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Saturday, February 10, 2007

SABR At Altitude

This morning I had an excellent time attending, along with 27 other members, the annual "Hot Stove" meeting of the Rocky Mountain Chapter of SABR hosted at Breckenridge Brewery right across the street from Coors Field. Before the meeting got under way a door drive consisting of MP3s of game 5 of the 1948 World Series were given away. Needless to say I didn't win and after treasurer Paul Parker noted the passings of Lew Burdette, Steve Barber, and Hank Bauer over the past few days the main program got under way.

Next, Parker introduced Beverly Coleman and Mary Leisring who now chair the Activities committee for the chapter and who have planned several events including our annual banquet which will be held at Coors Field this season in the visitors clubhouse, a trip to see the Rockies minor league affiliate in Casper Wyoming on July 14-15, and a trip to see the Sky Sox play here in Colorado Springs at some point in the season. Tom Virdon then spoke about organizing a trip to the annual SABR convention in July with a possible stop off in Kansas City where the Yankees will be playing directly before the convention. Tom is also a veteran of attending baseball tours and handed out literature that looks very interesting. Discussion of these and other chapter related topics can also be found on the message board.

Then it was on the main events.

First up was Chip Atkison (who incidentally is a data stringer for STATS, Inc. at Coors Field) who presented an overview of the book Baseball Before We Knew It: A Search for the Roots of the Game, by David Block and Tim Wiles. Atkison provided a nice synopsis of the book and the various myths about the development of the game that it sheds light on. Interestingly, the book contains back ground that goes all the way back to the 14th century and the various ball games that were played.

After Atkison spoke Parker introduced the primary subject of the meeting - the humidor. Relating information from the "environmental chamber's" (as the Rockies prefer it be called) creator, Parker mentioned the following:

  • The chamber can hold 400 dozen baseballs

  • The chamber is designed to keep the ball at the MLB specifications which dictate that it be between 5 and 5.25 ounces and 9 and 9.25 inches in circumference

  • The Rockies receive 4 to 5 shipments of balls per season

  • When the balls are received that are removed from the shipping boxes and immediately stocked in the humidor where they can remain for up to 2 months before they make it into a game

  • Before each game 10 to 12 dozen are removed from the chamber (possibly 4 to 5 hours before the game), rubbed in Delaware mud by the clubhouse man, and then returned to the chamber until game time.

  • The balls that will start the game are taken out somewhere around 20 minutes prior to the game and new balls are retrieved from the chamber during the game.

  • Parker then mentioned an Associated Press article published this morning that states that the commissioner's office has advised teams that all baseballs used in play must be stored at 70 degrees. Joe Garagiola Jr. stated:

    "We have contacted all 30 of the clubs, and they have all confirmed to us that they will all be storing their baseballs in a temperature-controlled facility. We`re not going to have humidors every place, but every place will be temperature controlled, and so I think there will be a very high degree of uniformity."
    Apparently the majority of teams were already doing this and to me the move makes a good deal of sense. While in many places an environmental chamber may not be cost effective, certainly controlling for temperature seems like a good minimum step. Further Garagiola said that they've mandated that teams only use balls manufactured in the current year.

    Next, Parker introduced Dave Dresen, who presented a synopsis of an article published in 2003 in the Professional Geographer regarding baseball at Coors Field. The article can be summarized as follows:

  • Although one might expect balls to travel about 10% farther at Coors per the model that Robert K. Adair used in The Physics of Baseball, balls actually travel about 6% further (using 1995-1998 data from STATS). I included some more recent data in my column on the subject of Coors Field back in June

  • Evidence from the meteorological devices installed at Coors during the 1997 season showed that the primary wind vector opposes balls hit to right field and helps to explain why flyballs at Coors Field don't travel as far as would be expected.

  • When the dimensions of ballparks are taken into account the average fly ball actually ends up closer to the wall in St. Louis (old Busch Stadium) than at Coors. Overall Coors has a 3% advantage over the other National League ballparks

  • As a result, it is likely that personnel (poor Rockies pitchers) coupled with the general difficulty of pitching at altitude (flatter trajectories on curve balls and pre-humidor shrinking and hardening of baseballs) are the major reason for the increase in homeruns

  • Finally, Walter Sylvester, who works in the Baseball Operations department for the Rockies, was introduced and opened the floor to questions from the group. In answering one question he noted that a sample of balls are tested when they come out of the chamber to ensure they still meet specifications with the ones that fail the test being used for batting practice. He also opined that he thought that eventually bats may come under the same scrutiny as baseballs and that he thought that the baseballs used in the bullpens by pitchers also come from the chamber (which makes sense since a pitcher warming up should use baseballs that are as close to those used in the game as possible).

    Regarding the chamber it is his view that at the end of the day it really comes down to personnel. In fact and most interestingly, he seemed to lean more towards the position that the chamber shouldn't be used since it can and should be made to work to the Rockies advantage both on the field and psychologically (for example an ad for the firm 5280 in the visitor's clubhouse reminding the opposing teams of where they are). Although he wasn't asked about roster construction in those conditions (I did ask the question afterwards and he said he thought expanding the number of pitchers, for example, would be situational in terms of how the season was progressing) nor about the so-called hangover effect for Rockies hitters, he made the point that excellent pitchers such as Roy Halladay and Luke Hochevar have come out of Colorado and so it is possible to succeed at altitude with good players (of course the counter argument that the same rules don't apply at the high school and college levels wasn't addressed). To this comment he received a nice round of applause. He also cited the improved pitching of the Rockies in 2006 on the strength of Jason Jennings and Aaron Cook and not the chamber as most responsible for run scoring being down a bit at Coors.

    In answering a question about using chambers at the minor league level he had some disparaging words for Colorado Springs calling it "the worst environment" to play baseball in. Still, he thinks there may be some advantage although the Rockies with Jeff Francis and the Dodgers with Jackson in Las Vegas have sought to avoid too many starts in those environments.

    Yours truly then jumped in and asked to what the front office attributes the upturn in run scoring over the final 28 games of the 2006 season at Coors Field? The chart below tells the tale.

    In answering the question Sylvester noted that he assists with arbitration cases for the Rockies in the case of Matt Holliday who looked great in September, the team attributed the higher run environment to a myriad of causes including September callups and the team being out of the race and the player's relaxed. He apparently did not see any significance in it and explicitly denied that anything was different with the chamber. In looking at trends like these over short time spans he also noted that he's a big believer in examining strength of schedule and in this case even the possibility of wind patterns that were out of ordinary. Certainly this is a small sample size and so it will be interesting to see whether Coors plays more like it did the first 53 games of 2006 (8.96 runs per game vs. the league average of 9.00) or the final 28.

    There were also questions related to the signing of Matzuzaka in Boston and the inevitable Todd Helton questions related to the recent trade talks. The front office still considers Helton a big asset on offense (Sylvester is a big believer in working deep counts, drawing walks, and tiring starters and mentioned that "not making an out is very valuable") and is hoping that his conditioning program will allow him to regain some of his power this season. However, at 33 he said the organization certainly "hopes" Helton can get better but acknowledged the aging curve is working against Helton while working in favor of Garrett Atkins, Matt Holliday, and Brad Hawpe.

    When asked if the shortstop and catching positions are Troy Tulowitzki's and Chris Iannetta's for the losing, he definitely agreed that they would have to play themselves out of jobs. He also sees the team doing a lot more running in 2007.

    All in all an enjoyable morning in February with snow still on the ground.

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