Are the Rockies Cheating?

September 25, 2010
 
Major League Baseball is now supervising the movement of baseballs from the Coors Field humidor to the field of play. This news comes after Tim Lincecum complained about baseballs feeling different: “I thought in the back of my mind, this ball doesn't feel like it's a buffed-up ball. It doesn't feel like the ball I got a couple of balls ago.”
 
Have the Rockies been cheating this year? Have their pitchers been using baseballs from the humidor, while opposing pitchers are given lighter, ‘buffed-up’ balls?
 
The Rockies started using the humidor in 2002, so we have plenty of games to measure the 2010 season against. Is there any evidence of trickery?
 
First, we’ll look at the Rockies opponents: the visitors. Here are the OPS totals that opponents had against Rockies pitchers, at Coors and away. Pre-humidor:
 
Year
Coors OPS
Road OPS
Difference
1999
.972
.783
189
2000
.883
.761
122
2001
.879
.776
103
 
Before they started using the humidor, opponents posted an OPS about 100-180 points higher in Coors than on the road. How about post-humidor?
 
Year
Coors OPS
Road OPS
Difference
2002
.849
.780
69
2003
.837
.820
17
2004
.888
.793
95
2005
.822
.815
7
2006
.803
.765
38
2007
.767
.739
28
2008
.776
.774
2
2009
.752
.713
39
 
The use of the humidor brought the home/road difference down considerably: Coors has continued to favor hitters, but not as dramatically as it did in the pre-humidor days. And this year?
 
Year
Coors OPS
Road OPS
Difference
2010
.729
.716
13
 
No dramatic change: Colorado pitchers, at least, look to still be using the humidor-altered baseballs.
 
The claim made by Lincecum and the Giants is that opposing pitchers are being given non-humidor-altered baseballs. So what have the splits been like for opposing pitchers? How do Rockies hitters look on the road, versus at home?
 
Here are the pre-humidor splits for the Rockies hitters:
 
Year
Coors OPS
Road OPS
Difference
1999
.932
.700
232
2000
.938
.688
250
2001
.941
.732
209
 
Prior to the humidor, Rockies hitters posted an OPS that was 200 points higher in Coors than they did on the road.
 
A quick note before we continue…you might ask yourself why the difference in batting OPS is so much higher than the difference in OPS allowed by Rockies pitchers:
 
Rockies OPS
Oppnt. OPS
Difference
Difference
1999
232
189
2000
250
122
2001
209
103
 
Here’s my guess: there are two effects of altitude to be considered. The first is the distance a baseball travels. Both Rockies hitters and opponent hitters draw benefit from this: the baseball flies faster no matter who hits it.
 
 The second effect is altitude fatigue. A Rockies hitter benefits more than their opponents because a) they are more acclimated to the altitude of Denver, and b) they are facing a pitcher not acclimated to that altitude.
 
So while all hitters enjoy Coors (Field), Rockies hitters enjoy Coors more.
 
Getting back to the topic, here are the Rockies hitters home/road OPS splits post-humidor:
 
Year
Home OPS
Road OPS
Difference
2002
.871
.646
225
2003
.875
.704
171
2004
.881
.718
163
2005
.826
.658
168
2006
.825
.724
101
2007
.853
.730
123
2008
.804
.699
105
2009
.850
.718
132
 
In 2002 the Rockies hitters still enjoyed a dramatic difference in home/road OPS splits. Since then, the OPS difference has dropped significantly: in the last four years the benefit has been between 101 and 132 points. That’s a big difference, but it’s about half the difference that existed in the pre-humidor days.
 
What about 2010?
 
Year
Home OPS
Road OPS
Difference
2010
.872
.663
209
 
Hmm.
 
The home/road difference in OPS for Rockies hitters this year is really high…it’s the highest they’ve had since 2002, and it is exactly the same as it was in 2001, their last pre-humidor season.
 
The Difference Between Differences
 
Rockies hitters have always hit better at Coors than they have on the road. That’s the thin air.
 
