For some time now, no pitcher worth his spikes wanted to pitch in Coors Field. Teams scored in the double-digits, and so did pitcher’s ERAs. Some said that the thin air meant the ball would travel farther—which, as we’ve all seen, it does. Others say that the ball breaks differently in the thin air, that curves and sliders hang, that cutters don’t cut—that’s likely true, too.
The Rockies have tried some different angles on this. One was to bring in sinkerballers. See Mike Hampton’s Coors line (17-10 with a 5.79 ERA in 33 starts) to see how that went. Maybe the ball doesn’t sink in thin air, either.
Another option was to go with a four-man rotation, as they did in 2004—if your starting pitching is going to suck, why not just pitch the guys a ton of innings, and teach them to pitch when they’re tired (and suck)? Their starters had a 5.54 ERA that season, right in line with the 5.53 ERA held by their relievers. Oh well.
Another method is to try fireballers. If thin air doesn’t offer enough resistance to the breaking ball, perhaps the fastball will be even faster. The late lefty Joe Kennedy, who has the best ERA in Rockies history—3.66—was a fireballer, but Pedro Astacio and Jeff Francis, who both hold a Coors season record 17 wins, have only average fastballs. And neither of them has a terribly good ERA at Coors (Astacio, 7.32; Francis 4.48).
Then there’s Ubaldo Jimenez, the lanky Dominican with a thunderbolt for an arm. He’s the Next Great Thing for Colorado, the guy who dazzled in Colorado’s magical 2008 postseason (their best trick was disappearing in the World Series). Jimenez, like the rest of the team, was lights-out before the Series—but unlike them, he did pretty well against Boston. In two games before the Series, he gave up two runs and eight hits over eleven innings; in the Series itself, he gave up two runs over four-and-two-thirds innings, though that saddled him with the loss. His final postseason line was 0-1 with a 2.25 ERA; his only real black eye was the 13-13 K:BB ratio.
This year, Ubaldo’s been even more spectacular. In 21 starts, he’s 5-9 with a 4.20 ERA and a 1.51 WHIP.
Wait, you’re saying. That’s not spectacular. In fact, it kind of stinks.
What’s amazing about Ubaldo is his home/road split. 4-2 with a 2.80 ERA. 1-7 with a 5.82 ERA. That’s home-road, not road-home. UJ is amazing in Coors, less than human away from it.
Looking inside his numbers might give you a hint as to why this is so. His K:BB ratio at home is 39:25 in 64.1 IP, while it’s 59:38 in 55.2 IP away. Whether it’s how the ball moves or how he tries to pitch the game, Ubaldo goes for the strikeout away from home, but also ends up walking more guys, too.
His fastball doesn’t have much movement, so the Coors effect doesn’t do much for or against this main weapon in his arsenal. What has been the key to Ubaldo’s development has been control, especially control of his breaking ball. With a fastball that tops out at or near100, it’s the offspeed stuff that has held him back—major leaguers can hit a fastball, if there’s nothing else to scare them off. Jimenez has a decent change, but what can freeze hitters is his curve in the mid-seventies.
In tonight’s game against the Dodgers, Ubaldo’s been lights-out, and his second-inning strikeout of Andruw Jones is a perfect example. On a 1-2 pitch, after Jones fouled off a couple of pitches in the high-nineties, Ubaldo jelly-legged him with a 76-MPH curve at the knees. Granted, a Little Leaguer could strike out Andruw Jones this year, but that pitch would have baffled almost any other major league hitter.
Thus far tonight, Ubaldo has retired thirteen straight hitters since Russell Martin’s first-inning single, and he’s only needed fifty pitches to do so through five innings. These are amazing numbers, but all the more amazing to see him do this in Coors field. Again, the question is: How does he do it?
Maybe the thin air of Coors takes enough off of his breaking ball to keep him near the plate. Maybe it does make his fastball that much faster. Maybe knowing how much the atmosphere adds to the opposing team’s offense makes him more careful. Maybe it’s just the matter of a small sample space, and Ubaldo’s about to explode in Coors (his career line is 7-5, with a 3.21 ERA, at home; 2-8, 5.42 away, and about half of those starts have been this year).
In a way, who cares why he’s doing it? It’s amazing and unprecedented to be an anti-Coors pitcher, so enjoy it while you can.