times website:


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