Mike Salk is the co-host of the Brock and Salk show, which can be heard weekdays at 9 am on ESPN 710. I also write for their blog every Thursday, and my latest post can be found there now.
A few weeks ago, I walked into the visitor’s dugout at Safeco Field and bumped into a player I had covered when I was reporting on the Red Sox. He asked me how I liked Seattle and then started talking about how great the city is and how much he liked the park.
“This place is great,” he told me. “But they need to move the fences in.”
He went on to tell me about an at bat he had had at Safeco where he hit “right on the screws.” Of course, he pulled it to left field and the ball ended up just making the warning track.
“I crushed that ball,” he said as he shook his head. “Unbelievable.”
That’s a quick anecdote to reinforce what you already know: Safeco is huge. And its dimensions, specifically the deep fence in left field (331 feet down the line and 388 feet to the left-center alley) can change the game. I’m sure you’ve seen tons of hard data on how hard it is to generate offense in Safeco, specifically for a right-handed pull hitter. Clearly, the players all know that Safeco is a little different from other parks.
But do they change their behavior because of it?
I asked a bunch of players that question, talking to both Mariners and their opponents and both hitters and pitchers. The overwhelming answer: “Absolutely not!”
“I never change my swing for the ballpark,” explained Michael Saunders. “I try to never even think about it. You can get in trouble that way. In fact, the last thing you want to do is think at all at the plate. I just try to hit it where the pitcher dictates. And the bottom line is that if you hit the ball well, it will travel no matter where you are.”
The thought process makes sense. Baseball players are creatures of habit and that manifests itself in the form of disciplined routines. Hitters try to approach each at bat the same way. While they do make adjustments (in fact, they do that all the time), the goal is to be consistent. That consistency keeps them from overreacting to a short slump or overadjusting from one at bat to the next.
Remember, while pitchers have all the time they need on the mound to focus on making small changes, batters have just a split-second to make a decision and swing the bat. They don’t have time to consider whether left field is a little deeper than usual.
Once a half-dozen Mariners had told me that they never consider Safeco’s dimensions when they hit, I moved on to the other clubhouse. Finally, I found a former Mariner who disagreed.
“Yeah, I changed my swing a little there,” said Mike Cameron who hit 30 of his 269 career home runs at Safeco, more than at any other park. “Guys change their swings every day. Whether it’s adjustments or for the park…it’s like golf. You’re always tinkering.
“Sometimes at Safeco, you’d find yourself in trouble trying to muscle up a ball on a 3-1 or 2-0 count. You can’t do that there. Sure, the ball will carry if you hit it square, but you have to be careful. But my power swing is naturally to center field, so that helped me stay behind the ball there.”
In other words, he changed his swing but not the way you might think. He didn’t necessarily try to hit to right field, but he did try to stay within himself when he hit there.
That philosophy echoes much of what I heard from pitchers (and catchers). It’s not that they try to keep the ball in on righties or away against lefties to encourage them to hit to left field, it’s that they know they can be aggressive and make mistakes when they’re in Seattle.
“Safeco doesn’t usually effect my location in that I’m not trying to get fly balls to left field,” explained Jason Vargas. “But it does allow me to go after some hitters in tight situations. I can be more aggressive. You don’t have to nibble as much, even against some of the better hitters.”
The strategy seems to be working for Vargas. His ERA at home this year (2.48) is almost exactly half of what it is on the road (4.95).
“Safeco is a little different,” Vargas continued. “You pay some attention to the parks in that you know not to leave the ball up to lefties at Yankee Stadium. And you don’t want to let it go to left at Fenway. But mostly you just throw your pitch.”
Former Mariner and current Angels starter Joel Piniero agrees.
“Yeah, you can be a little more aggressive there and get away with a few mistakes,” he told me. “But the real key is always keeping the ball down. Doesn’t really matter where you are.”
So, who does care?
It’s not the hitters, who seem to be concerned first with their own mechanics and approach and then with reacting to the pitch they are given.
It’s not the pitchers, who might be slightly more aggressive at Safeco, but never consider trying to get hitters to put balls in play to the spacious left field.
It’s not the catchers either. Adam Moore says he never thinks about the dimensions of the park and that he “feels strong enough with this staff to just stay with their strengths no mater what park we’re in.”
But that doesn’t mean the park factor is ignored.
“It’s a consideration for every move we make at the major league level,” according to Assistant General Manager Jeff Kingston. “Any time we acquire a player, it’s got to be a factor because they are going to play 81 games here. We want this to be a home field advantage. The more we can acquire players that fit this ballpark, the better we are going to be.”
That means allowing for flyball pitchers (especially lefties) who might have more value in Safeco than elsewhere. That means right handed hitters who can go the other way. That means left handed sluggers. And it means finding outfielders who can cover ground.
“It’s a great park to be a centerfielder because of all the space and the openness,” said Cameron who patrolled it very well. “But you better be a good one and you better have some speed.”
Obviously, the current management saw the advantages of such a player.
When I started researching this post, I wondered if players considered the dimensions of the park when they hit or pitch. But after hearing from so many players that they never consider it, I’m now wondering if they should. Baseball players love routine and they tend to prefer their world to be as simple as possible. They try to focus on nothing more than the task at hand. What would happen if they tried to use the park to their advantage? Many believe it would distract them into failure. And they might be right. But they may also be missing an opportunity to increase their numbers.
(I wrote this post after Dave suggested the topic. The goal of this content-swap has been for me to offer a clubhouse insider’s perspective to this blog. If you have any pressing questions/topics, please leave them as comments and I’ll try to get some answers in my next post.)