Rockies plan more rest early for key players
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- The Rockies’ advantage at home has always been high-scoring games, and the resulting psychological effect on opposing pitchers. Now manager Bud Black wants to tweak the formula to lessen the negative edge of the Coors Field effect.
The theory is fewer starts, especially early in the season, for frontline players could mean a fresher team late in the season. And who knows? It may give the team a greater chance on the road.
“We’ve talked about it this offseason probably more than any other time,” Black said. “Generally speaking, you will probably see a little bit more of a guy not starting at home than what you would have in the past.”
In their best seasons, they’ve dominated at home. Even in years like 2022 (68-94), they’ve been solid at home. Counting the first two seasons at Mile High Stadium, the Rockies have had a winning record in 21 of their 30 home seasons, including 41-40 last year.
Batted balls fly unpredictably and pitches often don’t break as intended at altitude. But everything from hydration to sleep suffers. Unlike opponents, the Rockies bounce in and out of the atmosphere all season.
Last season, C.J. Cron played every game, home and road, until he was hit on the right wrist by a pitch from the D-backs’ Zac Gallen on July 9. Cron played in the All-Star Game, thanks to a .298/.350/.552 slash line and 21 homers in 90 games before the break, but he slashed .197/.263/.341 with eight homers in 60 second-half games. Charlie Blackmon slashed .277/.326/.476 with 14 homers in the first half, but he slumped to .242/.294/.323 with two homers in the second. Injuries were a factor, but the Rockies aren’t discounting fatigue.
Cron is 33, Blackmon 36. And some have theorized that the atmosphere was a factor in an injury-filled first season with the Rockies for Kris Bryant, 31. But the atmosphere touches everyone.
That means younger mainstays Ryan McMahon (150-plus games the last two years) and Brendan Rodgers (career-high 137 games last year) will have to be productive in less playing time than they are accustomed to or desire. Ezequiel Tovar, the No. 25 MLB Pipeline prospect, is expected to start at shortstop, but he will need help.
Black said there will be times when sitting now for production late will take precedence. In some cases, a main player will have to sacrifice at-bats at home in the last game of a homestand in hopes he will be sharper the first game of the ensuing trip.
“We're going to be a little bit more in tune with that, because of altitude,” Black said.
Blackmon transitioned to a designated hitter role last season and appeared in 135 games. He’ll have less ability to debate his way into the lineup, which may be good in the long run.
“I told Buddy it’s going to be his decision. ... That’s one thing that shouldn’t be the player’s responsibility,” Blackmon said.
After spending his career in part-time and platoon roles with the Angels, Rays, Twins and Tigers, Cron has set his career high in games played each season with the Rockies -- 142 in 2021 and 150 last year.
“I was pretty adamant about being out there,” Cron said. “But Denver is a little bit different than most places. I learned that the hard way.”
To make it work, expected depth players who debuted in the Majors last season, such as Sean Bouchard, Elehuris Montero, Michael Toglia and Nolan Jones (with the Guardians) must produce during their Coors Field starts. Outfield prospects Zac Veen (MLB Pipeline No. 27) and Brenton Doyle (Rockies No. 23) could earn Major League starts if they develop as anticipated.
Science will apply to playing time patterns.
Rockies director of physical performance Gabe Bauer said his staff tracks every time a player runs, even if going out to his position for an inning, and analyzes their Statcast sprint speed for signs of fatigue. Even before Spring Training, the Rockies emphasize not only training but hydration.
Bauer identified “more restful sleep” as an emphasis, since it often takes two or three hours after a game for a player to wind down, and that’s in a place where it’s already difficult to sleep. This year, Bauer said two approved sleep aids -- magnesium threonate and l-theanine -- will be available to players. And in a culture that values routines and hard workouts, Bauer said his staff will protect players from themselves by turning off the weight room lights after long games.
It's for a purpose.
“We want to be playing meaningful games late in the season,” Bauer said.