Rockies hitters have always hit better at Coors than their opponents have hit. That’s the fatigue stuff. That’s the reason the Denver Broncos are so good at home.
 
One way to isolate the thin-air effect from the fatigue effect is to find the difference between the differences…
 
In 1999, opposing hitters posted an OPS that was 189 points higher at Coors than they did on the road. Rockies hitters posted an OPS that was 232 points higher at Coors…so there was a 43-point difference between opponent OPS and Rockies OPS in 1999.  
 
Here are the differences in difference, both pre-humidor (1999-2001) and post-humidor (2002-2009):
 
Rockies Home/Road
Opponent Home/Road
Difference of
Year
OPS Difference
OPS Difference
Difference
1999
232
189
43
2000
250
122
128
2001
209
103
106
2002
225
69
156
2003
171
17
154
2004
163
95
68
2005
168
7
161
2006
101
38
63
2007
123
28
95
2008
105
2
103
2009
132
39
93
 
The difference of difference ranges between 43 and 161 points in OPS….that’s how big an edge the Rockies have had over visitors to Coors. Over the last eleven seasons listed above, the Rockies have averaged a 101-point advantage in OPS over their opponents at home.
 
In the post-humidor era, that difference has been a bit higher: the Rockies have enjoyed a 112-point edge in OPS at Coors since 2001.  
 
That’s interesting: the Rockies seemed to gain an advantage by using the humidor….their ability to pound the ball at Coors declined some, but their opponents’ offense declined more. The humidor has lowered offense, but there is some evidence that the humidor has increased the advantage that the Rockies have had over opponents. I didn’t know that, and maybe you didn’t either.
 
So what about 2010?
 
Rockies Home/Road
Opponent Home/Road
Difference of
Year
OPS Difference
OPS Difference
Difference
2010
209
13
196
 
The Rockies have enjoyed their highest edge in OPS at Coors in the humidor era. Their edge in OPS over their opponents at Coors is a staggering 196 points.
 
So have they been cheating?
 
Well…I don’t know. There is some evidence in the numbers, and I suspect that people with better math skills will come up with better conclusions.
 
What I know is this: Coors Field has been very friendly to Rockies hitters this year, and it’s been abnormally neutral to visitors. It’s surprising that Coors is so friendly to the Rockies hitters, and it is very very surprising that visitors have found Coors so tough to hit in.
 
There is something there.
 
My Two Cents
 
I’m a little over-competitive.
 
I play softball and hit right-handed. In co-ed leagues I use an inside-out swing to punch the ball into right field, because that is always where the worst defender is. If I pop it up, it’s much more likely to drop for a hit. If I hit it on a line I get third base.
 
If I play Monopoly I buy the red ones, because they are the most frequently landed on properties. I also hide my $500 bills under the board so my opponents don’t know I have ‘em. If I’m playing rummy I go for runs of low cards early and high cards late, because it’s the opposite of how people think.
 
If I owned a major league baseball team, I’d do everything in my power to make sure I’d have an edge. If I owned the Rays, I would’ve built a 600-foot outfield years ago…I would’ve done everything in my power to make sure that Alex Rodriguez and David Ortiz are as useless as I could possibly make them.
 
Why did the Rockies start using a humidor? I think most of us assume that they used the humidor to a) lower absurdly high run levels, and b) figure out a way to make pitchers effective in Colorado. I think more of us assumed they were being equitable; that they were doing it to improve the integrity of the game.
 
Maybe they weren’t. Maybe someone smart in the Rockies office realized that deadened baseballs would increase the edge that Colorado athletes have over their opponents. Maybe the Rockies management started using the humidor to give their team an edge.
 
It wouldn’t shock me at all….it’s not cheating, because both teams would be playing with the same baseballs. It’s working an edge. It’s like the Red Sox building a team that can utilize the weird dimensions of Fenway.
 
Frankly, that should be the only reason the Rockies use the humidor: because they know it gives their team an edge. Somehow.
 
