Moving in the Fences Will Help the Mariners
News broke this afternoon that the Mariners were going to reconfigure Safeco Field right as I was getting on an airplane to return home from a combo wedding/vacation weekend in New York, so I realize that my reaction isn’t all that timely any more. In fact, better writers than me have already weighed in on the issue. For instance, here’s Jeff’s take over at Lookout Landing. You should read that. It’s good. It says all the stuff I would have said. Except, it also says one thing I wouldn’t have said, and that one thing is why I think this move is a net benefit to the organization:
Of course, any ballpark adjustment is neutral, in that it has the same effect on visitor batted balls as it does on host batted balls. The Mariners and visiting teams have both long struggled to score in Safeco, and these adjustments aren’t going to make the Mariners better on the field.
This might be dabbling in semantics, since Jeff notes the roster construction issues in the same paragraph, but I do not think this is a zero-sum trade-off where the hitting will improve by the same amount that the pitching gets worse. I think the offense is going to benefit more than the pitching will be harmed, and perhaps significantly so.
As everyone knows, Safeco isn’t just a straight up pitcher’s park that affects everyone the same way. It’s asymmetrical dimensions have skewed the affects to directly affect certain types of players far more than others – specifically, the ball doesn’t travel out to left field at all, and the dimensions there simply compounded the inability for hitters to be rewarded with a well struck ball to left center field. Anyone who regularly drove the ball to right field could do just fine in Safeco for the most part, which is why pull-power lefties (Raul Ibanez being the prime example) weren’t all that harmed by the park. Right-handers with opposite field power (like Bret Boone) were also able to survive, while anyone who tried to hit the ball in the air to left center with any regularity just saw their production pummeled by the atmosphere and the alignment of the fences.
These changes cut right at the heart of these issues, and almost exclusively work to make the park more fair on fly balls to left and left center field. While we don’t know how all these moves will affect wind patterns — it is possible that this will all have some influence on how the ball carries to RF too — it seems likely that the most significant changes are going to come in the form of helping right-handed pull power hitters and hurting left-handed fly ball contact pitchers. That might be an overgeneralization, as everyone hits the ball to center field on occasion, but LHBs and RHPs probably won’t see the same kind of change in environment behind them as RHBs and LHPs will.
And, if you look at the 2013 roster, it’s pretty clear that the team should gain an advantage from a shift towards helping RHBs at the expense of LHPs.
The first name everyone talks about with these changes in Jesus Montero, because he’s a right-handed hitter who was supposed to hit better than he did, and his home/road splits were pretty large this year. Montero will probably see improved numbers from this change, but he’s not the only interesting right-handed bat in the organization. Mike Zunino is a pull-power right-handed hitter with significant long term value to the Mariners, and this move just made it more likely that he can come to the Majors and succeed at some point in 2013. Casper Wells is a pull-power right-handed hitter who profiles as a pretty useful outfielder, and has played like one when not in Safeco. Franklin Gutierrez, for all of his injury issues, is still a significant part of this team’s construction, and most of his power is to left or left center field. This team has some interesting right-handed bats who have been neutered by the park to a large degree, and they’ll now be in a position to come up with a more fair estimate of their abilities next season.
On the flip side, the guy who is going to take the biggest hit is Jason Vargas, but the team doesn’t have any kind of commitment to him beyond 2012. While his numbers are probably shiny enough to attract some trade interest so this isn’t a likely outcome, the organization doesn’t have to tender Jason Vargas a contract for next year if they don’t want to. His home/road splits are well known around the sport, and if the team decides that the new dimensions are going to hurt Vargas to a significant degree, then they could just let him hit free agency and replace him with a pitcher who doesn’t rely as much on having a deep left-center field power alley to knock down his mistakes. If they bring back Iwakuma, their top three starters next year are all going to be right-handed groundball pitchers – the type of pitcher who should be hurt the least by these changes.
