Denver’s Coors Field is an architectural steroid that pumps up batting averages and power numbers. The thin, mile-high atmosphere makes batted balls travel farther and faster. Curveballs and sliders break less than they should, giving hurlers all the elusiveness of a pitching machine. And to make matters worse, Coors’ vast outfield, which was sized to prevent balls from flying out of the park, has made life miserable for fielders: They have too much ground to cover, too little time to do so, and too many long throws to make. As a result, Coors is the most run-conducive permanent ballpark in baseball history.
Earlier this season, the Rockies tried to deaden game balls by storing them in a humidification chamber. But according to baseball-smart physicists like Yale’s Robert Adair, the trick won’t do much good, and the midseason stats bear him out.
Stronger medicine is needed. The Coors Effect is a three-headed monster and calls for three separate fixes: two to the ball, one to the fences.
Shortening the Long Ball
Denver’s rarefied air adds about 10 percent to the length of fly balls, making extra base hits too easy. (Actually, scientists disagree about the size of the Coors Effect, with estimates ranging from 6.5 to 16 percent—for simplicity, let’s use the 10 percent figure.) The best way to counteract the long ball isn’t to humidify a baseball. It’s to change its makeup altogether, constructing a special Coors-only ball with about 91 percent as much resiliency as the standard MLB version, which would neutralize the altitude effect on distance. (Click here to read more on doctoring baseballs.)
Purists will scold that the major league ball is sacrosanct and not to be tampered with, but the league has juiced and deadened balls many times over the years. Not to deaden the ball used at Coors is tantamount to using a rabbit ball that exceeds official tolerances. Besides, baseball would not be the first sport to create a special ball for high-altitude play—it’s already done in tennis, with official blessing.
Assists for Fielders
Now, batted balls will move at more normal speeds and distances. But because of the park’s extra-large outfield—built, originally, to counteract the Coors Effect—fielders will still have too much territory to cover and too many long throws to make. So now that the ball is behaving more normally, it’s time to bring in the fences. Otherwise, we’re left with an extreme pitcher’s park, even worse than Detroit’s notoriously oversized Comerica Park.
Should we bring the fences in by the same 9 percent that we deadened the ball? No, because that would create a bandbox measuring 316 feet down the left field line, 378 feet to dead center, 386 feet to the deepest point in right center, and 319 feet down the right field line. A reduction of about 4 percent would be better, producing dimensions of 333 feet, 399 feet, 407 feet, and 336 feet, from left to right. And there’s a financial bonus here, since bringing in the fences could make room for three or four more rows of outfield seats and increase Coors’ capacity by about a thousand paying customers.
Relieving the Pitchers
We’ve cleaned up the problems that occur after bat meets ball, but pitchers still have a major disadvantage: fastballs with less motion, flattened curveballs, and knuckleballs that don’t flutter enough. Legalize the spitball? No need—just raise the seams on the special Coors-only ball so that its spin can bite the thinner air with more authority and make the ball break like it does at lower altitudes. The degree of raising could be determined empirically with a high-end pitching machine in a pressure chamber. Easy for me to say, but also not that hard for trained specialists.
At this point, with most of the Coors problems neutralized, pitchers would actually have a slight advantage because the thin air adds a few miles per hour to their fastballs. This too could be fixed by slightly enlarging the ball or the lengthening the pitching distance a bit, but here the purist view seems appropriate: The small gain wouldn’t be worth the cost.
If slightly quicker fastballs turn out to be all that remains of the Coors Effect, baseball should gladly accept the package. Imagine: Coors Field, a place where pitchers actually have a bit of an edge.