Tuesday Lunch: Fun with Ballparks | Disciples of Uecker

Disciples of Uecker

We'd like to go to the Playoffs, that would be cool.

During the League Championship Series, some interesting baseball news stories complemented the San Francisco Giants’ compelling performance in elimination games. While the Giants rode one of the best offenses in the National League to the National League pennant — once again, Pitching Need Not Win Championships — their friendly neighbors to the south announced significant pending changes to their ballpark. That’s right; the San Diego Padres are considering changing the alignment of their fences at PetCo Park (the same issue is allegedly being considered by the Mariners’ front office for SafeCo Park).

My first thought, of course, was that a ballpark’s factor does not matter if a front office doesn’t put good bats on the field. The Giants, of course, are a great example of how a club can succeed without pitching even if they pitch in a ballpark that suppresses runs. However, the Padres’ front office cites the recent changes by the New York Mets at CitiField as an example of successful realignment. Prior to the 2012 season, the Mets changed the configuration of CitiField’s gigantic outfield in certain places in an attempt to make the ballpark “fair.” The result, of course, was a notable spark in batter confidence — I realized that ballpark alignment can have psychological effects on batters, and influence their approaches.

Here’s where the wonderful baseball talk enters the equation. Mets youngster Ike Davis said, “Your first at-bat, you hit a 410-foot fly ball that’s caught, you’re coming back to the dugout saying, ‘Well, I’m 0 for 1 instead of 1 for 1 with an RBI. [….] That changes everything. It changes your whole day.” Padres’ MVP-contender Chase Headley echoes the general sentiment: “I think it makes you a better hitter when you don’t feel like you have to add a lot to hit a home run. […] It affects you not only having good at-bats, but in your swings at other pitches.”

My question, of course, was: “How did run scoring actually change at CitiField?” Oddly enough, the scoring did not necessarily change in terms of league context. While the National League scored more runs in 2012 than in 2011, CitiField remained a somewhat repressive run environment. During its first three years, its three-year park factors were between 95-and-97 for batters, and 96-and-97 for pitchers; these park factors mean that batters in CitiField would be likely to score between 3% and 4% fewer runs than league average. So, from 2009-2011, batters at CitiField would average approximately 4.21 R/G, compared to approximately 4.37 R/G for the National League on the whole. After the realignment in 2012, the long-term run scoring forecast remained similar; CitiField’s park factors were 96 for batters and 97 for pitchers, which results in suppressed run scoring once again. For all those psychological improvements, the park remained a pitcher’s haven.

In the history of baseball, there are all sorts of stories about creative park alignment to influence the outcome in a way that favors the home club. Perhaps the most famous example is the alleged doctoring of air conditioning vents at the old Astrodome; apparently, the Houston Astros would change the air flow of the vents depending on which team was at the plate. There are countless examples of clubs that would leave the grass grow long, water the basepaths, etc., depending on the type of team coming into town. What seems striking about these new park adjustments is the citation of “fairness” — if you follow news stories about the Mets’ realignments, as well as the Padres’ forthcoming decision, the key word out of executives’ mouths is the idea of getting the park to play fair.

Interestingly enough, the focal point of the realignments principally concern the long ball. The idea is that by influencing the long ball, the scoring on the field will be influenced in turn. What seems striking to me is that ballparks can encourage home runs without encouraging overall runs scored; if other batting elements are suppressed (such as walks or batted balls in play), additional home runs might be a nice park benefit without increasing runs scored by a grand percentage.

Miller Park’s general park history is perhaps the best example of a generally strong home run park that is not always a run scoring haven:

Miller Park
2001: 97 / 98
2002: 98 / 99
2003: 98 / 100
2004: 100 / 101
2005: 100 / 101
2006: 101 / 101
2007: 100 / 100
2008: 98 / 98
2009: 98 / 98
2010: 100 / 100
2011: 103 / 103
2012: 104 / 104

As you can see, Miller Park fluctuates between slightly-below average to above average runs environments over the years, all the while typically favoring home runs to some degree or another. One of the reasons Miller Park does not always favor run scoring (despite favoring home runs) is that the park also encourages strike outs and walks to the detriment of batted balls in play. If other hitting elements are suppressed by the park, the park’s encouragement for home runs might not always increase run scoring.

Alongside CitiField’s realignment (which arguably might take a few years to be measured accurately), the Phillies’ realignment of CitizensBank Park is one of the best examples of a realignment in recent years. Unlike the Padres, Mets, and Mariners, the Phillies moved the fences out after two raucous seasons in their new park. While their realignment did not have a great impact at first, CitizensBank settled closer to an average run environment over recent years:

Citizens Bank Park
2004: 105 / 104
2005: 105 / 104
2006: 105 / 104
2007: 104 / 103
2008: 102 / 101
2009: 101 / 100
2010: 102 / 101
2011: 102 / 101
2012: 102 / 101

Part of me wonders if parks fluctuate toward average in general. Even PetCo Park, an extreme pitcher’s park, is in the midst of a rather significant fluctuation toward favoring hitters:

PetCo Park
2004: 90 / 90
2005: 91 / 91
2006: 91 / 90
2007: 90 / 90
2008: 87 / 88
2009: 90 / 90
2010: 91 / 91
2011: 92 / 92
2012: 92 / 92

One might scoff at calling a park that suppresses run scoring by 8% “favorable” to hitters, but those numbers represent a renaissance compared to the dark ages of 2007-2009.

I wonder how much the general batting trends in baseball influence executives’ decisions to adjust their ballpark instead of building their club to play to their park’s character. For example, in recent years, MLB players strike out more frequently while walking at a steady clip, all in the name of maintaining that strong home run rate. Certainly, in this type of environment, a ballpark such as PetCo — which typically encourages batted balls in play — provides a clear challenge to the Padres’ front office: signing gangs of speedy contact hitters cannot occur if there are not piles of speedy contact hitters available. Unsurprisingly, the Padres’ 2012 offense batted the ball in play during approximately 68%-to-69% of their plate appearances, which is right where the National League settled (2012 NL clubs batted the ball in play in 68.6% of their plate appearances). Oddly enough, the Padres’ offense was approximately 30-35 runs better than PetCo Park/NL in 2012; it was their pitching staff that was notably below average.

In the wake of the steroids era, home run totals remain historically high. Strategical elements such as the stolen base are also historically high — and increasing — and the caught stealing rate sits at a beneficial level. Meanwhile, strike outs remain high, and walks are basically steady. Baseball, even after the steroids era, is not a game of batting-the-ball-into-play any longer. In this regard, ballclubs like the Mets or Padres lose a potential strategical advantage of playing in a cavernous ballpark. A ballclub can’t just “Moneyball” it and look for undervalued traits — say, power-less contact hitters — if baseball players do not approach the ballgame that way.

Such is baseball in the 21st century: in a business where world class drug testing, increased revenue sharing, and labor peace rule the day, even ballpark realignments fall in line with the ideology of “fairness.” The idea of building a club to gain an advantage in an extraordinary ballpark seems as distant as the idea of sending a ballplayer into the owner’s office to negotiate a pay cut after hitting .265.

IMAGE: http://sandiego.padres.mlb.com/sd/ballpark/index.jsp

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