For a generation of fans, the towering home runs of Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez are synonymous with the brand of baseball being played in Colorado. For more veteran Rockies rooters, the fondest memories involve the Blake Street Bombers—Vinny Castilla, Dante Bichette, Larry Walker and Andres Galarraga—doing damage to pitchers.
But the same atmosphere that has helped the big league club to top-10 finishes in runs scored in seven of the last eight seasons seems also to have had a hand in hindering the pro futures of hitters raised in Colorado.
To wit, just five players selected out of either high school or college in Colorado have managed more than 1,000 at-bats in the major leagues. Former Expos second baseman Mark Grudzielanek leads the way with 7,052, and is followed by Jeff King, John Stearns, Randy Ready and Josh Bard.
In decades past, hitters had precious little time to get in front of evaluators. Even now, Colorado high schools are allowed as few as 19 games a year, counting out-of-state tournaments.
The contracted schedule, of course, when coupled with potentially hazardous weather, doesn't leave much time to make an impression in front of scouts.
“The high school season is such a short season," one scout said. “Guys getting at-bats probably plays a major role into it. The regular season is what, 19 games? . . . At the end of the day, historically, kids just don't get enough at-bats."
The season is far from over when school is out. Most prospects are on travel teams, and others add the showcase circuit to their resumes. With the extra time—in different settings, against high-level competition— Colorado high schoolers are getting noticed.
Now, however, a new group—led by Yankees first baseman Greg Bird, Blue Jays infielder Andy Burns, Rockies shortstop Max George, infielder Nick Shumpert and catcher Wyatt Cross—hopes to break that mold. George was taken by Colorado out of Regis Jesuit High in last year's draft. Bird was selected by New York in the fifth round in 2011 out of Grandview High in Aurora and claimed MVP honors for this year's Arizona Fall League and Fall Stars Game.
Shumpert, a middle infielder who ranks No. 42 on BA's Top 100 high school prospects for this upcoming draft, and received votes in both the All-America and Best Tools sections of this year's preseason surveys.
“Shumpert's probably the best bat in the state," said Buck Thomas, a former scout and coach in Las Vegas and now the owner and head coach of Rake Nation baseball academy in Colorado. “Kid can really go. I think he was a little bored here, because his play was a little higher than some of the local level of play. He's got tremendous bat speed and he can really go."
Trouble With The Curve
It's no secret that the thin air in Colorado has a muting effect on breaking pitches. Just ask Mike Hampton and Denny Neagle, who saw their careers take a tumble once they reached the Rockies.
For that reason, Cherry Creek High head coach Marc Johnson posits, high school hitters from the state have had a more difficult adjustment to the quality of breaking stuff shown in pro ball than their peers from states with altitudes closer to sea level.
Because they had to alter their breaking pitches, Johnson believes, they had to focus more on developing their changeups and two-seam fastballs, which gave them a leg up when they were drafted.
“They don't throw as many offspeed pitches and sliders, other than a changeup," he explained, “as many of the people in California, Florida and the south."
Without quality breaking pitches in competition, hitters were exposed at the next level said Johnson, who has coached in the area for 43 years and currently serves as a part-time scout for a major league team.
“Due to the area, we see lots and lots of fastballs, and perhaps they get exposed a little bit more when they get into (pro ball)."
Warning Track Power
Of course, there are more obvious problems the thinner air creates for hitters. Namely, it inflates your sense of power.
When you combine the natural hitters' atmosphere in Colorado with the metal bats high school hitters use, a player's power has a way of getting amplified very quickly.
Chris Hanks, the head coach at Colorado State-Mesa, has seen the same, and has noticed it has a way of luring hitters into bad habits.
“What happens to these high school kids growing up in Colorado," Hanks said, “is that they get used to hitting home runs because the ball flies. You have kids that advance from high school into college and beyond, or maybe high school into pro baseball, that take a little more tilt in their swing than is conducive to prolonged good hitting. That's one thing that we fight with kids we sign from Colorado into our program."
Now, with more opportunities to get outside the state, into better climates where evaluators will get more plentiful (and in some cases, more honest) displays of their skill, Colorado high school hitters might making the same noise as the big boys on Blake Street.
Bird, Burns, George, Cross and Shumpert might be just the beginning.