Baseball Toaster Bad Altitude
Todd Helton, Tragic Hero
2005-05-02 04:16
by Mark T.R. Donohue

There's a Buster Olney article (subscription required) in the new ESPN Magazine that repeats several things you may already know about Todd Helton. Apparently some pundits have no faith in Helton's greatness due to the Coors Effect. He hates the losing but admires many of the new wave of young Rockies, believing that winning days are coming sooner rather than later. Todd loves Colorado but would waive his no-trade clause if the team really wanted him to do so:

"If the Rockies came to me and said 'You don't fit into our plans,' I'm not going to sit here and kick and scream not to get out. But I was drafted here, came up through the organization. If I went somewhere else, I don't know how it would feel. I know how it would feel to win here. It would be very rewarding for me, having gone through all we've been through, to finally get to the top of the hill."

The only thing remarkable about Olney's piece is that a major national magazine is bothering to run a feature about the Rockies at all. Appearing next to the Helton article, however, in scarlet type, is a sidebar by Steve Phillips (whose sparkling career as Mets GM certainly qualifies him) on that ever-popular old chestnut, How To Win at Altitude. I'm summarizing what Phillips says only as a service to you the reader, because as I'm sure I'll mention again, the Rockies have a .560 (or so) lifetime home winning percentage. I think I might get that stat tattooed on my arm, actually.

The first thing Phillips says is interesting appearing as it does next to a glowing article about Todd Helton, loyal Rockie: trade the guy to anyone who'll take his contract. "Cut your losses and move on," Steve writes. I'm not sure what the Rockies' "losses" on Helton are exactly, but I disagree that Todd should be traded for no talent at all. If the Cubs were able to get a few marginally useful players for Sammy Sosa, Helton should be worth more than a bag of balls.

The next three bullet points are the usual assortment of crackpot Coors theories: get pitchers with sinkers and/or weird arm angles, hitters who get on base rather than slug, prioritize defense. The problem is the usual one: What would any of these strategies do to improve the Rockies' woeful road performances? Take a team with a bunch of singles-hitting glovemen on the road, and you're going to lose a lot of ballgames (which is kind of what the current Colorado group is doing). One of Phillips' more interesting suggestions is that the Rockies move their AAA affiliate from Colorado Springs, so organization pitchers can build confidence at normality. I have always thought quite the opposite: the Rockies should endeavour to put as many of their minor-leaugue teams as possible at altitude, so pitchers, batters, and coaches alike can get used to the wild home/road splits.

Phillips' final, and most interesting, suggestion is to play the Coors Field home advantage to the hilt. Granted, this sort of contradicts the first several things that he says, but give the man credit for finally making a good point: "Don't apologize to anyone for how the park plays. Relish the fact that it's your home. Understand that opposing pitchers are intimidated there, and that your staff can outlast and outman the opponent because of its depth and balance." Perhaps Phillips remembers, as many forget, that the most successful team in franchise history won with a great bullpen.

Reading this article reminded me of several more things I want to touch on in the near future, like the structure of the Colorado farm system, the possibilities for Helton trades, and the makeup of that ephemeral 1995 playoff team. Remind me if I forget to do all of them.

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