And maybe, just maybe, someone within the organization decided to push things a little further. It wouldn’t be too hard to do…visiting batboys get one bag of balls, while the home team batboys get another bag. Both come from the humidor, but the Rockies get the balls that are heavily saturated, while the Giants and the Dodgers get the less saturated balls. It’s not a perfect system: sometimes the Rockies are going to throw the dry balls, and sometimes the Dodgers are getting the humidor ones…but it gives the Rockies some advantage…just some.
 
If it’s true, it’s cheating. If anyone finds out that the Rockies were switching baseballs, well, they shouldn’t be eligible for the postseason, and their players shouldn’t be eligible for awards.
 
And major league baseball should be the ones who handle the baseballs. It’s baffling that until now they haven’t been. The humidor creates the possibility to cheat: major league baseball shouldn’t wait until someone does cheat to put in place structures that prevent cheating (see: steroids).

And if it is true, and you’re a Rockies fan: you should take comfort that your team is looking at all the angles. Even the ones that skirt fair play.
 
Dave Fleming is a writer living in Wellington, New Zealand. He welcomes comments, questions, and humidor-soaked baseballs here and at dfleming1986@yahoo.com.
 
 

COMMENTS (20 Comments, most recent shown first)

jollydodger
A-giving the road team balls that are different in any way is unethical
B-I'm certain they're doing it, and I'm certain EVERY team would do it in the same situation
C-while it is unethical, I cannot blame them
D-this isn't something that everyone in the organization would need to know about, and thus, could easily be kept quiet
E-I dont think poorly of the Rox for probably doing this, as I said, everyone else would too
F-Go Dodgers!
12:32 AM Oct 26th
 
MarisFan61
Ah, the memories!!! :haha:

(Nice post!)
10:12 PM Oct 12th
 
evanecurb
We could hit .300 at Coors if we played for the Rockies. Not when we were playing. Today. at age 65. We could do that. For real.

Signed,

Steve Whitaker
Horace Clarke
Roger Repoz
Reuben Amaro, Sr.
Jake Gibbs
Bobby Cox
Charlie Smith

10:55 AM Oct 11th
 
MarisFan61
P.S. Sorry, my Horace Clarke example was bad because I see that his stats weren't better than Whitaker's. But you get the idea. :-)

What would it take?

3:27 PM Oct 4th
 
MarisFan61
OK.....looking FORWARD, how about a challenge.

Not to the Rockies, but to the doubters here. :-)

What would it take about the Rockies' performance next year (or ever) for you to be convinced?

Looking at "the difference of the differences" (Dave's great phrase), we saw how extremely the Rockies hitters became transformed this year at home compared to on-the-road (while their opponents' hitting increased just a tiny amount).
As I put it, basically Steve Whitaker becoming Henry Aaron.

If next year (presumably under a more airtight system of handling the balls) they go only from Steve Whitaker to Horace Clarke, will that be enough?

What would it take?

Here's what it would take to bring me into your "doubter" camp: Next year's data being anywhere close to this year's.
3:24 PM Oct 4th
 
Richie
Good to read you again, tho. Thanks, Dave.
1:10 PM Oct 2nd
 
Richie
If I were going to set up a conspiracy, I sure wouldn't let bat boys in on it.
1:09 PM Oct 2nd
 
MarisFan61
P.S. Abbreviated repeat of those data:

WHAT COLORADO'S OPPONENTS HIT AGAINST THEM ON THE ROAD AND AT HOME (2010):

Road: .252 BA, .330 on-base, .385 SLG (60 HR's)
Home: .263 BA, .323. on-base, .406 SLG (68 HR's)

WHAT COLORADO'S HITTERS DO ON THE ROAD AND AT HOME (2010):

Road: .230 BA, .306, .357 SLG (64 HR's)
Home: .301 BA, .371 on-base, .501 SLG (102 HR's)

2:01 PM Sep 29th
 
MarisFan61
re Ben Jedlovec: But that wouldn't explain the Rockies HUGE difference between their "road" and "home" hitting this year.

