Anyone that has ever been to -- or even seen -- a game at Petco Park knows that it kills home runs. Opened in 2004, the home of the San Diego Padres consistently ranks as the toughest park in which to hit a home run. While some may see this as a disadvantage, an extreme park factor can be used to a team’s advantage if their front office keeps it in mind while building their roster. And while the Padres are a surprising success this year, it's not because they've built a team catered to their park.
San Diego's pitchers currently allow the third fewest fly balls of any pitching staff in the majors, at just 33.5 percent of the time. Instead, the Padres' pitching staff is right up there with Cleveland and St. Louis as one of the more ground ball-heavy staffs in the game. Ground balls, of course, are not subject to the dynamics of a particular stadium nearly as much as fly balls are.
One reason a team might attempt to keep balls out of the air is poor outfield defense. If you don’t have great defenders in the outfield, it makes sense to keep the ball away from them as much as possible. However, according to the fielding metric UZR, the Padres have had the third best defensive outfield this year, posting a mark of plus-12.7 runs so far. While the sample size is small, the Padres are starting three outfielders (Will Venable, Tony Gwynn Jr. and Scott Hairston) with a history of above-average defense, all of whom run well.
Telling a pitcher to induce fly balls is tricky, because you run the risk of giving up more home runs. But since fly balls typically produce the lowest batting average compared to line drives and grounders, and since Petco reduces the risk of homers, the Padres can feel more comfortable than a usual team when balls are flying through the air. Ground balls are good, but for the Padres they may not always be the best option. They may have the most wins in the National League, but it doesn’t mean San Diego is doing everything right. The Friars should try to utilize the vastness of Petco Park, as it could pay dividends in the near future.
Zach Sanders is a writer for FanGraphs.