SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- The would-be future face of the Colorado Rockies' rotation was laboring under the Arizona sun the other day at Salt River Fields. His delivery was inconsistent, his curveball flat, and he left a few fastballs up in the zone.
But Drew Pomeranz wasn't sweating his 5.54 Cactus League ERA or his ongoing battle for the fifth starting slot.
"I'm more worried about me feeling right than dominating Spring Training," he said. "I want to feel like I know what I'm doing. Not feeling lost like I did last year at times."
That might as well be a slogan for this starting staff as a whole. Last year was rough, even by Rockies standards, as the staff amassed a jaw-dropping 5.81 ERA. Not even the most humid of humidors could save them. And while getting a healthy Troy Tulowitzki back in the lineup is a great start for what could be an elite National League offense, the fate of first-time skipper Walt Weiss' club completely hinges on the starting staff developing a new identity -- and quickly.
Pomeranz, then, is a compelling case study. The Rockies didn't target high-profile pitching in the free-agent or trade markets this winter. Their rotation, at present, consists of Jeff Francis, Jhoulys Chacin, Jorge De La Rosa, Juan Nicasio and either Pomeranz or Tyler Chatwood, but we can't rule out the possibility of a late-spring waiver claim.
What we do know is that if the Rockies are going to return to relevancy, they have to learn how to develop premier pitching at the place where premier pitching goes to die -- Coors Field.
And for pitching coach Jim Wright, that means establishing a new mentality.
"I want to see unafraid pitchers who attack the zone, pitch inside and learn how to pitch," Wright said. "The beginning of that is low command and inside command. And learn how to keep the ball down. Pitch to the catcher, don't pitch to the hitter."
The first thing that catches your eye if you glance at the big bulletin board just inside the main entrance to Colorado's spring clubhouse is the chart detailing each pitcher's ground-ball percentage in Cactus play. And if you stroll the back fields, you'll note the parallel lines of string extending across home plate in the bullpen areas -- the top string at knee level, and the bottom string six inches lower.
If the Rockies have their way, their pitchers will live below the zone in this and coming seasons. They want a staff that gets by on ground balls and outpitches the park effects and doesn't feel any psychological hurdles in that building.
"We want the pitchers that come to face us to feel that way, if they're struggling at Coors Field," Wright said. "And I want the other team to know our pitchers are tough. We look at this as our home-field advantage, and we have to look at it that way. Because we know if we can keep the ball on the ground and do the things that are our absolutes and identity as a staff, then we're going to be successful."
Pomeranz, to date, has not made a successful transition to Colorado. Acquired in the July 2011 swap that sent Ubaldo Jimenez to Cleveland, the left-handed Pomeranz was touted as a can't-miss kid with a killer curve who could break bats and get the inning-ending grounders. But with a fastball often maxing out in the upper 80s last season, Pomeranz looked lost on the big league stage. The Rockies, as a unit, looked pretty lost, too, experimenting with a four-man rotation based on 75-pitch limits that caused general confusion inside and outside the clubhouse.
Wright, who went from bullpen coach to co-pitching coach in the middle of 2012, knows the setup was mocked, but he did see some benefits.
"In some ways, it was [worthwhile]," he said, "because we had three starters who probably didn't belong there yet and it gave them an opportunity to pitch, and two of those guys now have the opportunity to make the rotation again. So they have that experience under their belt. And it gave us an idea of who can pitch in the middle. It gave guys like Adam Ottavino and Josh Roenicke the ability to pitch multiple innings at the Major League level."
The Rockies are no longer trying to reinvent the wheel. They just want ground balls, and plenty of them. And the first step in that goal is getting these guys to trust their stuff down in the zone.
For the 24-year-old Pomeranz, in particular, trust in his stuff and his self was an issue last year.
"I think in years past, I've been good at making pitches when I need to in tough spots," he said. "But if you're not confident in the way you're feeling or your mechanics, it's hard to do that. This year, I feel like I can catch my breath and lock in and make a pitch."
Pomeranz is still making his pitch for a spot in the Opening Day rotation. But no matter when he settles back into the big leagues, he knows the mechanical tweak he's made in camp -- getting more length in his left arm as he brings the ball out of the glove -- has to be in place.
He's more focused on the mechanics than the conditions at Coors.
"I think if you're feeling good, feeling confident, feeling strong out there on the mound," he said, "it doesn't matter where you're at or what the conditions are."
The Rockies don't yet have the luxury of feeling particularly strong in the rotation, Pomeranz included. But they are hoping that confidence builds this season, one ground ball at a time.