Year One of the humidor era is nearly complete at Isotopes Park.
Let the reviews begin.
The humidor – a massive, ball-softening vault located just outside the visitors’ clubhouse – was installed in an attempt to make Albuquerque’s high-altitude, often wind-blown ballpark a bit more pitcher friendly.
Has it worked?
No home runs were hit during the Isotopes’ 8-5 loss to Round Rock on Tuesday night, and with two home games remaining on the schedule, the humidor is generally seen as a positive addition.
Home run totals are down, earned-run averages are down, but no one seems inclined to give the oversized cigar box all the credit.
“There were a few balls early in the season that I thought would have gone out last year,” Isotopes pitcher Stephen Fife said. “Instead they were doubles or outs, so (the humidor) probably helped a little bit. I think the elements have been more of a factor, though, to be honest.”
Fife said pitchers have benefited from fewer windy days in Albuquerque this summer, helping Isotopes pitchers improve their team ERA from 5.01 in 2012 to 4.08 this season. Asked whether he can discern any difference in a ball that’s been in a humidor, Fife shrugged.
“(Isotopes pitching coach Glenn Dishman) tested balls at the beginning of the season,” Fife said. “The humidor balls were like a millimeter bigger around. The difference between one piece of leather and another can be more than that.”
Nor are the homer numbers exactly definitive. In 2012 the ‘Topes and their opponents combined to hit 170 bombs at Isotopes Park. After Tuesday night’s contest, 134 homers had been launched this season.
Like Fife, Dishman believed the humidor had more impact early in the season.
“The first two months it helped,” Dishman said. “Balls sounded different coming off the bat and it might have saved 12 to 15 home runs. Once it warmed up, not so much.”
Outfielder Tony Gwynn Jr. agreed.
“Early on, I definitely had more opportunities to run around on that hill (in center field),” Gwynn said. “Some of those balls would have been out before.
“But bottom line, if you hit a ball good here, it’s not staying in the park.”
‘Topes manager Lorenzo Bundy speculated that personnel may have had an impact on this season’s lagging homer numbers at least as much as the humidor.
With sluggers like Jerry Sands (26 bombs) and Scott Van Slyke in the lineup regularly, the 2012 Isotopes simply had more pop than their 2013 counterparts.
Dishman saw the other side of that coin.
“We’ve had better arms here this year,” he said. “I think the ERAs and home runs are related to that as much as the humidor.”
On the other hand, one might argue the better arms and the humidor have been a package deal. The Isotopes’ parent club, the Los Angeles Dodgers, have placed a number of pitching prospects and 40-man roster members in Albuquerque this year. Such has not always been the case.
DeJon Watson, the Dodgers’ assistant general manager for player development, believes the humidor has already justified the Dodgers’ investment.
“I’m in favor of anything that gives our pitchers more confidence,” Watson said. “I don’t know why any team playing at altitude wouldn’t try a humidor. It just allows pitchers to play with a fair baseball.”
Watson, Bundy and Dishman agree it will take more than one season to determine the impact of Albuquerque’s humidor. Gwynn’s expectations are moderate at best.
“I don’t know that a humidor can make this park fair,” he said. “Pitchers might like it a little better now, but this is still a hitter’s park.”