Attitude vs. altitude
Young pitching prospects learn early that keeping ball down in zone is vital
It’s baseball’s dirty little eight-letter word.
It’s the most hated word in the game — well, it’s hated by the guys on the mound.
It scares every pitcher like a swarm of bees, but its sting is much worse.
It has long been the steepest challenge to every pitcher in the Colorado Rockies’ organization. In Grand Junction, many young pitchers get their first taste of pitching at altitude, and it’s a bitter experience for most.
How a pitcher responds and comes back from bad outings is what separates pitchers — regardless of elevation.
Players who lack mental toughness are usually discarded like a batch of junk mail.
Mental toughness is required at all elevations, but altitude offers another challenge to young pitchers.
“When you talk about pitching at Coors Field, the No. 1 attribute you have to have is you have to be tough,” said Ryan Kibler, the Grand Junction Rockies’ pitching coach. “You have to be mentally tough, and you have to handle failure, because you’re going to get hit.”
The big club has the humidor, so that helps, but the mound at Suplizio Field is an island to pitchers. They have to handle getting hit and giving up home runs.
“When it comes to pitching in the Rockies’ organization, everything revolves around preparing young pitchers to have success and handle failure while pitching at elevation,” Kibler said.
He should know. Kibler was the Rockies’ second-round draft choice in 1999 and was a budding prospect when a shoulder injury shifted his career from the mound to coaching.
‘Keep the ball down’
Grand Junction might be a little more than 600 feet in elevation lower than Denver, but having a minor league team play at Suplizio Field is key to developing young arms and mental toughness.
“The ball flies out of here,” Kibler said. “You’re going to get beat. I’ve seen the best get beat here, and you have to be able to handle that.”
Hunter Brothers just smiled when asked if he’d ever pitched at altitude before arriving in Grand Junction.
“I did most of my pitching in Tennessee and Florida, so it’s a big change,” he said.
In his Grand Junction Rockies debut, Brothers pitched one inning and gave up two runs on one hit and two walks.
Being a new guy to the mountains, the Tennessee native turned to a brother in baseball’s arms race for some advice — his brother Rex Brothers, a reliever with the Colorado Rockies.
“Rex definitely gave me some good tips,” Hunter said. “He said try to get the ball moisturized and keep the ball down.”
Keep the ball down, that’s altitude’s kryptonite. Those four words are drilled into the pitcher’s mind constantly, but it’s sometimes easier said than done.
Pitching at altitude takes attitude. The Rockies’ best two prospects, Jon Gray and Eddie Butler, pitched in Grand Junction, giving them their introduction to pitching at altitude.
Kibler said coaching at Suplizio Field makes his job easier.
“There’s no hiding here, you don’t get away with any mistakes here,” he said. “That helps me get my point across that they have to keep the ball down. We have to keep the ball down in the strike zone, and we have to get ground balls.”
Virtually every mistake, every pitch that catches too much of the plate or is a smidgen too high, will be launched into the parking lot, left-field bleachers or Lincoln Park Golf Course.
Rex Brothers offered his little brother a gigantically understated bit of information.
“He said the ball really flies in Colorado,” Hunter said.
Playing in the Pioneer League, no pitcher gets a reprieve from the altitude. With teams in Montana, Utah and Idaho, every game is played at altitude, so there’s no hiding at most of the ball parks for pitchers.
It’s a hitters’ league, but pitching is the coveted commodity of every Major League Baseball team.
The Rockies target pitchers they believe can keep the ball down.
Grand Junction Rockies catcher Hamlet Marte said the catcher has a challenging job, playing at altitude and handling pitchers.
“I have to remind them to keep the ball down. If they throw high, they will pay the price,” he said.
He knows any crack in a pitcher’s mental psyche can leave a prospect shattered and lost.
“Some guys, when they give up a homer, they have their head down, so we are cheerleaders, too,” he said. “I tell them to keep with your plan. A lot of young pitchers change their plan and get crazy, and we have to keep the game easy for them.”
Stick with the basics
Altitude is that tormenting intangible that floats around every pitcher. It’s intimidating, but Hunter Brothers knows success still comes down to execution and being mentally tough.
“Baseball is a mental game, and it’s a tough game, so for the most part you have to have that mental mindset of attacking hitters,” he said.
“You still have to throw the ball in the zone, and if they hit it, they hit it, and if they don’t, they don’t. You just have to stick with what got you here.”
Coaches hammer the point over and over, and the pitcher tries to accomplish that one task on every pitch: Keep the ball down.
Too many mistakes, and coaches have decisions to make.
Hunter Brothers was taken in the 30th round of this year’s draft, so he’s facing a daunting challenge to make it to The Show.
But he’s wearing a Rockies jersey and hopes the journey to the major leagues starts in Grand Junction.
“I was just glad to get picked, and God has blessed me with the opportunity, and I want to make the most of it,” he said.
Whether it’s in the thin air of the Rocky Mountains or at sea level, pitching success still comes down to a few elements.
Two of the most important are hitting spots and keeping the ball down.
Then there’s that ability to handle failure.
And in Colorado, there’s the altitude.
Keep the ball down in Grand Junction, and these young pitchers just might start moving up.