Yes, they have Danny Hultzen and James Paxton coming, but both are high strikeout pitchers with command problems, so the park has less to do with their outcomes than pitch-to-contact strike-throwers like Vargas. While they may now be somewhat less likely to succeed in Safeco going forward, they possess skills that are somewhat park neutral, and the organization doesn’t really have an army of left-handed fly-ball arms waiting to crack into the Major Leagues. If Vargas is shipped off or non-tendered over the winter, they could theoretically go into next year with only Charlie Furbush as a left-handed fly-ball pitcher on the opening day roster, and since he’s often used as a match-up lefty, the park effects aren’t as big a deal for him as they are for a starter who faces 80% right-handed batters.
The Mariners just have more guys on the roster who should benefit from this change than guys who will be harmed. We can’t just look at fence dimensions and say “they’re the same for both teams, so there’s no advantage”, because the reality is that both teams aren’t playing with the same roster. And while you don’t want to design a park to take advantage of a temporary roster, the simple structure of the sport made the old dimensions less than ideal.
Because Safeco currently is so favorable to left-handers, the park incentivized the team to build around southpaws, both on offense and on defense. That’s the main reason the team has given 62% of their plate appearances to left-handed batters this year. That presents a significant problem when shopping for new talent, however, as left-handers are the minority population. In the Majors this year, 57% of all plate appearances went to right-handed batters, so the Mariners skewed heavily in the opposite direction of most Major League teams, which means they’re buying hitters from the shallow end of the talent pool. If the park forces you to focus on left-handed hitters, and there are fewer left-handed hitters in the sport, you’re naturally either going to end up with fewer good hitters than most teams or you’ll end up paying a higher price to get good hitters (both left-handed and right-handed) because of the scarcity of players who fit the park’s dimensions. And that’s exactly what we’ve seen.
This isn’t even so much about getting players to sign here. The organization was always capable of just throwing a lot of money at a right-handed hitter to convince them to overcome their fears, as we saw with both Adrian Beltre and Richie Sexson. The problem was that the park made overpaying for those types of hitters more likely to fail, leading to bad outcomes for both the player and the team, so it was a deal that neither side was incentivized to enter into. Committing large amounts of money to a player who is quite likely to underperform in front of the home crowd simply isn’t a good use of resources in most cases, and this is the situation that Safeco forced the Mariners into.
Now, the team can broaden their scope of players to pursue, both in trade and free agency. Rather than looking at a guy like Ryan Ludwick and saying “strictly RH pull power, probably not a good fit”, the Mariners can actually consider him as a possible outfield option this winter. And it doesn’t even really matter if they sign Ludwick or not – the fact that they can now consider signing players like Ludwick alleviates the urgency to acquire a hitter who fits a specific mold, so they can avoid situations where they have to choose to overpay for a certain hitter or simply be left without an alternative who fits the right mold. Even if they still end up signing a left-handed hitting outfielder instead — the park is still likely to be more favorable for LHBs because of the closed off nature of RF — they won’t have to do so over a barrel, as they can shop from a larger pool of potential options this winter instead.
And that kind of roster flexibility is significant. The team is giving up benefits from left-handed, fly-ball, pitch-to-contact starting pitchers (of which there are few) and gaining benefits from right-handed pull-power hitters (of which there are many). Even a guy like Josh Hamilton — who has power to all fields and regularly drives the ball to left center — could see a significant boost in performance from these changes if the Mariners decided to take the plunge and make him a big offer this winter. It simply expands their options in a dramatic way, while benefiting more players than it harms.
While this is all still speculative and park effects could turn out to be quite different than we think, my expectation is that this will help far more Mariners than it hurts, both in the short term and the long term. This is not a zero sum move where the gains in offense will simply offset the losses on the mound. Ball in play distributions are not fixed, and this is an organization that has had to focus for too long on getting guys who can hit fly balls to right field. Being freed from that bondage will be a legitimate advantage, and should serve to push the offensive improvement forward faster than it hurts the team’s development of young pitching.