I posted the data (as of a few days ago). As I said, it was like being Steve Whitaker becoming Henry Aaron (just about).

Forget everything else; just look at that.
Is it plausible in the least?

Sometimes our gut can do most of the work. :-)
1:59 PM Sep 29th
 
jedlovec3
Dave, et al-
The Rockies are an extremely hard-throwing, groundball pitching staff. This helps in two ways:
1) normal breaking balls don't break as well in Coors Field due to the thinner are and less resistance. While opposing pitchers might have to rely on breaking balls to get hitters out (which will break less and therefore be less effective in Denver), the Rockies can bust out the hard fastball (which won't be as affected).
2) Groundballs in Coors are basically the same as groundballs anywhere else. Fly balls and line drives, however, aren't. They more often go for home runs, and when they stay in the park, the expansive outfield gives them more room to fall in as hits. If you're getting a lot of groundballs, Coors has less of an effect. If you're an average pitching staff or an extreme flyball team like the Giants, Coors will effect you more.

Both of these explain the phenomenon, at least in the recent past.
9:51 AM Sep 29th
 
stevebogus
Rule 3.01 covers the pre-game duties of the umpire(s). I have found two somewhat different versions of the rule at MLB.com

3.01 Before the game begins the umpire shall-

(c) Receive from the home club a supply of regulation baseballs, the number and make to be certified to the home club by the league president. The umpire shall inspect the baseballs and ensure they are regulation baseballs and that they are properly rubbed so that the gloss is removed. The umpire shall be the sole judge of the fitness of the balls to be used in the game.

or this version (which was changed to the above in 2007)

(c) Receive from the home club a supply of regulation baseballs, the number and make to be certified to the home club by the Office of the Commissioner. Each ball shall be enclosed in a sealed package bearing the signature of the Commissioner of Baseball, and the seal shall not be broken until just prior to game time when the umpire shall open each package to inspect the ball and remove its gloss. The umpire shall be the sole judge of the fitness of the balls to be used in the game.


Could the home team pull a switcheroo during the game? I don't know if there are any security measures to prevent a substitution while the umpire is busy working the game. What happens to the baseballs after the umpires inspection?

My issue with the conspiracy theory angle is 70 or 80 games is NOT a big enough sample to prove anything funny is going on. Rockies slugging around .500 in Colorado? that isn't much different from 2009 (.483) or 2007 (.480). Rockies slugging just .350-ish in away games? Look at 2005 (.359). In 2010 the difference is a bit larger, but does that really mean anything, or is it just chance? Carlos Gonzalez is having a breakout season, but is doing so with an enormous home/away split. He's hitting well on the road (.293/.327/.459) but is a monster in Colorado (.386/.432/.755). We've seen that before in Colorado, haven't we? He is responsible for a good chunk of the difference. The Rockies also have some players who aren't hitting at all in road games this season. Miguel Olivo (.211/.276/.322), Seth Smith (.211/.282/.357), and Dexter Fowler (.193/.285/.259) have been horrible on the road while doing well in Colorado. Those road stats do not represent their true abilities. And that is the entire problem with "normalization" of stats based on a half-season of data. It takes a while for the sample size to get large enough to be reliable.


8:33 PM Sep 28th
 
MarisFan61
P.S. A couple of things:
I'm afraid I made my obligatory "typo": At the end there, it's supposed to be, "....couldn't POSSIBLY be that clear....."

And also:
Dave, I posted some of your proposed explanation on that Yankee site (with attribution). I assume you won't mind.
3:34 AM Sep 28th
 
MarisFan61
P.S. A couple of things:
I'm afraid I made my obligatory "typo": At the end there, it's supposed to be, "....couldn't POSSIBLY be that clear....."

And also:
Dave, I posted some of your proposed explanation on that Yankee site (with attribution). I assume you won't mind.
3:19 AM Sep 28th
 
MarisFan61
Dave,
I did much the same thing you did, a day earlier, albeit much simpler and more limited. And, from this admittedly-duller perspective :-) I think the results if anything are CLEARER, maybe *because* they're simpler.

