O'Dowd claims that big-name pitchers "consistently struggled" when facing batters a third time at Coors Field. Is he right? I don't think so.
First, a little background. In his radio interview last Wednesday with Goodman and Hastings, O'Dowd was predictably asked about the Rockies' “paired pitching system,” and whether Project 5183 would continue into 2013. O'Dowd, in turn, gave his predictable answer, discussing the Rockies' youth, the concerns about altitude and the need to "think outside the box." He also revisited the trope that otherwise-successful pitchers have historically struggled at Coors Field.
But, this time, he added a wrinkle to his claim. For the first time that I’ve heard, O’Dowd contended that these elite pitchers "consistently struggled" when facing batters for a third time in a game at Coors Field. He said this applies to any pitcher logging more than 50 career innings at Coors, and emphasized he's not talking only about Rockies pitchers, but opponents’ pitchers. Specifically, he named John Smoltz, Curt Schillng, Randy Johnson and Clayton Kershaw.
This is an important point, because it's fuel for the drive to adopt an unconventional pitching regime, whether it be a four-man rotation on a strict pitch count, or a five-man on an adaptable pitch count, or some other variation on a theme that, at its heart, says that pitching at Coors Field requires something unorthodox. That's a dubious claim, since the success of Rockies' pitching in 2009 was built on a standard rotation facing batters under the usual circumstances (i.e., a flexible pitch count around 100 pitches, unless the pitcher was struggling and therefore needed to depart sooner, or was excelling and could go longer).
I've previously taken exception to O'Dowd's claim that elite pitchers struggled when visiting Coors, since they fared worse at other parks (http://bit.ly/UBWl9y). But O'Dowd's claim on Wednesday was more specific, and more disconcerting, than in the past. He's isolating a particular issue (facing batters a third time) and identifying it as a factor for why the elite pitchers haven't had success at Coors. It's also an indication that, despite the removal of the strict 75-pitch count for next season, the front office is considering limiting starting pitchers' exposure to the opposition's hitters for a third time in a game. If Weiss' hook will be quicker once the visitor's 28th batter comes up, that has serious implications for middle relief. The Piggybackers are dead; long live the Piggybackers.
But departing from the orthodox is premised, at least in part, upon the purported struggles of elite pitchers the third time through the lineup at Coors. Is O'Dowd right? Baseball Reference has the career splits at Coors, as well as career splits for pitchers facing the opposition's lineup a third time in a game. That’s almost everything we need to test the claim.
The one thing BRef doesn’t have already computed (or at least I couldn't find it) is splits on how pitchers have fared specifically at Coors against the Rockies' lineup a third time in the game. But BRef does have game logs, so the information is there. And I went through it, reviewing the performances the third time through the lineup at Coors, collecting the stats, and calculating Opp OPS.
The first question is, which pitchers? That was (for me) an easy one to answer: the ones O'Dowd claims "consistently struggled," so Smoltz, Schilling, Johnson and Kershaw. I added a fifth to the roll call, Greg Maddux, because he's been cited repeatedly as having struggled at Coors (e.g., http://usat.ly/UBWrOn ; http://bit.ly/UBWyts)). Maddux’s name is mentioned often enough that, even though O'Dowd didn't cite to him in the interview, I thought it was fair to add him.
The second question is, how should we define "struggle?" To me, there are two measures of "struggling" in this context. One is straightforward: Did the pitcher perform worse his third time through the lineup at Coors Field in a particular season than his overall numbers at Coors for that season? The second is to look at how the pitcher fared overall against the third time through all lineups as compared to their overall Opp OPS, and then to determine whether the pitcher outperformed (or underperformed) against those baseline numbers at Coors Field. A third, related way to evaluate "struggling" is to see whether the pitcher's performance the third time through the Rockies' lineup was better or worse than his third time through all lineups in all parks for the season. I think that's ultimately less of a separate test and more of a cross-check.
The third question is, what information should be included? I answered this by limiting the analysis to plate appearances by hitters for the third time in the game. I've ignored the fourth (or fifth) time through, and I've ignored games where, for better or worse, the pitcher didn't face batters for a third time. That also means ignoring relief appearances. I did include, however, pinch hitters facing the pitcher for the first time in the lineup's third revolution. While that might weigh against the pitcher (the pinch hitter usually is hitting for the Rockies' pitcher), I take O'Dowd's assertion to be less about hitters seeing a pitcher for a third time, and more about the physical and mental fatigue associated with going through 28+ batters in a game.
Of course, this ultimately results in a small sample size for most of these pitchers. But “struggling” when facing batters a third time isn’t my claim. It’s O’Dowd’s. And this small sampling may be motivating big changes to how the starting pitchers are used going forward.
So, what do the stats show for how these pitchers performed the third time through the Rockies' lineup as compared to their overall numbers at Coors? Here is the link to Table 1: http://bit.ly/UkLSNj (Twitlonger doesn't support tables, so I've had to link them separately.)
