Print and Go Back ESPN.com: Draft Kit [Print without images]

Wednesday, March 26, 2014
Reviewing park factors

By Tristan H. Cockcroft
ESPN.com

Knee-jerk reactions are commonplace in fantasy baseball when prominent players change teams, such was the case when Robinson Cano left the New York Yankees for free-agent riches in Seattle this winter.

You can hear a good number of owners now: "Oh, no, Cano's power is sure to dry up now that he has Safeco Field instead of Yankee Stadium as a home!"

Robinson Cano
Safeco Field may be better for Robinson Cano than people may think.

The point about Cano's power declining now that he's a member of the Seattle Mariners is a valid one, as Yankee Stadium is renowned for its short right-field porch and Safeco Field is widely regarded a pitching-friendly venue. But ballpark factors -- a critical part of our evaluations -- are often misinterpreted and frequently overstated. Perhaps no simpler evidence of that is this: Did you know that there were actually more home runs hit at Safeco (170) than in Yankee Stadium (167) last season?

Of course, we need to dig deeper than mere seasonal totals, so don't read this as an endorsement to pay more for Cano than you might have while he was wearing pinstripes. Ballpark effects can be variable from season to season, their "counting numbers" (such as those aforementioned home run totals) often tell misleading tales, and the personnel who play there heavily impact the statistics.

It's for that reason that, every winter, it's wise to re-evaluate ballpark factors for all 30 venues. That's especially true in a year such as this, which is the first one following a season during which two of the game's most hitter-friendly ballparks -- one of them Safeco itself -- brought in their outfield fences.

Now, to be clear upfront, in no way should be-all, end-all fantasy decisions be made upon one year's worth of ballpark data. We've seen many an example of a ballpark -- whether it's the opening of a new one or an old one adjusting its playing-field measurements -- generating statistics at either extreme in its first year, only to regress closer to the league's average in the second (or later). Still, with both Safeco and San Diego's Petco Park sporting a year's worth of data with new measurements, we can compare how they played in 2013 comparative to in the past (in this case, let's use three years of data, or 2010-12 numbers).

Safeco: No longer a bad park for lefties

Specifically, Safeco's 2013 alterations covered roughly three-quarters of the field, ranging from the left-field foul pole to right-center field, many of those a reduction of four feet in distance, as well as lowering the fences themselves by nine feet. Left-center field enjoyed the most significant reduction: That fence was brought in 12 feet (from 390 to 378 feet), so the natural reaction would've been to provide right-handed power hitters the greatest bump.

Here's what the data said (these statistics measuring BABIP, home run/fly ball percentage and isolated power to the three equal parts of the field: left field, center field and right field):

Oddly, the venue's power numbers to right and center field were the ones that enjoyed the most substantial bumps, with that 18.8 home run/fly ball percentage to right field one of the highest in the majors last season. Granted, Safeco had always played better for left- than right-handed power, but it became even more of a lefty-power park in 2013, perhaps a direct result of the reduction of the outfield fence heights. Keep in mind, after all, that the league-average measurement down the right-field line is 328 feet (Safeco's is 326), and the league-average fence height in that spot is 11 feet (Safeco's is now eight).

This isn't to say that Safeco will remain one of the most power-friendly parks to that direction -- a big plus for those planning to secure Cano's services -- but it's good news for those who believe in the power potential of left-handed Mariners power bats such as Cano, Kyle Seager and Justin Smoak.

Petco: Grand Canyon no longer?

Petco, by comparison, experienced the majority of its fence measurement changes in right field; the fence distances were reduced by as much as 11 feet in right and right-center field, and the heights were lowered from 10 to eight feet in that part of the park. In addition, a small portion of the left-center field fence was moved in 12 feet. Fantasy owners who routinely avoided San Diego Padres left-handed hitters -- and loaded up on practically every visiting pitcher -- suddenly eased off that strategy slightly, expecting more runs and homers there.

But, again, here's what the data said:

Now, this is where Petco actually enjoyed a greater advantage for hitters than Safeco did as a result of the changes; the park's home run/fly ball percentage to right field nearly doubled (11.3, up from 6.0), and its once league-worst isolated power to that part of the park rose by 42 points. Still, even accounting for those adjustments, Petco ranked beneath the league average in all three categories to right field; it was the venue's statistics to center field that rose substantially. Look at that home run/fly ball percentage: 8.6!

In other words, once an automatic "stream-every-visitor-to-Petco" venue, Petco's numbers shifted closer to the mean in 2013, forcing fantasy owners to give at least a secondary glance at the matchup before relying upon it. Be somewhat more cautious in 2014, but at the same time, I'm not so sure that Petco will repeat its 2013 numbers; I have a feeling it might finish with ballpark statistics closer to 2012 than 2013 when the 2014 season is in the books.

