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The Rockies’ ground ball quirk

Playing in a place where the ball flies, Colorado hits grounders more than almost anyone.

MLB: Colorado Rockies at Cincinnati Reds Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

The Colorado Rockies are an experiment in extremes. By the very nature of their home park being the most hitter friendly park in the game by a considerable margin – and, for that matter, three of the other parks in their division being harshly in the opposite direction – the design of a Rockies roster is a constant source of curiosity and confusion by writers, fans, and probably their own front office.

The person who solves it and wins a title there will be a legend in baseball circles as the mad genius who finally cracked the code. They sit in second in the National League West at this writing, perhaps the most tightly contested division in the game. Which is good. They also have the third highest ground ball rate in basebal, which isn’t supposed to be the ideal. Not with how the game is going these days.

Ten or twenty years ago this might not bear examining, but we are famously in the midst of the fly ball revolution, where the common sense of the game for decades has been broken by actual smart sense of hitting the ball in the air more because extra bases are a good thing. The Rockies play half their games in the rarefied mountain air, where the ball flies even further than normal and extra bases are just assumed with each hit.

Even with the humidor being introduced to try to cut down the insane numbers on the scoreboard, they still play in the best scoring environment in the game in terms of runs scored, and the ninth best home run park by that same metric. Yet, they hit a ground ball as a team 47.8 percent of the time. If we expand the scope to 2015, they still rank 10th at 45.3 percent. Not as stark as this year, but still, it seems surprising for a team that can so easily let the ball fly.

Maybe it’s just a weighted thing. Maybe a few of their more regular players are the culprits dragging the team down. It’s hard to believe with Nolan Arenado, Charlie Blackmon and Trevor Story being major players for them, but maybe. Here’s a look at the ground ball rate of those with at least 50 PA’s this year, sorted by ground ball rate:

Rockies batted ball profiles

Name PA GB/FB LD% GB% FB% IFFB% HR/FB
Name PA GB/FB LD% GB% FB% IFFB% HR/FB
Ian Desmond 223 3.39 16.90% 64.20% 18.90% 0.00% 35.70%
Tony Wolters 97 2.17 10.90% 60.90% 28.10% 11.10% 11.10%
Ryan McMahon 84 3.86 26.10% 58.70% 15.20% 0.00% 0.00%
DJ LeMahieu 158 2.32 23.80% 53.30% 23.00% 0.00% 17.90%
Gerardo Parra 182 1.63 21.70% 48.60% 29.70% 4.90% 7.30%
Pat Valaika 82 1.33 17.60% 47.10% 35.30% 16.70% 0.00%
Carlos Gonzalez 150 1.13 16.70% 44.10% 39.20% 12.50% 12.50%
David Dahl 97 1.22 20.30% 43.80% 35.90% 0.00% 17.40%
Chris Iannetta 150 1.33 23.90% 43.50% 32.60% 0.00% 13.30%
Charlie Blackmon 242 1.2 20.70% 43.30% 36.00% 5.10% 20.30%
Noel Cuevas 73 1.04 18.30% 41.70% 40.00% 33.30% 4.20%
Nolan Arenado 235 1.13 29.30% 37.60% 33.10% 17.30% 23.10%
Trevor Story 249 0.69 20.00% 32.70% 47.30% 12.70% 15.50%

Fifty plate appearances isn’t a whole lot, basically all the full and regular part-time players. Still, it’s a pretty even distribution of small time and big time players spread throughout that list, so it’s not a problem of someone dragging the whole team down.

Hitting a bunch of ground balls isn’t a marked decision by the front office of course. It can’t be. It’s not 1950. But even if they wanted to, it’s impossible to just switch gears into a farm full of fly ball boys overnight. It takes time to find and develop talent.

The Rockies general manager, Jeff Bridich, isn’t a name that comes up in conversations of forward thinking minds of the game, but he’s a young-ish guy who is getting his shot after the old guard resigned. He knows the score. He sees what’s happening, and has been around the game. He’s studied the Rockies as closely as anyone since 2004 when he came to the team working on their farm system. Surely he has theories on how to crack the Coors problem.

Which makes me think maybe it’s me who’s wrong. The thing many forget about Coors – and honestly the thing I forgot when I began this piece – is that it’s not always the home runs that kill you with that ridiculous stadium. Yes, the thin air doesn’t help with breaking balls, but a breaking ball that doesn’t break doesn’t always just become a dinger, it’s merely a big ol’ meatball. Balls are squared up easier.

Adding to that is the massiveness of the outfield. At 97,000 square feet, it’s the largest in the game. It’s why more hits fall on average there than anywhere else. By ESPN’s Park Factor site, Coors has ranked first in Hits Park Factor every year since they started tracking it. When the park was designed, the architects did take the added ball travel distance into account when placing the outfield walls. They did not account for humans not being faster than average in thin air.

So my thought is that maybe the front office accounts for this in their player development. In addition to being so high in grounders, they’re fifth in baseball since 2015 in line drive rate. Push the time period back to 2010, they rise to second. Line drives in that park roll for a long, long time because of that field, which is why since 2010 they’ve also hit 372 triples, 27 more than the second place Diamondbacks.

The real question is whether that’s on purpose. The way the Rockies do anything is always looked at through that thinly aired lens. With the humidor the home runs are tamped down – since it was introduced Coors has season the fifth most home runs in baseball at 1648. Compare that to 898 from 1995 to 2001, most in the game and 149 more than second place Jacob’s Field. So, maybe the Rockies really do build their team to get a lot of base hits, taking advantage of their home park. Plus, places like AT&T Park in San Francisco and Petco Park in San Diego are notorious pitcher’s parks where it’s often a fool’s errand to try for the fences when the marine layer of air moves in.

It could just be a quirk of the stats that the Rockies rank so high. Still, I at least figured they’d be at the forefront of chasing fly balls, not going the opposite way. The most obvious quirk of baseball—that the parks are starkly different—is on full display with Colorado, and teams do need to take that into account when building their roster. It wouldn’t surprise me if chasing a low to medium launch angle type of batted ball profile was somewhere in the schemes. It wouldn’t surprise me if this was all just happenstance, and the good players the Rockies have developed and brought to Denver just happen to hit the ball this way. But it’s at least a bit nice to see not everyone doing the exact same thing, if they are.

Merritt Rohlfing overthinks baseball for Beyond the Box Score and kvetches about the Indians at Let’s Go Tribe. He co-hosts the podcast there, Let’s Talk Tribe. He does do other things in his life. Follow him on Twitter @MerrillLunch.