The Colorado Springs Sky Sox may be a Triple-A organization, but no team competes at a higher level.
Security Service Field, the Sky Sox's home since 2004, boasts an elevation of 6,531 feet. This is the highest vantage point in pro baseball, more than 1,000 feet above the lofty Coors Field environs of their parent club, the Colorado Rockies. And, as most fans are aware, the dry, thin air found in high elevations creates an environment conducive to offensive outbursts. The ball travels farther, and, adding insult to injury for those who must make their living on the mound, breaking pitches have less movement due to the lower air pressure.
Not surprisingly, Sky Sox pitchers have suffered in these conditions. Only once in the past seven seasons has the team compiled an ERA below 5.00, and in 2011 they finished last in the Pacific Coast League with an abysmal 6.41 mark.
But the days of cheap home runs, non-breaking breaking balls, and twice-weekly 13-9 slugfests have, perhaps, come to an end. Prior to this season, the Sky Sox ripped a page out of their parent club's playbook and had a humidor installed at the stadium.
It's not the heat...
Humidors are, essentially, what their name would imply: tightly-sealed climate-controlled storage areas that provide a constant state of humidity. They are perhaps most commonly associated with cigars, but in 2002 the Rockies had one installed at Coors Field and began storing baseballs there. The humidor leveled the playing field, so to speak, keeping the balls from drying out and therefore helping to mitigate some of the effects of pitching in a high elevation environment.
The Sky Sox's humidor was installed at the initiative of the Rockies, and built to the same specifications as the one that exists at Coors Field. It holds as many as 3,600 baseballs, with the temperature set at 70 degrees and 60 percent humidity. Jeff Bridich, the Rockies director of player development, said the main point of installing the humidor was to maintain "the integrity of the baseball."
"Once we committed to an [affiliation] extension agreement with the Sky Sox, we decided that it would be as good a time as any to put one in there," Bridich said. "Denver is a difficult place to pitch, and Colorado Springs is 1,000 feet higher. The elements come even more into play, making this a necessary thing to do.
Before [the humidor], the baseballs being stored here would dry out, they were rock hard, and now we feel that the baseballs are going to be within the same specifications you'd find in Sacramento, or Iowa, or elsewhere in the Pacific Coast League."
Though the humidor might make Minor League free agent pitchers more likely to sign with the Colorado organization, Bridich said that this would merely be a side benefit.
"Really, this is about the development of the players," he said. "In the past it has been tough to evaluate not just pitchers but the hitters as well. To know that now the baseball is no different, that gives us piece of mind."
Those who work in Minor League front offices pride themselves on wearing a lot of hats, but Sky Sox public relations director Mike Hobson certainly never imagined that "humidor inventory and control" would one day be part of his daily routine.
It is now.
"When we initially get a shipment [of baseballs], we date them with the day that they were delivered and put them in the humidor. They have to be in there for three weeks so that they have an opportunity to acclimate to the conditions," said Hobson, one of just three people with a key to the humidor. "Beyond that, we have to mud the baseballs, and then put them back in the humidor for 48 hours. We have a schedule set up, and are always planning ahead, so that there are enough baseballs for six or seven games at any given time."
Twenty minutes prior to each ballgame, Hobson hands a bag of 10 dozen balls over to a member of the umpiring crew.
"We unlock the humidor, pull out the bag, hand it to the umpire and they see it to the field," he said. "There's a chain of custody, so that there are no questions on either side regarding where the balls have been. It's our way to maintain integrity."
So far, so good
The obvious question at this juncture is, "Has the humidor had an effect?" The short answer to that query would be, "Yes" -- the Sky Sox currently rank fifth in the PCL in ERA and have recorded the most strikeouts while relinquishing the fewest home runs.
But a far more realistic response would be a Magic 8 Ball-esque "Ask again later." The team has played a road-heavy schedule over the first two months of the season, further minimizing an already scant sample size. Bredich remarked that any conclusion at this point would be premature, saying that, like they did in Denver, the Rockies will analyze the results on a year-by-year basis.
Hobson echoes these sentiments but reports that anecdotal evidence has thus far been in the humidor's favor.
"I've heard from a couple of different umpiring crews that the ball sounds different off of the bat, that it's not coming off as hard," he said. "The only other practical thing I've heard is from some of the pitchers, talking about how the ball just feels better."
Veteran reliever Mike Ekstrom, who signed with the Rockies in the offseason, is among those who have expressed such an opinion.
"On days when the wind is calm, there have been guys who hit doubles that I thought would be gone for sure. Instead they one-hopped against the wall," Ekstrom said. "This is still a hitter's park, but it's a better situation now for everybody. ... It helps us to be more aggressive, I think in the past guys would nibble a little bit more because they were afraid of the three-run homer."
Ekstrom, who signed with the Rockies before the addition of the Sky Sox's humidor, was up for the challenges of pitching in Colorado Springs regardless.
"When I signed, some of my buddies said, 'What are you doing going to Colorado Springs?'" he said. "But I figured if you do well, then it will make you stand out that much more. We're always trying to dodge bullets here, but it's like that in a lot of places in the PCL. It's definitely a hitter's league."
Ekstrom has dodged the bullets admirably thus far, as he's yet to allow a run over 9 1/3 innings pitched at Security Service Field. But, pitchers being pitchers, he's still a long way from satisfied.
"I want the infield grass to be long, the fences far away, and the air to be dead. Colorado Springs is pretty much the exact opposite," he said. "But I've had a good time so far and especially like it now that they've made it a better environment for pitchers."
But with 49 games remaining on the Sky Sox's home schedule, much remains to be determined.
"It'll be interesting to see how this all goes," said Hobson. "I'm looking forward to crunching the numbers and making comparisons."