Saturday, June 27, 2009

Colorado Rockies Have Figured Out How To Win On The Road

Since their inception in 1993 the Colorado Rockies have had several types of teams. They have had the big home run hitters known as the Blake Street Bombers, they have had teams with speed, they have had teams with big name free agents, and teams with other franchise's cast offs. Yet, they have all had one thing in common. None of them could win on the road.
Even in 2007, when the Rockies made their first World Series appearance, they won only 39 games on the road. For some reason, teams have always found a way to play well at Coors Field, but fallen flat on their faces on the road.

This season is different, the Rockies have learned to win on the road.

After Friday night's 4-2 win over the Oakland A's, the Rockies improved their record away from Coors Field to 21-20. While one game over .500 might not be all that impressive, consider that in 2008, Colorado won only 31 games on the road all season. With just 10 more wins on the road all season, the Rockies will have won as many games on the road in '09 as they won all year just a season ago.

2007 was as close as the franchise has ever been to having a winning record on the road when they went 39-42. The fact that they were able to keep the record close to .500 was one of the main reasons that the Rockies were able to win the Wild Card that season. Even then, consider that the Rockies were nine games under .500 on the road on September 16th before a 6-0 trip to close the gap and keep the team in contention.

The good news for the Rockies in regards to their road record is the fact that they have played more games after sleeping in a hotel bed than any other team in the league. Three weeks before the All-Star break, Colorado has already completed half of their road games.

The key to the success this season has been the starting pitching. In the past the squad may have had one or two pitchers that gave the team a shot on the road. If anyone beyond the first two in the rotation were pitching it seemed as if a lost cause.

Beyond the pitching, the offense always seemed to fall asleep on the road. A game in which the team scored five or more runs was an extremely good night. The disparage was so bad that many players lost credibility with the national media and baseball experts. They were thought of as products of Coors Field.

Former Rockie Dante Bichette had a theory of his own. He believed that the light air of Coors Field helped hitters get hits there, but that leaving the highest playing field in the league also had disadvantages. After a long homestand Bichette believed that it took a few games to readjust to the breaking pitches, which would break more at sea level than they would at Coors Field.

Another theory was that playing at Coors Field takes a toll on a bullpen. A manager would have to go to his bullpen early and often due to the amount of runs and hits allowed by the park, not to mention the altitude fatigue. Therefore, on a long homestand a bullpen was so used up that when they went on the road they had nothing left in the tank.

Whatever the reasons, in 17 years of Rockies baseball not one of the teams that management has put together has found a way to be successful on the road.

Until now.

In 2009 the Rockies are taking the same game that they play at home on the road with them. The difference may be exactly that. In the past seasons the team had to find a different way to win away than they did at Coors.

Pitchers had to anticipate giving up hits and runs, and not pitching as deep as they would on the road. Hitters were looking for a home run on every single pitch instead of trying to move runners over and play small ball. On the road the home runs did not come as easily and the offense was lost in what to do to be in a ball game.

These Rockies are different. The franchise has figured out that to win at Coors Field they would need to get pitchers who are ground ball pitchers. They have actively drafted and groomed sinker ball pitchers, and they emphasize players who value good defense. Pitchers are no longer looking to strike out every batter at the plate, they are OK with the hitter making contact and believing that the players behind them will make the play and get the out.

Aaron Cook and Jason Marquis both rank in the top three in the league in ground ball to fly ball ratio. In addition to Cook and Marquis, Ubaldo Jimenez is continuing to learn how to pitch low in the zone and pitch to contact.

The offense is also making strides. Instead of playing station to station baseball and waiting for the long ball to win a game for the club. Watch carefully and it can be noticed that when a runner is in scoring position with no one out, the batter is very willing to hit the ball to the right side and move the runner over. It looks like a failed at-bat in the box score, but baseball fans know how many games are won by unselfish play.

In addition to ground balls moving runners over, the Rockies also lead the National League in sacrifice flies, an area that they struggled mightily in all through 2008. In '08 through April the Rox had only one sacrifice fly, dead last in the Majors. That change has made a huge impact on the success of this team.

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