I posted the results on the Yankee section of the MLB.com discussion forum, in posts # 3 & 4 on this thread:
http://www.forums.mlb.com/n/pfx/forum.aspx?tsn=3&nav=messages&webtag=ml-yankees&tid=456549
(data are in #4)

I looked just at this year (since *the present* is what is most at-issue right now), and just as you did, I examined "the difference of the differences" (Rockies vs. opponents, home vs. road). I didn't run OPS; I just 'eye-balled' batting average, on-base, and slugging (with a glance at HR's too).

Here are the basic data (as of a couple of days ago):

WHAT COLORADO'S OPPONENTS HIT AGAINST THEM ON THE ROAD AND AT HOME (2010):

Road: .252 BA, .330 on-base, .385 SLG (60 HR's)
Home: .263 BA, .323. on-base, .406 SLG (68 HR's)

(Looks pretty normal to me -- just about what we'd expect going to Colorado, moderated by the humidor)

WHAT COLORADO'S HITTERS DO ON THE ROAD AND AT HOME (2010):

Road: .230 BA, .306, .357 SLG (64 HR's)

Let's stop right there for a second and digest it, so we're not distracted by what will follow:
That's an AWFUL hitting team.

Keep that in mind for a second.

Home: .301 BA, .371 on-base, .501 SLG (102 HR's)

Even taking the altitude-fatigue factor into account for the opposing teams (which I considered also), IS THIS PLAUSIBLE? It's sort of Steve Whitaker becoming Henry Aaron (not quite on the power but close).

Is it plausible that 9 Steve Whitakers become 9 Henry Aarons, even with the altitude advantage?

I think the answer is a clear enough "no" that we can conclude with darn good confidence that something wrong has been going on, even just from this simple look at this year's figures.

And I think your proposed explanation is a great one.
I would BET that it's darn close to what was going on.

When I went to look at the 2010 data, I expected to find NOTHING, because I figured it couldn't possible be that clear or else something funny would have been ASSUMED long ago. I was shocked to find what's actually there.
3:10 AM Sep 28th
 
DaveFleming
Well...who brings the baseballs out to the homeplate umpire? I always thought it was the batboy. And he usually brings the balls out bwtween innings, right? So he brings out the humidor balls when it's a Rockies pitcher on the hill, and the non-humidor balls out when the visitors are pitching.

Even if there is one giant bag of game-baseballs, you could pull it off. Just load the humidor-saturated baseballs in first, and put dry balls over them. Then tell the batboy to take baseballs from the bottom of the bag when the visitors are due to bat.

It's not a perfect system, but it would give the Rockies an advantage.
10:34 PM Sep 27th
 
stevebogus
Doesn't the home plate umpire have control over the balls in play? I mean it's not like the Rockies or their opponents grab a baseball from the dugout and go to the mound with it. Whichever baseballs are provided to the umpire get mixed together and from that point it is out of the control of the team.

But if the Rockies are experimenting with different humidor settings and the players know (or suspect) this, then they can use that knowledge to their advantage. It is like knowing that a bunt down the line will curve fair or foul because that is the way the grounds crew swept the dirt. If you know the baseballs in Colorado are going to fly farther then you adapt your approach to hitting and pitching. The baseballs may be the same for both teams, but one team knows something the other doesn't.
7:34 PM Sep 27th
 
chuck
I just was looking at this question this week. I used home runs per batted ball. From 1995 through 2001, the average hr/batted ball rate in Coors was 5.23%. From 2002-2004 it was 4.77%. From 2005 to 2009: 3.72%.
So in the first humidor years homers dropped by 9%. In the 2005-09 period they dropped 22% from the prior humidor years, and this represented a 29% drop from the pre-humidor times. The bigger change was in 2005.

I think the Rockies instituted the humidor to address the problem of attracting good pitchers to play for them. In 2005 they tried something different- perhaps leaving balls in the humidor longer. This baseball prospectus article alludes to this. See paragraph six:
http://www.baseballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=5386
They also apparently started letting the grass grow higher, affecting ops, though not homers.

