The 60-game MLB experiment could change the Rockies forever
Runners, bicyclists and extreme athletes have provided the data. It takes 21 to 28 days for a person to get fully acclimated to higher altitudes. It also takes nearly that long for the body to readjust to sea level after being at altitude for a long period of time.
This has always made it difficult on sports teams who visit Colorado. Given that they aren’t in town for a long period of time, the bodies of the players never fully adjust to the altitude, making it difficult for them to perform at the peak. Throw in the thinner air, which makes it harder to breathe, and the Centennial State becomes a tough place to play.
That’s why the Avalanche, Broncos and Nuggets have enjoyed home ice, field and court advantage throughout most of their histories. Even when they were mediocre, they typically won more than they lost at home.
The Rockies, however, have been different. Even in their last two playoff seasons, 2017 and ’18, they barely won more games at home than they did on the road.
They’ve hit a lot of home runs, producing six home run champs, and posted a lot of hits, boasting 11 batting champions. But they’ve struggled to pitch, having never had a 20-game winner, ERA champion or strikeouts leader.
All of this gets blamed on the fact that the Rockies play at a mile above sea level. It’s been argued that it’s impossible to be a successful pitcher at 5,280 feet.
It should be a tough adjustment for visiting pitchers who are used to pitching at sea level. They come in for a few games and don’t get time to adjust. Colorado pitchers, however, should be used to it. They’re at Coors Field for 81 games per year.
Nonetheless, Rockies pitchers are no better than visiting pitchers in Colorado. That’s because they never get acclimated to performing at altitude.
They never spend more than 10-14 days in Denver, so their bodies don’t adjust. In essence, it’s like playing 81 road games at Coors Field.
Other teams struggle with fatigue after playing a three- or four-game series at Colorado. Imagine the toll playing half of your games at 20th and Blake must exact on the Rockies pitching staff.
It’s not because breaking balls don’t break. It’s not because of the expansive outfield. It’s because nobody on the staff has let their body adjust to 5,280 feet.
That’s why some people have suggested that the Rockies need to train at altitude. Instead of prepping for the season for six to eight weeks in Scottsdale, they should stay in Denver or find a warm-weather locale with a similar altitude.
Every other team that calls the Mile High City home trains at 5,280 feet, spending well in excess of the required 21 to 28 days necessary to adjust to the unique requirements of playing in Denver, and they all excel when playing at home, sometimes in dominant fashion. Perhaps the Rockies should follow suit.
This notion has long been dismissed by baseball people, however. They’re unable to imagine a team breaking from the tradition of hosting spring training in Arizona or Florida.
Of course, they fail to realize that this method for preparing for the season is a vestige of a bygone era. It’s an idea that was created when teams needed to spend weeks getting their players ready for the season.
That was necessary back when players spent their offseason eating brats and drinking beer, while sometimes working another non-baseball job. But that’s not the case anymore; being a professional athlete is a year-round gig, with players rarely getting out of shape.
They don’t need a month-plus to get ready for opening day. It’s silly.
The other argument for going to Arizona every year is that it’s where the competition resides. If the Rockies want to play against other teams, they have to be near them.
That’s also hogwash. There’s no evidence that playing against another organization’s future AA and AAA players is the best was to get ready for the season.
Colorado could certainly get plenty of work in via intrasquad games, as they’re currently doing at Coors Field. And during a normal spring training, they could even travel to Arizona for a weekend or two if needed, simulating a road trip.
That would allow the Rockies to spend the required 21 to 28 days in Denver, getting used to the altitude. There’s no proof that it would magically change their pitching fortures, but it’s certainly worth a try.
It’s not as though their current system is producing great results. In 27 years of existence, Colorado has only made the postseason five times and has never won the National League West.
What do they have to lose?
In the past, this line of thinking would’ve been too far outside the box. Taking the unprecedented step of holding spring training at a location other than Arizona or Florida would’ve been next to impossible without any evidence that it would work.
Of course, that proof could only come from experimenting. So the Rockies were stuck. They couldn’t experiment because it was too big of a gamble, but they couldn’t make a change without data from an experiment.
Now, thanks to the unprecedented season that has been forced upon Major League Baseball by the COVID-19 pandemic, Colorado has the opportunity to try a new approach. They’re currently prepping for the abbreviated 2020 season at Coors Field, rather than their cozy confines in Scottsdale.
If this weeks-long training at altitude leads to a better-than-expected campaign, the Rockies should consider making it the norm. If Colorado is above .500 in 2020, especially if their pitching seems to improve, they should use this season as the evidence that a non-Arizona spring training is worth further experimentation.
Will it ever happen? Probably not. The Rockies have invested millions in Salt River Fields at Talking Stick, the state-of-the-art facility they co-own with the Diamondbacks in Scottsdale. And they make millions playing meaningless exhibition games in front of fans who flock to Arizona every March for good weather and a little baseball.
But if the team really wants to win, something they’ve never done consistently in more than a quarter century of existence, they need to get creative. They can’t keep doing what everyone else, none of whom have to deal with the altitude factor, is doing. And the coronavirus may be providing them with the evidence they need to break from an outdated system.