Friday, August 13, 2010

Forgetting Coors Field

In what is quickly becoming a disappointing season for the Colorado Rockies, I'm somewhat surprised by the insistence in the (rather limited) Rockies blogosphere that the team's problem is an inability to hit on the road.  Granted, that much seems obvious, given the .301/.373/.492 line the offense puts up at Coors Field and the .232/.306/.364 line on the road.  There's no question, looking at those numbers, that the Rockies can't can't can't hit on the road.  A .306 OBP anywhere from your worst hitter is atrociously bad, let alone from your entire roster.

Consider the other teams road slashes in the NL West, for comparison:

Arizona Diamondbacks - .255/.339/.419
San Francisco Giants - .256/.325/.397
Los Angeles Dodgers - .256/.325/.382
San Diego Padres - .244/.304/.377

Amazingly, the Padres, despite playing in Petco Park, are hitting significantly better at home (.258/.339/.380) this year than on the road.  The unlikely success of San Diego this season has a great many sources, not the least of which is the magical transformation of Petco into a hitter's paradise for Padres players, whilst remaining one of the stingiest pitcher's parks for opposing hitters.

Anyway, it's clear from this list that the Rockies are quite poor on the road, but it is true that all of those teams have the benefit of playing a substantial number of their away games at Coors Field, so lets look at the NL East, too.

Philadelphia Phillies - .257/.328/.394
Atlanta Braves - .248/.334/.380
Florida Marlins - .256/.314/.410
Washington Nationals - .239/.307/.375
New York Mets - .240/.295/.366

 The Phillies have been much better than you would think, given all the doom-and-gloom talk about their offense this season.  Other than that, what stands out most here is that the Mets and Nationals, who no one picked to win the World Series this offseason, are the only teams with road splits as woefully bad (or, in the Mets case, worse) than the Rockies.

We might as well do the NL Central, too.

Milwaukee Brewers - .271/.339/.436
Cincinnati Reds - .264/.322/.414
St. Louis Cardinals - .260/.315/.405
Chicago Cubs - .252/.314/.396
Houston Astros - .244/.304/.344
Pittsburgh Pirates - .232/.289/.351

The Brewers offense jumps out at you, but their woeful pitching is the other side of the story, and the reason for their disappointing season so far.  The Pirates are truly awful, even though they certainly played the Rockies tough recently.

All told, Colorado clocks in with a tie for last in road batting average (with Pittsburgh), at 12th out of 16 in road OBP, and at 14th out of 16 in road SLG.  So the Rockies problem is definitely that they can't hit on the road.  I buy it.

But I also think this is a case where the hypothesis - that the Rockies can't hit on the road - is only a part of the whole story.  "Can't hit on the road" is a subset of the broader statement, "can't hit."  The Rockies, I would argue, can't hit on the road because they can't hit, period.  This is one of the very worst offensive teams in baseball.  Only a spectacularly good pitching staff and a set of mediocre talents particularly well adapted to playing at Coors Field keep the team slightly above .500.

Coors Field.  That's the real issue here.  I was one of the first people on the "Coors Field is no longer an absurd bandbox" train back when the humidor was put in place in 2002.  I fear, however, that the pendulum has swung too far back in the other direction.  Many Rockies fans (and announcers, I'm unhappy to report) seem convinced that Coors plays like any other park.  It doesn't.  It's still the best hitters park in baseball by a longshot, and that continues to make a mediocre-to-poor offense, like the Rockies have always had, seem good.

Coming into today, the Rockies are fourth in the NL in runs scored at 543.  Fourth, even though they are one of the worst road hitting teams in the National League.  Now the question is, are the Rockies inordinately unlucky on the road, or is Coors Field just that good of a hitter's park?

Unfortunately, "Park Factors" are calculated, primarily, by comparing home and road splits, so to say that Coors Field has a high park factor is to say that the Rockies hit better at home.  Park factor does account for visiting teams as well, but we might simply write off that influence as insignificant, certainly over the course of a single season, compared to the influence of the Rockies roster construction.