Here’s a theory: seeing the dramatic results, what they may have started doing recently was to have two bags of baseballs- one humidored longer than the other. This way they could deny having one non-humidored bag for opponents. If Bill Veeck was around now, he’d applaud the idea.

Here’s a variation on what you did, Dave. Let’s take the the Rockies’ vs opponents at home index and compare it to the Rockies vs opponents on the road.
So for 2002, at home the Rockies’ hr rate per batted ball was 4.13%; their opponents were at 5.56%.
4.13/5.56 gives an index of 74. Doing the same for away games, that index is 65.
Here are those indexes since 2002:

year coors away
2002 74 / 65
2003 105 / 112
2004 110 / 109
2005 107 / 73
2006 85 / 136
2007 133 / 82
2008 123 / 104
2009 138 / 144
2010 152 / 104

The Coors advantage this year, 152, is the largest in the history of the park, and we’ll have to see if this repeats itself next season.
So this year does show a very large difference between how the Rockies outhomer their opponents at home in contrast to away games. And there was a similarly large difference in 2007. But one also sees the opposite- their opponents having a much bigger advantage in Coors in 2006. But I think 2006 was more about the Rockies’ pitchers doing a great job on the road that year, limiting opponents to a 2.74% rate.

Let’s look at it a different way.
Opponents’ home run rate, average since 2005:
3.30% in their home parks
3.42% in Coors

Rockies’ home run rate, average since 2005:
3.44% in opponents’ parks
4.16% in Coors.
This disparity starts showing up in 2007. In 2005-06, their average in Coors was 3.47%. From 2007, the Rockies home run rate has topped 4% at home each season and is close to 5% this year. Their home average from 2007-2010 is 4.51%.

Since 2007, the Rockies outhomered opponents on the road 3.48% to 3.23%, an index of 108. In Coors they've outhomered opponents 4.51% to 3.31%, an index of 136.

Supporting the idea of humidoring balls for different amounts of time: the Rockies’ homer rate in Coors so far this season is 4.94% per batted ball. This is a similar rate to that seen in 2003 (4.95%) and 2004 (4.85%) in the early humidor period. It’s the highest rate seen since 2003. Their opponents’ rate in Coors this season is 3.26%, which is consistent with the lower rates seen since 2005.
It’s hard to keep people silent in a conspiracy. If there are more than a couple people involved in a plot like this, it’ll come out eventually.


2:31 PM Sep 27th
 
evanecurb
Dave:

Welcome back. We've missed you. Good column. Here's what I think:

The biggest altitude related factor with respect to team composition is not fatigue, but the behavior of breaking pitches (they don't break as much or as sharply as they do at sea level). A pitching staff built for Coors is going to be less successful, relative to opponents' pitchers, than a "normal" staff. The pitchers' reliance on fastballs will not be an advantage at sea level, but it is at Coors. Have I proof? Err... no.

sKates: Great to hear from you, too. Would love to see another column.
9:41 AM Sep 27th
 
SeanKates
It's especially hard to win as a one-sided park factor team in that division. Arizona is also extremely hitter-friendly, but the three remaining stadia are very pitcher slanted. 60% of the in-division games should favor teams that take advantage of a pitcher friendly park...leaving the Rockies and the Diamondbacks in a conundrum for roster management. That was one of the stated reasons for moving to the humidor, as well as the ability to draw FA pitchers. Of course, the Rockies have done almost NONE of the latter in the humidor period, so who knows how true or fair the first reason was either.
8:15 AM Sep 27th
 
TJNawrocki
If you dig a little further into the numbers, you see that the difference in the Rockies' home/road splits this year is more a result of their road numbers declining than their home numbers increasing, despite the fact that their regulars are almost the same as last year. Their road OPS hasn't been this low since 2005, when they were a last-place team.
12:30 PM Sep 26th
 
 
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