There’s a good chance you might’ve missed it, but over the weekend, baseball began, by which I mean the kind of baseball that counts in the standings. The Dodgers played two games against the Diamondbacks, and the Dodgers won two games against the Diamondbacks, incrementally improving the playoff odds of the former, and incrementally hurting the playoff odds of the latter. The most likely outcome over two games is a split. As much as it’s early — it’s not even April! — the games were significant. Oh, and another reason they were significant is that they were played in Australia.
Specifically, they were played in the Sydney Cricket Ground, which was turned into a regulation baseball field in a matter of weeks. Someone asked recently how FanGraphs would deal with the park factors of two games played at such an unfamiliar location. The correct answer is, “it doesn’t matter, who cares?” Another answer is, “good question, let’s investigate and speculate on the Sydney Cricket Ground!” What if — hypothetically — what if the Sydney Cricket Ground played as a team’s home for a full regular season? For several full regular seasons?
I’ll begin with the fact that I don’t arrive at a number, here. This is just an exploration. And above all else, there’s one thing that really stood out about the field of play. From Getty Images:
Good god damn, that’s a lot of foul territory. More foul territory is, of course, more pitcher-friendly, because it means more foul pops are turned into outs. I imagine, over a year, people would start to refer to the foul territory as the Outback. This is most comparable to the situation in Oakland, where the A’s also have a ton of extra space. Between 2002-2013, A’s pitchers allowed a BABIP 18 points lower at home than on the road. A’s hitters posted a BABIP five points lower at home than on the road. Sydney might have an even bigger effect. This would be a BABIP reduction, so this would be an offense reduction. The infield-fly park factor would be enormous.
The designers anticipated this. How do you balance such pitcher-favorable conditions? LA Times:
“It’s a lot of ground down the lines and back toward the dugouts,” Mattingly said. “You get some easy outs, some cheap outs.”
To counter that effect, Cook placed the foul poles 328 feet from home plate. In most parks, that distance is about 335 feet.
“The pitchers get something, the hitters get something,” Cook said. “Make it even.”
So to counter the vast foul territory, Sydney put the fences a little closer to the plate. Down each line, the fence was 328 feet away. To center, the fence was 400 feet away. Using the ESPN Home Run Tracker, I found what seems like a reasonable comp:
That’s Chicago’s US Cellular Field, over the Sydney Cricket Ground. Beyond the dimensional similarities, the fences in Chicago are eight feet high, and the fences in Sydney were also eight feet high. We know that Chicago is a hitter-friendly ballpark. It plays as something of a bandbox, yielding one of baseball’s highest home-run factors. Based on the dimensions outside of the foul territory, Sydney was skewed in the hitters’ favor.
What else can we talk about? Unlike most domestic ballparks, Sydney didn’t and doesn’t have a third deck. So batted balls would be more vulnerable to influence from the wind, because there isn’t a third deck to block it from blowing in. The Daily Telegraph:
He will be asked for advice on wind conditions, too, with Diamondbacks and Dodgers hitters already keen to know if they’ll have wind at their backs when trying to land home runs in the Trumper and Brewongle stands.
“There could be a nice tailwind from the northern end, and they’re hitting that way to the south. So yep, that’d good for them,” Parker says.
Mark Trumbo homered over the weekend. According to the ESPN Home Run Tracker, it gained 19 feet of distance from the wind, and had a standard distance of 326 feet. At that standard distance, the home run would have left zero major-league ballparks. On the season’s opening weekend, Trumbo hit what will stand as one of the weaker dingers of the whole year.
As the Dodgers and Diamondbacks worked out in the ballpark, they felt like the wind was going to blow favorably. Sometimes, it did. But other times, the wind worked against the hitters. Scott Van Slyke hit the other homer, and it lost six feet of distance from the wind. From Ken Gurnick:
During the Dodgers’ first workout in Australia on Tuesday, baseballs hit into the jet stream blowing out to center field left players convinced that Sydney Cricket Ground would be a hitter’s haven.
On Wednesday, the winds blew in and batting-practice drives fell harmlessly in front of the warning track, and the place suddenly was pitcher friendly.
Winds were calm Thursday night, when the Dodgers came from behind for a 4-2 win over Team Australia.
Adrian Gonzalez remarked that, with changing winds, Sydney was “a completely different ballpark.” It’s clear that, in Sydney, wind would be a regular factor, but it isn’t clear that it would be a consistent factor. There’s some evidence that it would be more consistently friendly to hitters than friendly to pitchers, but I can’t say anything there for sure. Wrigley Field, after all, changes by the day.
Moving on, there’s certainly no altitude effect. Sydney Cricket Ground stands about 136 feet above sea level, so that’s a non-factor. There’s something to be said about the playing surface:
The centre square, which only a few months ago played host to Australia’s Ashes series whitewash against the old enemy England, raised a few alarm bells.
“It’s a little hard there,” Diamondbacks outfield coach Dave McKay said.
“But we can’t do anything about it. We have to work around it. The ball will get to you harder, it will bounce a little bit. It will make it feel like an in-fielder. You don’t go through that ball if you don’t have to. We did some work on it and we’ll do some more. We showed the guys how it bounces higher off that area there.
“No one really thought about that, but there’s nothing we can do about it.”
Situated in the middle of the ground, the pitch is a strip of hard clay with short grass that measures 90 feet by 90 feet[…]
Compared with the other parts of the ground, the pitch is harder and slightly elevated[…]
The ground there remains rock-hard, which could present challenges to the center fielders on both teams.
“It’s probably the quickest field I’ve ever seen,” Diamondbacks center fielder A.J. Pollock said. “You go out there and throw a baseball, it just scoots off it.”
Situated between second base and the center fielder, there was a large block of a firm surface. Perhaps it would play not unlike cheap Astroturf. It’s hard to speak to the effects, although it stands to reason grounders would get to the outfield quicker. Outfielders might be a little less willing to lay out. Perhaps over time, the home team would grow accustomed to the field, while visitors would still make the occasional mistake. This could allow for a very slight boost to the home-field advantage.
At last, there’s one remaining major factor. In US ballparks, temperatures heat up into the middle of the summer before cooling off toward the end of September. Sydney, of course, is in Australia, and Australia, of course, is the opposite of here. During baseball season, highs drop into the low 60s, while lows can dip into the 40s. Conditions in Sydney, on average, would be considerably cooler than conditions in the States, and all else being equal, ten degrees equals about 2.5 feet of batted ball distance. That over-simplifies things, but the general message is that the cooler it is, the less distance the ball goes. So while the Sydney Cricket Ground isn’t right on the water, it is in the southern hemisphere, and the relatively low temperatures would also help the pitchers fight against the hitter-friendly outfield dimensions. Conditions would be warmest in April and September. If the ballpark were to host playoff games, temperatures would be warmer still.
The hypothetical question: what if the Sydney Cricket Ground were to host regular-season major-league baseball? How would it play, as an environment?
My guess, based on the above: it might be about neutral, but it would arrive there in an interesting way. The foul territory would reduce BABIP, and general offense. In that sense it would be like Oakland, but with more hitter-friendly fences. Yet the temperatures would also be lower, on average, supplementing the foul-territory influence. The big wild card is the wind: it’s obvious that winds would swirl within the ballpark, but it isn’t obvious how, and how consistently, and where. So it could be that the environment would change by the day, if not by the hour, which would make it interesting. Probably not interesting enough to justify making teams constantly fly to and from Australia. Also, what city would want to lose that many games to Australia? Oh well!
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