Wednesday, February 04, 2004

Safeco Field - Hitter's Paradise? 

Safeco Field has traditionally been known as a pitchers park. But a feature change made at the All-Star Break may have caused a shift in the ballpark to one that is at worst neutral, and may actually favor hitters.

Stats, Inc. publishes ballpark factors each year and this link at baseball-reference.com provicdes details on how park factors are calculated, and through mid-2003, run scoring and home runs have been very low compared to other ballparks. In this chart, 100 represents league-average production for a ballpark, and a higher number means a higher percent of production:

Season   R   BA   HR

===== == == ===
99-00 84 88 88
2001 89 94 85
2002 84 94 77
2003 97 94 102
Through 2002, it's the toughest place to score in the AL. Why? Well, its at sea level near water so the air is thick and damp which should keep balls in play. So what changed in 2003? Was it a dry year, or did the city rise in height? Ummm, no.

Another reason cited by many hitters and probably made famous by Mike Cameron is a very poor hitting background behind centerfield. The field's orientation to the sun and Seattle's late summer sunsets cause a distracting glare, even deep into many night games. The Safeco staff have tried several alterations to the background, all of which had failed to ease the problem.

In 2003 another attempt was made during the All-Star break. Non-reflective black-painted honeycombed aluminum panels were installed to give a new background. Apparently it worked - hitters returning from the break praised the new background, and pronounced the glare as significantly reduced. And the balls started flying. To show the disparity, here is the same chart but it breaks out the first half and second half of 2003.

Season    R   BA   HR

====== === === ===
99-00 84 88 88
2001 89 94 85
2002 84 94 77
03/1st 83 90 89
03/2nd 110 97 110
Holy cow! What a difference! Safeco goes from a pitcher's park to a power park! Now before we pronounce Safeco Coors West, note that there are other factors that may be in play here. The opponents were different in the second half, and the sample size is EXTREMELY small. But still, we may be witnessing a revolution in baseball at Safeco from 3-2 pitching duels to 9-8 slugfests. And even if the effect is just to make Safeco neutral, that is a big change.

So when you are watching the M's in 2004, consider that increases in pitcher HR or ERA, or the fact that Raul Ibanez maintains his home run swing may be a factor of the park as much as any change in the abilities of our pitchers. Maybe the M's can figure out how to make the background surface retractable so that it is only in place while the Mariners are batting. Or else M's fans can hang out near this area with powerful flashlights when Vlad comes to bat...

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