Looking at how these pitchers performed league-wide against the oppositions' lineups a third time in the seasons where they faced a Rockies’ lineup the third time, did they outperform or underperform at Coors Field? Here's the link to Table 2: http://bit.ly/UkLZbD
And as a cross check of sorts, here are the Opp OPS for these pitchers at Coors Field facing the lineup a third time, compared to their Opp OPS facing the lineups of all opponents a third time for these seasons, linked as Table 3: http://bit.ly/UkM3Iy
Again, I don’t think of this third category as particularly helpful as an independent way to evaluate the pitchers’ performances at Coors Field. The issue is whether the pitchers are struggling the third time through the lineup relative to their overall performance against the same lineup, not whether they have more or less success facing batters a third time at Coors Field relative to facing batters a third time in other parks.
Now that we have the numbers, do they support O'Dowd's claim that these pitchers consistently struggled through the third time of the lineup at Coors Field?
John Smoltz Did Not Consistently Struggle. There couldn't be much worse of an example to support O'Dowd's claim than Smoltz. In the five seasons in which he faced the Rockies' lineup a third time, he did better the third time through in four of those seasons, or 80 percent. Not only are these good numbers standing on their own, but they're generally better than Smoltz usually did against the third time through the order. In these same seasons, Smoltz only did better overall against lineups a third time through in two of the five seasons (40%). Smoltz may be generally sympathetic to the Rockies' pitching woes (see http://bit.ly/UBWHwQ), but he didn't struggle in the way O'Dowd claims.
Curt Schilling Did Not Consistently Struggle. Just from eyeing the game logs, Curt Schilling didn’t always have great outings at Coors Field. His overall numbers bear that out. But Schilling didn't consistently struggle against Rockies hitters when facing them for the third time, either. In fact, he performed better in four seasons out of nine (44%). In these same seasons, Schilling pitched better the third time through in only three of nine years (33%). He therefore outperformed at Coors Field, pitching better when facing batters a third time at Coors than he did league-wide. Schilling didn't have his best days at Coors Field, but he didn't consistently struggle when facing the lineup for the third time.
Randy Johnson Did Not Consistently Struggle. Looking just at his Coors Field numbers, there's no question that Randy Johnson generally didn't pitch well against the lineup the third time through, beating his overall numbers in only three out of eight seasons (37.5%). But when compared with his league-wide numbers, Johnson was better against the Rockies' lineup than he was against other clubs’ lineups the third time. In the applicable seasons, Johnson was better against the third time through all lineups in all parks in only one out of these eight years. So, at least in the seasons in which he faced the Rockies, Johnson wasn't as good against anyone's lineup the third time through. Johnson outperformed these numbers at Coors Field, pitching better the third time through against the Rockies in 37.5% of the seasons (as compared to only 12.5% of these seasons league-wide). Ultimately, Johnson did not consistently struggle at Coors Field, particularly as compared to his league-wide numbers for these seasons.
Kershaw May Not Consistently Struggle, But He's Been Comparatively Worse The Third Time Through At Coors Field. Kershaw's numbers essentially are a mirror image of Randy Johnson's. He doesn't consistently struggle at Coors per se the third time through the Rockies lineup: he was better the third time through in two out of five seasons (40%). Not terrific, but not "consistently struggling." But when compared to his overall performance against lineups the third time through, Kershaw has significantly underperformed at Coors Field. He is typically a better pitcher the third time though the lineup, having bested his overall Opp OPS in three out five seasons (60%). He's only done that in two seasons at Coors Field. In my mind, then, Kershaw has struggled at Coors Field, since he's not been as good a pitcher the third time through the Rockies' lineup than he has been against other teams in other parks. Moreover, using the cross-check laid out above, Kershaw’s Opp OPS the third time through at Coors has been substantially worse than his raw Opp OPS the third time through the lineup (specifically, worse in four out of five seasons). Viewed in this light, I think it's fair to say that Kershaw has consistently struggled at Coors Field the third time through the lineup.
Greg Maddux Consistently Struggled. Although unmentioned by O'Dowd, it's worth reviewing Maddux's numbers since he's often cited as an elite pitcher who had difficulty succeeding at Coors Field. Again, I think that's overblown, but he's still worth reviewing. And the numbers indicate that he consistently struggled the third time through the Rockies' lineup at Coors Field. In nine seasons where he faced Rockies hitters three times, he only achieved a better OPS Against relative to his season's Coors Field Opp OPS in two seasons (22%). This is not only struggling in its own right, but it's struggling as compared to Maddux's overall numbers against lineups a third time through. Against all teams in all parks, he performed better when facing batters a third time in a game in four out of the nine relevant years (44%)—so significantly better than he performed at Coors Field. While unmentioned by O'Dowd in his interview, Maddux is a good example of a pitcher who consistently struggled the third time through the lineup at Coors Field.
So where does that leave us, in terms of elite pitchers who "consistently struggled" at Coors Field? Of the five pitchers evaluated, one consistently struggled (Maddux), one has struggled only in comparison to his overall numbers (Kershaw), one didn't consistently struggle as compared to his overall numbers (Johnson), and two didn't consistently struggle at all (Smoltz and Schilling).
The good news is that one of the two struggling pitchers is the only one on the list who's still active (and pitching for a division rival, to boot). That offers some encouragement the next time Kershaw takes the mound at Coors Field. The bad news is that there's little to support O'Dowd's claim that the elite pitchers he named consistently struggled when facing batters a third time at Coors Field. In fact, I'd say he's wrong.