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Why won’t the Rockies let it fly?

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Coors Field turns fly balls into home runs with regularity. So why did Colorado just spend big on Ian Desmond, premier ground ball hitter?

MLB: Colorado Rockies at Baltimore Orioles Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

If you’ve ever seen a tweet about a Rockies player hitting a home run, you’ve probably also seen the first two or three (or 12) comments that say, simply, “coors.”

The lack of any further words, of any actual reasoning – not to mention the lack of the common courtesy known as capitalization – lends these comments an implicit “duh” to go with the message “coors” conveys: “This isn’t that impressive because fly balls hit at Coors Field, which sits at a very high elevation, have an advantage over fly balls hit elsewhere.”

Based on the condescending certainty of the Twitterati, you would guess that a central focus of the front office’s uphill effort to build a winner in Colorado would be to collect players who hit lots of these advantageous fly balls. But that’s where things get weird.

* * *

Let’s get the big reveal out of the way first: The Rockies don’t hit a lot of fly balls compared to the rest of the league.

Over the past five seasons, they rank 24th in fly-ball rate. And somewhat incredibly, they are 2nd-to-last in fly-ball rate at home. If you want to limit the sample to 2016, they still rank only 18th.

They do rank 2nd in line-drive rate over the same timeframe (1st at home), and that makes sense! They made batting champions out of old Michael Cuddyer, old Justin Morneau and normal-aged D.J. LeMahieu. But the conditions that helped those campaigns along should also have advantages for fly-ball hitters, arguably with greater overall rewards.

The trolls will be unsurprised to hear that over our 5-year period, the Rockies led the majors in both OBP and SLG on fly balls.

The Coors effect on fly ball outcomes should, logically, be more drastic than its effect on line drive numbers. Most line drives are going to turn into hits whether they’re in Coors or not, so there is only so much room for the effect to manifest itself. Line drives at Coors go from hits to better hits; fly balls go from easy outs to hits, often of the extra-base variety. So on fly balls, 55 points of OBP separated the top and bottom clubs in the league, with 20 of those points coming between the Rockies and third place. For line drives, it was just a 28-point spread from top to bottom. If you turn to SLG, there’s a 191-point gap for fly balls, and a 67-point gap for line drives (and the Rockies don’t even lead that category).

Translate that into actionable baseball strategy and it seems that the Rockies would be capable of squeezing more value, relative to other teams, out of fly-ball hitters. The BABIP downside is less down, and the extra-base upside is more up. Indeed, they’ve been pursuing the mirror image of this strategy for years; their pitching staff over the last decade has the lowest fly ball rate and the second-highest ground ball rate. The translation to their offense seems obvious.

Then the Rockies sign Ian Desmond, he of the 50 percent career ground ball rate, and you wonder if up is actually down, after all.

Before attempting to identify why the Rockies haven’t loaded up on fly-ball hitters, I’ll offer the eternal disclaimer that they may know something we do not. They are a baseball team that has a lot of smart people trying to figure out how to win baseball games. Presumably they’ve thought about this.

So why isn’t the Rockies lineup packed with loftily swinging gentlemen?

Maybe they are prioritizing contact over any trajectory considerations, hoping to simply maximize the number of balls in play. This seems plausible; the Coors effect on line drives might be smaller than on fly balls, but it’s much larger than the effect on strike outs. Still, no one is advocating that they ship out their star line-drive hitters, but given their unique situation, you’d figure the Rockies would be the high bidders for uppercut swings more often than the average club.

Maybe there is something about Colorado that encourages hitters to change their swing. Mark Reynolds posted a career-low fly-ball rate and career-high line-drive rate in 2016, his first season with the Rockies. Or maybe they are somehow coaching hitters to hit liners. That theory sounds great until it runs headlong into the reason I can’t bring myself to believe in some anti-air secret: They have just developed two extreme fly-ball hitters – Nolan Arenado and Trevor Story – that look to be working out extremely well. So well, in fact, that they have pivoted toward contention less than two years after selling off Troy Tulowitzki and looking like they were headed toward a full teardown.

Which brings us back to the $70-million man. Desmond’s career fly-ball rate is 31.4 percent, which is significantly higher than the 26 percent he put up last season as the league average was rising to 34.6 percent. To make matters worse, the thing that most stands out in his batted-ball profile is his astronomical ground ball rate (53.4 percent in each of the last 2 seasons).

Colorado has said Desmond was signed to play first base, but that’s not his natural position and likely a waste of his defensive abilities. If they actually wanted a first baseman, Brandon Moss is available for a much lower cost after posting a nearly identical wRC+ to Desmond last season, and he projects for better offensive numbers this year, per Steamer – all before accounting for whatever Coors would do to his well-below-average BABIP. But instead, the Rockies spent big on Desmond while publicly asserting a plan to accelerate his jarring tumble down the defensive spectrum. Charlie Blackmon, meanwhile, is popping up in rumored talks for starting pitching, which probably means the Desmond-at-first-base plans are not meant to last long.

More interestingly, the Rockies are said to be interested in Mark Trumbo. His 43.1 percent 2016 fly ball rate is perhaps the purest possible breath of fresh air for fans of aerial displays, and the most surefire fodder for the “coors” Twitter commenters. If the Rockies are actually trying to push their chips to the middle, they may be the ideal suitor for Trumbo – whose track record is likely to make many contenders skittish. After his booming 2016, featuring a career-best home-run-per-fly-ball rate, regression is coming for the slugger. It would come for him at Coors Field, too, but it would be mitigated by the weakened downward pull on his many, many moonshots. The Rockies’ offseason isn’t complete yet, and as they put the finishing touches on their 2017 roster, they should keep their unique park in mind.