Nevertheless, we might begin to suspect that Coors Field really is a good hitter's park if it is consistently the best or one of the best hitter's parks in baseball.  Over time, sure, there still might be some luck involved, but the influence of visiting teams in the calculation feels more substantial, and over multiple seasons the sample size gets large enough that something systematic is going on.

So what has the Coors Field park factor looked like since the first year of the humidor?  It's higher than you might think.*

* I'm using the standard, ESPN "runs" Park Factor here.  Basically, a number of, say, 1.5, means that 1.5 times as many runs are scored at Coors compared to an average ballpark.

2002: 1.440, 1st in MLB
2003: 1.243, 5th in MLB
2004: 1.412, 1st in MLB
2005: 1.276, 2nd in MLB
2006: 1.149, 2nd in MLB
2007: 1.160, 3rd in MLB
2008: 1.126, 3rd in MLB
2009: 1.247, 1st in MLB
2010: 1.275, 1st in MLB

There are a few things to notice here.  First of all, Coors Field has always been in the top 5, and usually in the top 2 hitter's parks in baseball in any given season.  Even as league-wide scoring has gone down, and scoring at Coors with it, the home of the Rockies continues to rank near the top in MLB.  Coors Field, regardless of how much it has calmed down with the addition of the humidor, is still a hitter's paradise.

Also worth note here is that a park factor around 1.2 can seriously muddle simple metrics like "runs scored."  The Rockies, as mentioned above, are fourth in the NL with 543 runs this season.  If, however, we factor in that the Rockies have played 55 home games, and that those games inflate scoring by 1.275, we can roughly scale the Rockies actual production down to 485 runs or so if they played at a neutral park.  Lo and behold, that would put the Rockies 12th in the National League.

A final statistic worth looking at here - and we've done it before on this blog - is WAR.  Fangraphs has the Rockies offense (and defense) at 13.8 Wins this season, good for 16th in baseball (they adjust for DHs, so comparing across leagues is fair).  The Rockies pitching has been worth 17.4 Wins, good for 2nd in the entirety of MLB.  The problem is, hitting and defense together account for more of a team's success than pitching, so that 16th outweighs, unfortunately, the 2nd.  That's why you see a 59-55 record.

It's easy to think that the Rockies have the pieces in place to compete offensively, especially because of how lauded the lineup is in the local media.  But we forget that players who look good at Coors are merely average elsewhere, that near-MVPs like Matt Holliday turn into marginal All-Stars on other teams, that Neifi Perez looked like a passable Major Leaguer playing in Colorado.  That is still true for today's Rockies.

Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez are the Rockies best offensive players, but neither is a world beater.  The CarGo for MVP talk is nonsense.  Even with his recent surge, he is 21st in WAR in the National League, almost 2 full wins worse than the NL's best position player this season, Joey Votto.  In fact, "Little Pony" has been only the third best outfielder in the NL West, according to WAR, so far this season (behind the incredibly underrated Andres Torres and Chris Young).  Gonzalez is a good player, but Coors makes him look better than he is.

The same can be said of Tulo, who is incredibly valuable by default as a slick fielding shortshop.  That he hits a little is just a bonus, but just because he rakes on the Rockies doesn't mean he hits more than a little.  He's no Chase Utley.  One can only imagine what a player like that could do at Coors for 81 games a season.

It is true that, with the exception of Tod Helton, who has had an atrocious season, no one hitter on the Rockies right now is particularly bad.  But no one is particularly good either.  When your best offensive player doesn't know how to draw a walk and is 21st in WAR in the league, you're not likely to score a lot of runs unless you play at an extreme hitter's park.  The same could be said for when four of your regulars are producing at approximately replacement level (Helton, Spilborghs, Hawpe, and Mora).  Without offense, even a team with great pitching like the Rockies is doomed to mediocrity.

The point of this post, though, is not to write a post-mortem of the Rockies season.  We all know that anything is possible, and while it's unlikely that Colorado will catch all of the teams in front of them, stranger things have happened.  No, the point here is to remind fans of the Rockies - and really any team - that the raw numbers you see don't tell the whole story.  The Rockies score a lot of runs, but not because they have a good offense.  Rather, Coors Field is the culprit.

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