Brewers finding altitude challenging for pitchers

Young hurlers struggling in thin air at Colorado Springs

June 28th, 2016

MILWAUKEE -- Top Brewers pitching prospect Jorge Lopez has looked nothing like the pitcher who dominated Double-A, and now fellow prospect Josh Hader is learning the same hard lessons. Taylor Jungmann struggled so badly upon his arrival that the Brewers had to shut him down. Milwaukee's Opening Day starter, Wily Peralta, has fared no better. 

Is it time for the Brewers to stop sending prominent pitchers to Triple-A Colorado Springs?

One alumnus who managed to thrive in the thin air says no.

"The big thing about Colorado Springs is a lot of people get scared of it, and they want to use that as an excuse," said Brewers reliever Jacob Barnes, who bucked the trend by posting a 1.21 ERA in 17 appearances for the Sky Sox before his promotion to Milwaukee. "Obviously, it's not an ideal place, but you can't just not send guys there. I think it makes you mentally stronger if you have to pitch there."

You won't find a hitter complaining about the conditions at Security Service Field, but for pitchers it represents baseball purgatory. At 6,531 feet above sea level, it's the highest professional ballpark in the U.S. -- a quarter mile higher elevation than Denver's Coors Field. Barnes and Hader both expressed surprise about how the elevation impacted their conditioning. Those factors, combined with the dry air and strong winds, make for breaking balls that don't break and fly balls that carry over the fence.

Even more frequent and maddening, Barnes said, are the flares that seem to carry just over an infielder's outstretched glove.

"You'll watch a big inning there and when it's over, look around and say, 'What just happened?'" said Brewers farm director Tom Flanagan, who visited Colorado Springs on the team's last homestand.

That was the case, Flanagan said, in Peralta's most recent home start against Memphis. Peralta, demoted to the Minors after scuffling in the Majors for two months, was charged with eight runs (seven earned) on eight hits in three innings but was burned by three broken-bat hits that found their way to the outfield.

At any other venue, those hits could have been critical outs.

"I think you always consider [keeping certain pitchers from Colorado Springs], but it's more about the interpretation of the results than the results themselves," Flanagan said. "You're very rarely going to have a pretty stat line there."

The Brewers were forced into their affiliation with Colorado Springs prior to the 2015 season when Milwaukee was the only organization without a Triple-A team and the Sky Sox were the only Triple-A affiliate available. The sides' two-year player development contract expires after this season.

The Brewers have a much better situation at Double-A Biloxi, which plays in a new, state-of-the-art ballpark at sea level. Just this week, the Brewers extended their PDC with Biloxi through 2020.

The trouble for Triple-A pitchers like Peralta is that they have taken their troubles on the road. After surrendering four earned runs on five hits and two walks in four innings at Round Rock, Texas, on Monday, Peralta's ERA is 10.97 in three Triple-A starts.

Jungmann, the former first-round Draft pick demoted in late April after five big league outings, had a 9.87 ERA in eight Colorado Springs starts -- three at home and five on the road -- before the Brewers sent him to Phoenix to regroup. Lopez, 12-5 with a 2.26 ERA at Double-A last season on the way to winning Milwaukee's Minor League pitcher of the year award, is 1-5 with a 6.05 ERA this season at Triple-A. Hader surrendered as many earned runs in his most recent Colorado Springs start -- six -- as he did in his 11 Double-A starts before a promotion.

Hader was 0-2 with a 6.00 ERA in his first three Triple-A outings before a solid start in Round Rock on Monday night. He struck out eight in five scoreless innings.

"More than anything, you have to manage a guy's mindset," Flanagan said. "It can be a positive. They're never going to have to face anything like that again -- except maybe at Coors Field."

Barnes offered a similarly optimistic mindset.

"It makes you appreciate pitching everywhere else, that's for sure," he said.

The future of baseball in Colorado Springs is uncertain. The Sky Sox announced in April plans to move to San Antonio in time for the 2019 season if a new stadium is built, at which time they would likely affiliate with the Rangers.