Slammed by injuries, the Colorado Rockies are glad for the baseball year's new-car smell.
It's so early, the first game between the Rockies and Padres comes tonight at Petco Park.
The Rockies are 4-12. The surprising Padres lead them by 6.5 games.
But, expect to hear from the Rockies. Several of their players helped Colorado earn a playoff berth the past two seasons. Steady Bud Black, the team's manager, has impressive co-aces in German Marquez and Kyle Freeland (sidelined by a finger blister). Black still gets to write Nolan Arenado onto his lineup card, and should regain two good hitters, David Dahl and Daniel Murphy.
I will suggest that, concerning the Rockies, the Padres and their fans owe a pinch of gratitude as far back as Colorado joining the NL West in 1993.
Rockies, in this instance, doesn't denote baseball personnel but rather the Rocky Mountain Range.
Yeah, those Rockies.
Hooray for plate tectonics making baseball harder.
It's uniquely dicey to maintain a pitching staff while playing 81 games a mile above sea level, the highest elevation in the big leagues.
Here's the weirder challenge: Mile-high conditions, on balance if indirectly, seem to impose as much hardship on Rockies hitters as Rockies pitchers.
The hitters go on the road, and don't hit.
Only one of the franchise's 26 seasons has ended with Colorado among the league's top half in road scoring. In 20 seasons, the Rockies ended in the bottom-5.
Thirteen teams have played in the National League continuously since the Rockies joined the league. Since then, the Rockies are 13th in road scoring. They're last in road batting average, on-base percentage and slugging rate, and 12th in walks.
For a franchise whose mascot is named Dinger, it doesn't make sense.
Former Rockies outfielder Ryan Spilborghs, talking by phone Sunday, said Rockies hitters can overcame the road challenges, none of which he considers major in its own right. But, he cited “a mix” of small ingredients.
His first point: Mile-high baseball is extra hard on bodies. "It just take a lot, it really does," said Spilborghs, a Rockies analyst for AT&T SportsNet and the MLB radio network. He said a 10-game homestand is "exhausting" for Rockies regulars. While it can be fun when the Rockies are scoring touchdowns, hitters are known to lose bat speed near the homestand's end.
Spilborghs suggested if the Rockies dwelled in the Central division rather than the West, where ballpark conditions in California tend to have favored pitchers (less so, Dodger Stadium), they'd amass more road runs.
The ex-player found that on the road, “you think you have to almost try harder” because, well, you’re not in Denver, where balls zoom, necessitating a Great Plains-sized outfield.
“Those hits in Coors Field that you get jammed, and it lands in front of the outfielder, you don’t get those on the road,” he said. This, he said, can cause a hitter to try too hard.
Notice Spilborghs didn’t grouse about pitches having more movement at lower elevations, though he said opponents don't feed Rockies hitters as many fastballs as they do in Denver.
“It's true that curveballs don’t snap quite as hard at Coors Field as they do on the road,” he said, “but change-ups are change-ups, and a good slider is always a good slider. It’s more that little, late downward movement that you’ll see at sea level. It has an effect on the hitters.”
Conclusion: While many hitters on all teams tend to find the road more difficult, I doubt the Rockies ever hum Willie Nelson's peppy "On The Road Again" while taking batting practice in the East Village, San Francisco or at Chavez Ravine.
Also, grit would seem a strong suit of the Rockies, who've managed to earn five wild-card berths and last year pushed the Dodgers to a 163rd game.
As for Rockies regulars who can cope, isn't it time to give them extra credit?
Here's hoping Hall of Fame voters elect Larry Walker, a former Rockies (and Expos) outfielder and keen all-around player who got 54.6 percent of the vote last year.
Shouldn't voters re-examine the career of Todd Helton, who batted a strong .287/.386/.469 on the road and stands fifth all-time in games played at first base?
Arenado isn't one to complain, but the slugging third-baseman, whom the Rockies drafted out of Orange County in 2009, understands as well as anybody the strange demands of Rockies baseball geography.
“I think sometimes people don’t understand the effect is has on you when you go on the road — (how that affects) the movement of the pitches, how hard it is to adjust to that,” Arenado told Jayson Stark of the Athletic last month.
The ’07 Rockies were the outlier.
They could score on the road. They ended fifth in road runs, still a franchise record. Helton was their best hitter, logging a .407 on-base percentage on the road. Matt Holliday and Brad Hawpe were at .374 and .368, respectively.
Helton, Holliday and Hawpe had a knack for coaxing walks away from Denver, reducing pressure to get hits. For all of his strengths, Areanado doesn't get many road walks.
The Rockies broke out of a recent road slump Sunday, behind Arenado. More road surges are coming, if only because the 11-game results were so dismal, the Rockies batting .184 with a .496 OPS away from Denver.
It looked like they were standing on the bottom of the ocean floor.