Moving in the Fences Will Help the Mariners

Dave · October 2, 2012 at 10:28 pm · Filed Under 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.


23 Responses to “Moving in the Fences Will Help the Mariners”

  1. Westside guy on October 2nd, 2012 11:10 pm

    The fact that it’s simply harder to come up with a lot of talented lefties is what struck me the most too. I’ll admit my knee-jerk reaction was somewhat against this move simply because for the next little bit we’ll now have to listen to blowhard media types and fans alike drone on and on with the “it’s about time, now our guys can win, Smoak’s gonna take off” crap – but that’s just because I’m a contrarian by nature.

    I think you’re spot on when you talk about roster construction – moving in the fences may help some hitters, but Jack Zduriencik is probably the individual who’ll benefit most.

  2. Slats on October 2nd, 2012 11:20 pm

    It just makes you wonder why this was not done years ago??

  3. Adam B. on October 2nd, 2012 11:37 pm

    This was probably the death knell of the off-season cry for “left handed sock!” The king is dead, all hail the king! “The Mariners need either sock!”

  4. The_Waco_Kid on October 3rd, 2012 1:13 am

    I predict that fans will expect much higher scoring games and the effect will be subtle and they’ll be mad. Unless of course we win a lot, then they won’t care as much.

  5. maqman on October 3rd, 2012 3:36 am

    This still does not help the negative heavy air atmospheric effect and will probably not change the internal park air flow from left field towards home plate. Safeco will continue to be pitcher and not hitter friendly, just not quite so much.

  6. PackBob on October 3rd, 2012 4:05 am

    It sure seems that the Mariners should benefit psychologically compared to other teams that only play a few games here. For the right-handed hitters and for those times when a left-hander hits a ball well to left-center, getting rewarded instead of penalized for a well-struck ball should generate some confidence.

    I’d bet the players are very aware of the home/road splits and that they care about their numbers. And I’d bet that in the back of some minds is the thought that they’d have some pretty decent numbers if they just didn’t play so many games at Safeco.

    Where it evens out is for the pitchers. Vargas may give up some more runs, but he should benefit at the same time from more run support.

    And if the move generates more offense, the fans should benefit from games that have a bit more offensive interest.

  7. rsrobinson on October 3rd, 2012 5:28 am

    I was so happy to hear that they were doing this. It’s been excruciating watching the M’s constantly struggling to cobble together runs in Safeco over the past few years and it hasn’t been an enjoyable brand of baseball for the fans. I really do think it affected the psyche of these young players to not be rewarded when they hit the ball hard to left/left center. This was long overdue.

    Great analysis, Dave. Thanks.

  8. bwoodrow on October 3rd, 2012 5:49 am

    I would love to see a breakdown of all home runs hit in safeco this year vs. all warning track balls that would have been homeruns with the new fences. Anyone seen a chart like that?

  9. maalox on October 3rd, 2012 6:54 am

    I would love to see a back-of-the-envelope calculation of how much this matters in terms of WPA– Both in terms of our current roster and the theoretical roster we could construct.

  10. Sports on a Shtick on October 3rd, 2012 7:04 am

    Jason Churchill tweeted this last night:

    “M’s could take advantage of early-season weather, optimize Vargas’ starts at home, trade him in July when weather helps bats.”

    I think that is a prescient idea since the young arms will need seasoning before they’re ready in 2013. But the days of maximizing the Jamie Moyer / Jarrod Washburn / Jason Vargas skill set are over.

    Also I think Jesus Montero’s quote about his strained mentality at Safeco is telling albeit not surprising. Going forward I expect to see a slight bump in spray charts toward left field as the stadium tilts toward a more neutral hitting environment.

  11. Mid80sRighty on October 3rd, 2012 7:05 am

    This is a move that should have been made some time ago. Even as a former pitcher I have to say it has been ridiculously favorable to pitching. And it isn’t like the park is going to play like Arlington now, it’ll still be a pitcher’s park, but at least it should be more fair.

  12. sergey on October 3rd, 2012 7:46 am

    Dave, despite being last from Mariners blogosphere to post an article of Safeco dimensions, it is by far the best! I cannot wait to read your take on Offseason plan 2013.

  13. diderot on October 3rd, 2012 8:22 am

    “Despite being last from Mariners blogosphere to post an article of Safeco dimensions, it is by far the best! ”

    Agree totally. Dave, one of your most insightful posts of the year.

  14. robbbbbb on October 3rd, 2012 8:55 am

    Short term, I think you’re right, Dave: this move will help the Mariners more than it hurts them. Long-term, it works out to be more neutral. Although the point about being able to fish in a larger talent pool is a good one.

