Dodgers Vice President of Player Development De Jon Watson announced on Wednesday that their Triple-A affiliate Albuquerque Isotopes will begin using humidor baseballs in 2013, just as the Colorado Rockies have done since 2002 at mile-high Coors Field. Watson made the announcement while being interviewed on MLB Network Radio’s Power Alley hosted by Jim Duquette and Mike Ferrin.
At an elevation of 5,300, Isotopes Park has long had a reputation for being a launch pad which, as Watson noted, is great for hitters, but not so great for their young pitching prospects.
“We knock a full run off of their ERA at Albuquerque when we evaluate them but that doesn’t help their confidence,” said Watson. “When our pitchers get hit hard, they end up changing the way that they pitch and we don’t want them to do that. Sure, there have been some guys who have done well there, but it’s a tough place to pitch.”
Watson said that they do their best to try to encourage their young Isotopes pitchers.
“We tell them ‘you can’t roll a ball over the fence,’” he kids. By this, of course, Watson means that if they keep the ball down in the zone and induce ground balls instead of fly balls, they will fair much better.
Watson said that the high elevation and dry air at Albuquerque can actually have an adverse effect on their hitters as well.
“Jerry Sands would hit balls out in dead center at Albuquerque that would be warning track fly outs at Dodger Stadium. We try to get our hitters to hit line drives in the gap instead of trying to lift the ball.”
The Isotopes won’t be the first minor league team to use humidor baseballs. In 2012, the Rockies Triple-A affiliate in Colorado Springs, which is almost the exact same elevation as Albuquerque, began using humidor baseballs. By the end of the season nearly every Sky Sox pitcher had lowered their ERA by a full run.
Over the past several years, the Dodgers have purposely kept their top pitching prospects away from the thin, dry air of Albuquerque, opting instead to promote them directly from Double-A Chattanooga to the major leagues – most notably Clayton Kershaw, Kenley Jansen, Paco Rodriguez and several others. That being said, former Isotopes right-hander John Ely won the Pacific Coast League triple crown last season pitching at Albuquerque, thus earning the Dodgers prestigious Branch Rickey Minor League Pitcher of the Year award. Spot starter Stephen Fife also pitched well at Albuquerque, but both Ely and Fife had excellent control at keeping the ball down in the zone. Ely was traded to the Houston Astros during the off-season where he hopes to earn a spot in the starting rotation for the American League West newcomers.
Whether using humidor baseballs will help the Isotopes pitching staff remains to be seen, but it’s pretty safe to say that it probably won’t hurt them.