DENVER -- Rockies player development director Zach Wilson was greeted by the forceful winds at the organization's new California League affiliate in Lancaster. But as he considered what the conditions could do to -- and for -- the pitchers, he stopped to consider that the winds can blow both ways
DENVER -- Rockies player development director Zach Wilson was greeted by the forceful winds at the organization's new California League affiliate in Lancaster. But as he considered what the conditions could do to -- and for -- the pitchers, he stopped to consider that the winds can blow both ways for young hitters, too.
"The wind blows there and all of a sudden, you can change who you are offensively, because, 'Oh, what a great park to hit in,'" Wilson said. "We talked a lot about that -- making sure who we wanted to be offensively, who we wanted to be as hitters in Lancaster -- that we weren't swayed by where we were playing."
It's a variation on the message sent to pitchers. In recent years, the Rockies moved away from seeking sinkerball pitchers, and simply preached that each pitcher challenge hitters with his strength.
The pitching program proved prudent this past season, during which four rookies and two second-year men combined to start 128 games, or 79 percent of the schedule, for a team that qualified for a National League Wild Card. Just one of those, righty German Marquez, originated in another organization (Rays), but even he spent a season at Albuquerque with the Rockies.
The Rockies may not have Coors Field conquered as pitchers, but there is hope. Now, for the offensive players.
Twenty-five seasons of baseball at mile-high altitude, 23 at Coors after two at Mile High Stadium, have shown that the challenge of evening out offensive performance at home and on the road is real. But out of challenges, come ideas.
It just so happens that every Minor League affiliate plays in a hitter-friendly environment.
For example, early this season Baseball America magazine used runs, home runs and batting average on balls in play (BABIP) to compare home parks in each league based on offensive friendliness. Asheville (Class A South Atlantic League), Lancaster (Class A Advanced California League) and Albuquerque (Pacific Coast League) graded out as what the magazine called "hitter's havens."
And Boise (Short-Season A Northwest League) and Grand Junction (rookie level Pioneer League) each graded above-average in offensive friendliness. Most of the parks have unique featues.
"If you look at any of our Minor League parks, we've got our hands full," Wilson said. "We've got Grand Junction, [which] sits at elevation. We've got Asheville, [which] has a 296-foot right-field wall. We've got Lancaster, [which is] known as a home run haven, with the wind that blows there. [Double-A] Hartford played smaller than I was anticipating this year. And then you've got Albuquerque.
"On both sides of the ball, you have stadium challenges. But if you dwell on where you're playing too much, whether it's a Minor League park or a big league one, then you're going to run into trouble."
But the pitch selection that can produce a wall-scraping homer in Asheville could be a fly ball in Augusta, Ga. The series of less-than-solid contact events that's a three-run inning in Albuquerque, could merely be an inning with runners left in scoring position in Memphis. Just like going from Coors to San Diego's Petco Park.
There's no way to guarantee the Minor League emphasis will produce immediate Major League results, since the adjustment will be more challenging. But by addressing the issue at the lowest levels, Wilson hopes the lesson sticks.
Lancaster's season offers positive reinforcement. The Rockies' No. 1 prospect Brendan Rodgers, a middle infielder who also saw Double-A time, had a .362 batting average, .413 on-base percentage and .612 slugging percentage in 46 home games, and .307/.325/.517 on the road. No. 8 prospect Garrett Hampson, also an infielder, slashed .350/.406/.532 at home, and .300/.366/.383 away. And No. 19 prospect Sam Hilliard, an outfielder, went .307/.370/.510 at home, and .284/.331/.426 away. But the upshot of it all is the JetHawks advanced to the California League championship series.
"We were going to stick with who we were, we were going to stick with our approach, and we weren't going to try to do things that we can't do as hitters," Wilson said. "And the guys were very successful at that."
Thomas Harding has covered the Rockies since 2000, and for MLB.com since 2002. Follow him on Twitter @harding_at_mlb and** like his Facebook page**.