This is part two of a two-part series. Part one, which published in the May 1 Tribune, broke down the front office’s transition from the Sky Sox to the Vibes.
When I first moved to Colorado Springs, the existence of a Triple-A baseball team was one of the biggest appeals to this city. I soon found out I was only going to get a year of it.
The Colorado Springs Sky Sox, who spent three decades in the Triple-A Pacific Coast League, relocated to San Antonio at the start of the 2019 season, and the Rookie Advanced Pioneer League’s Helena Brewers have relocated here.
Enter the Rocky Mountain Vibes.
After talking with Vibes president and general manager Chris Phillips and director of marketing Kyle Fritzke, I was won over — in terms of their ability to take agency of their team and have creative freedom to make sweeping changes for the better.
And as Phillips told me, “When it comes to marketing the games, we never really talk about the players. There’s so much movement, and we don’t really have any control over it. Those are employees of the Brewers. I don’t pay (players’) salaries. I don’t determine who’s starting first base. So I don’t like putting a lot of stock into things I can’t control. We let them do their job, and we do our job from the business side of it.”
I also concede, despite my own admitted baseball snobbery, the truth to Phillips’ answer to the question of whether he thinks most fans will be able to tell the difference.
“To the casual fan, you probably will not notice, honestly,” he said. “If you did a blind taste test and had a Triple-A game going on right next to a short-season game, and you’re just a casual fan, you’re not going to know the difference.”
In baseball terms, however, this represents a fairly significant change. Triple-A baseball is one step below Major League Baseball, and those rosters feature a mix of veterans still trying to return to the bigs, and up-and-comers in the final stage of development before they leave the minor leagues forever. It’s half Nuke LaLoosh, half Crash Davis — for my “Bull Durham” fans out there.
“When you’re talking about a Triple-A team, you’re talking about guys who are … still among the thousand best baseball players in the world,” said John Sickels, baseball writer for The Athletic, in a 2018 interview. “The quality of play in Triple-A is very high.
“The Pioneer League, you have a much different population of players. ... Obviously they’re much farther away from the major leagues. It’s four steps below the major leagues. You’re going to have a lot more younger players. You’re going to have guys who are just a year or two out of high school, or guys fresh out of college. You’ve got young kids from Latin America.”
Sandwiched between the Sky Sox and Vibes’ classifications are Double-A, Class A-Advanced, Class A and Class A Short Season.
It will certainly be a different brand of baseball. Of the 48 players who played for the Helena Brewers in 2018, only six were older than 22. Sixty-five of the 67 players on the Sky Sox were older than 22.
“Even a Pioneer League player is still a good player,” “They’re still some of the best players in the world. But they’re just less a lot less experienced, a lot less polished,” Sickels said.
The Helena Brewers have rostered a number of future relevant major-leaguers. In 2005, Michael Brantley, Ryan Braun and Lorenzo Cain were all on the same Pioneer League squad. The 2009 team had Khris Davis, Mike Fiers and Jake Odorizzi.
It’s just a matter of simple probability. The odds of a college senior receiving a bachelor’s degree is significantly higher than a high school freshman.
Sickels pointed to inferior defensive play and pitcher control as the starkest differences between the Triple-A and Rookie Advanced classifications.
The nuances of baseball will mostly go unnoticed by the generalized “casual fan,” and digging into the 2018 league-wide stats, I actually think that casual fan may enjoy Pioneer League ball more even if the baseball purists won’t. The walk and strikeout numbers were nearly identical, but Pioneer League teams featured an average of one more run scored per game (5.97 vs. 4.97), and nearly a stolen base per game — compared to 0.65 per game in the PCL.
“It’ll be a pretty exciting, kind of fast-paced, higher-scoring brand of baseball,” Fritzke said.
Different doesn’t always mean worse. The chance of seeing a potential major-leaguer at the outset of his career is appealing, as is the inevitably wackier gameplay we’ll see this summer fits right into the team’s rebrand and the minor league baseball landscape in general.
I’ll categorize myself as cautiously optimistic about this change on the field, but I reserve the right to roll my eyes once the infield throws start sailing into the 15th row.
Warner Strausbaugh is the page designer and occasional sports reporter and columnist for The Tribune. Contact him with questions and feedback at email@example.com.