Ever since it opened in 1999, Safeco Field has been a horse, and hitters have been mosquitoes. No matter how much the hitters have tried to inflict damage, Safeco has hardly even noticed. Now, ever since it opened, Petco Park has been a whale to the hitters’ mosquitoes — they haven’t even ever interacted — but just because Safeco wasn’t the most pitcher-friendly ballpark doesn’t mean it hasn’t been an extremely pitcher-friendly ballpark, and now, as announced Tuesday, the dimensions will be changing. The Mariners will bring in the fences in an effort to make the ballpark more neutral.
The planned alterations, of course, have been welcomed by the hitters, and they haven’t been condemned by the pitching staff. Fans, too, are pleased, as baseball fans in the Northwest have grown weary of low-scoring ballgames. People want dingers, basically, and Safeco hasn’t allowed enough dingers. The changes should make for more dingers. Yet just what sort of effect will there be, really? When discussing the changes to Safeco Field, one might keep in mind last offseason’s changes to Citi Field in New York.
Citi only opened in 2009, but it didn’t take long for people to notice its run-suppression qualities. More specifically, its homer-suppression qualities, and most specifically, its David Wright-suppression qualities. And so it was announced in October 2011 that Citi’s fences would be moving in. This appeared to be likely in September. I’ll include some choice quotes below:
“We decided that an adjustment was in order,” said Dave Howard, the Mets’ executive vice president for business operations. “We came in hoping to make it a pitcher-friendly park, but maybe it was too friendly for pitchers. Bring your gloves, there are going to be a lot of home runs hit here.”
“One of the things that played to my strength at Shea was driving the ball to right-center,” Wright said. “You’ve really got to hit it at Citi Field to get it out there.” So, he added, he would welcome the changes, because “I’m not great at pulling the ball with a lot of power.”
What was said about Citi is similar to what’s been said about Safeco so far. Citi, once, was a fly ball graveyard; Citi would change into something not quite hitter-friendly, but something more fair. Makes sense, right? Closer fences means more dingers, and more dingers means more runs, and more runs means more offense, and more offense means more neutrality. On paper it’s a perfectly sensible idea. Yet it’s interesting to see how Citi played in its first full season with the new dimensions. Citi has hosted all of its 2012 games, and below you’ll find a simple table. For each stat, you can see the approximate Citi Effect, before it was changed and after it was changed.
For example, over its first three years, including all plate appearances, Citi Field reduced BABIP by three percent — not three percentage points — relative to Mets games on the road. You can see the effect that it had on home runs, and it was pretty significant. For every five home runs hit in Citi Field, there were six home runs hit away from Citi Field. Overall, offense was reduced — Citi was pitcher-friendly, or run-suppressing, however you want to put it.
Now look at 2012. We have only one year of data, and that’s an important point to make, because numbers can fluctuate over one year, especially when you’re talking about home/road splits. The things we expect to average out over time might not have actually averaged out. But one year of data is better than zero years of data, and what we see is that Citi did correct its home-run problem. Home runs were actually up in New York, relative to on the road. But offense overall was down even more, thanks to further reduced BABIP, reduced doubles and triples, and increased strikeouts. Reduced walks, too, now that I look at the table again. Used to be that Citi reduced OPS by four percent. In 2012, it reduced OPS by six percent.
The Mets changed Citi Field to make it more hitter-friendly, and in its first season as a new ballpark, Citi Field was even more pitcher-friendly. It was just more hitter-friendly with regard to home runs, which, granted, was the big complaint. While it’s too soon to say anything conclusively, what’s evident is that these things are a lot more complicated than they might seem at first. Bringing in the fences makes home runs easier, but it also reduces outfield surface area, increasing the likelihood of ball-in-play outs.
The Mariners, for their part, have acknowledged that the Safeco changes could well reduce doubles and triples. Those quotes are out there, and the Mariners still expect that Safeco will be a pitcher-friendly park. The hope is that it will be less extreme, but that is by no means guaranteed. There’s no substitute for actual evidence, and that has yet to be generated.
Citi has generated lots of games and lots of numbers of actual evidence. Within a single game, the park doesn’t seem easier. Yet it might be better psychologically, because batters care more about homers than they do about singles, doubles, and triples, and now homers are easier to come by. It might feel like a friendlier ballpark, even if it isn’t one. Along the same lines, it might be easier to attract free-agent hitters because they want to play somewhere they can hit dingers, and people can hit dingers in Citi now. Less attention is given to the rest of the splits.
I think this was interesting as well:
The [Mets'] general manager also received a vote of confidence from pitching coach Dan Warthen, who told his boss that the spaciousness of the ballpark sometimes inspired a more lax attitude toward execution among his pitchers.
Pitcher-friendly ballparks might not only encourage bad habits among hitters. They could, conceivably, encourage bad habits among everyone, and then that’s something to avoid, because it has the word “bad” in it.
Psychologically, the changes to Citi Field should be good for the Mets. Psychologically, the changes to Safeco Field should be good for the Mariners. The players can feel like they’re playing somewhere more normal, and potential players might be less turned off. But when you look at the actual park effects themselves — nothing about this is simple. You can make your hitters feel better, and you can change a pitcher-friendly park to a more hitter-friendly park, but the two do not necessarily go hand in hand. Based on the numbers, Citi, in fact, is even more extreme than it used to be. That might just be noise instead of signal, but for now it looks like a strange thing.