    I still think the prevailing wind patterns are going to keep Safeco as a lefty-hitter-friendly park. The wind blows out to right field, and moving the fences is unlikely to change that. This move will certainly help right handed pull hitters, but I don’t think it’s going to be a huge change.

  15. kinickers77 on October 3rd, 2012 8:56 am

    Great post, Dave. Well said. Gets me excited. Maybe the Mariners will finally break through in 2013 and we can stop this agony.

    Of course, from a sheer business perspective, this is a good move because games where more runs are scored are usually more fun to watch (aside from rare no-hitters). And people pay to go see games that are more fun to watch.

  16. bat guano on October 3rd, 2012 9:32 am

    Well thought out post Dave. I’m curious about your statement that if Iwakuma signs on the “top three starters next year will be right handed ground ball pitchers.” Are you counting Erasmo as the third guy ahead of Vargas? I’m guessing you don’t think Beavan or Noesi is top three, and it doesn’t seem like Millwood is coming back or that Walker will be ready.

  17. mrb on October 3rd, 2012 10:27 am

    Maybe the obvious answer (Money) is right, but it seems that the Yankees survived well with an extremely favorable park for LHB’s and by stocking up on left-handed talent. Why isn’t/wasn’t that approach tenable for the Mariners?

  18. Jake Squid on October 3rd, 2012 11:02 am

    The Yankees ballpark, although very favorable to LH fly ball pull hitters was not one that absolutely destroyed RHB’s. It’s really not a similar situation.

  19. 9inningknowitall on October 3rd, 2012 11:02 am

    I really do like the changes that are being made, and I do think that it would benefit the Mariners hitters. I don’t think the changes will affect the M’s pitching too much. Felix is strong no matter where he pitches and the Seattle air is still going to keep the ball from traveling as far as some ball parks in baseball. At least this will help to eliminate the Felix pitches in a pitchers ball park so he doesn’t deserve the Cy Young talk.

  20. opiate82 on October 3rd, 2012 11:15 am

    By these arguments, wouldn’t it be a good idea to adjust the dimensions regularly to best fit the teams current roster? Is that allowed within the MLB rules?

  21. opiate82 on October 3rd, 2012 11:19 am

    Also, I am not disagreeing with these arguments, they are based on very sound evidence. But shouldn’t we also look at the visiting teams roster construction to see for sure what kind of benefit they might receive?

    While it is probably unrealistic to try to project every single M’s opponent and their potential rosters, I think looking at how the other AL West teams rosters are constructed in the same way you dissected the M’s roster is needed to completely flesh out this argument.

  22. NRFully on October 3rd, 2012 12:32 pm

    Great article Dave. Couldn’t have said it all better, myself!

  23. mca on October 3rd, 2012 11:11 pm

    I too generally think this is a good thing, and it helps that everyone who knows way more than me seems to agree. I’ve been convinced by other posts in the past, though, that the fences aren’t the real problem with hitting at Safeco, and this leaves me with some questions, and I’m curious if anyone else shares my concerns.
    First a disclaimer. Some of my concern is based off of an extremely small sample size, particularly from one player. Like most of my Mariner fandom, it’s Ichiro-Centric. This could kill the entire premise of my concern.
    Many people have spoken of Ichiro’s resurgence after joining the Yankees, suggesting that the trade somehow rejuvenated him. However, that overlooks the fact that he wasn’t that bad away from Safeco even before the trade. While batting average isn’t the stat I want, it’s the one I have. Ichiro, batted .216 at Safeco and, for the entire year, batted almost .100 points higher away. Some, but not all of that, is boosted by his numbers as a Yankee, but he was noticeably better at other stadiums all year. While we wondered if Ichiro was finally getting old, what it really looks like to me is that Safeco was killing him.
    If you accept that premise, and I realize many of you will not, it emphasizes some factors about the difficult hitting atmosphere at Safeco that most of you will agree with, technical stuff about marine air, wind patterns, and the new pedestrian walkway thatI can’t remember exactly. However, Ichiro’s struggles at Safeco were obviously not because he was crushing balls that died on the warning track. Those other factors seem to result in batted balls that may have gotten down in some parks hanging in the air just a little longer. If moving the fences does nothing to alter these effects, it could lead to new problems for (ideally) line drive hitters like Dustin Ackley. A new smaller outfield means less ground for outfielders to cover, meaning line drives that hang just a little longer may have even less chance of falling, thus resulting in even lower BABIP numbers. I hope this will be balanced by “More Dingers tm” but this seems like a concern. I hoping free agent hitters will think it’s all about the fences, because even if my perceived problem does exist, better hitters at Safeco should lead to better results.

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