Here's a good reason why: Of the 39 home runs hit to right field at Petco last season, 15 were hit by left-hander Will Venable. No one else hit more than two to right there, and Venable's home run/fly ball percentage to right field at Petco was a whopping 55.6 percent. I'm as big a believer in Venable as anyone, but those statistics reveal a player who was awfully fortunate on his batted balls in play, and I wonder whether regression to his numbers alone will draw Petco Park back into "most favorable pitchers' parks" territory in Year No. 2.

What about Citi Field?

Astute fantasy owners will point out that New York's Citi Field is another park that recently underwent fence-measurement adjustments; the team moved in the fences in left-center and right-center fields by as much as 17 feet, and lowered the fences from 16 to eight feet throughout the outfield between the 2011-12 seasons. We addressed the venue's statistical impact last season, but to drive the Year No. 2 point home, let's take another look at Citi's stats:

Well, how about that, for the second consecutive season playing under the new measurements, Citi Field was quite a bit more favorable a park for power to left field (favoring right-handed hitters) than it was before the adjustments were made. In fact, the home run/fly ball percentage and isolated power both increased in 2013 comparative to 2012, though most interestingly, the park's numbers to right field suffered using the same comparison.

The latter isn't good news for the New York Mets' newest left-handed slugger, Curtis Granderson. Granted, that the Mets largely lacked any left-handed pop -- Lucas Duda led their left-handed hitters with 15 home runs in 2013, whereas Ike Davis clubbed 32 in 2012 -- influenced those statistics, but it's clear that Citi Field is still not an especially favorable park for lefty power. Those expecting Granderson to return to the 35-homer plateau are probably too optimistic.

Park effects for all 30 venues

To help define which ballparks are more favorable for hitting or pitching, the charts below break down ballpark statistics into three categories -- BABIP, home run/fly ball percentage and isolated power -- as well as by direction -- left field, center field and right field, those measured as equal 30-degree portions of the field working from foul line to foul line (though both left and right fields include the foul territory on those sides).

For another approach on ballpark effects, visit our Park Factors page, which breaks down numbers in six categories -- runs scored, home runs, hits, doubles, triples and walks -- by season, those statistics calculated as teams' own, as well as their opponents' numbers in home games comparative to on the road.

Left field

Ballpark measurements are in the four columns to the right, and include both distances to the left field (the measurement directly down the foul line) and left-center field fences (the spot measured can vary by venue), as well as the height of those fences. (These are identified as "dist." and "hgt.") These statistics, unless noted, are from the 2011-13 seasons combined.

As was the case a year ago, Fenway Park enjoyed the greatest BABIP advantage of any direction in any ballpark from 2011-13 (.364) by a massive 29 points, and sure enough, our Park Factors page also placed the venue among the top 10 in terms of both doubles and triples in both 2012 and 2013, and it only finished outside of that group in triples in 2011 (11th; it ranked second in doubles that year). This helps explain how the Boston Red Sox placed four players among the top 20 in doubles in 2013 -- Dustin Pedroia (seventh, 42), Jarrod Saltalamacchia (10th, 40), Mike Napoli (17th, 38) and David Ortiz (17th, 38) -- not to mention placed Pedroia fifth in the majors in the category during the three-year span combined (118).

Though the Red Sox didn't import any specific right-handed hitters this winter who might capitalize, consider this good news for two players projected for everyday at-bats in 2014: Xander Bogaerts, who swatted 37 doubles in the minors in 2012, and Will Middlebrooks, who had 31 of his own in the minors in 2010 and managed .198 isolated power in the majors in 2013. Fantasy owners evaluating matchups also need to consider the adverse impact Fenway has upon left-handed pitching -- specifically those pitchers with a wide split where right-handed hitters feast upon them -- as the park, coupled with the team's potent lineup, might make the nonelite sit in that ballpark.

Marlins Park -- another venue with only a two-year sample of statistics -- is another one that stands out, albeit at the opposite end of the spectrum. Granted, some of the ballpark's poorer numbers last season were the result of Giancarlo Stanton's absences, as well as the weaker product on the field, but Marlins Park suffered statistical drops in every one of the accounted categories to every direction of the field except BABIP to right field. With two years of data in the bank, and the Marlins largely sporting comparable talent to their 2013 model, it's clear that this is one of, if not the, most pitching-friendly venues in the game. Consider it the new Petco, for those seeking to stream opposing starters, and temper your expectations for your visiting hitters.

Center field

Ballpark measurements are in the two columns to the right and include the distance to the center-field fence (almost always the measurement to straightaway center), as well as the height of that fence. (Again, these are identified as "dist." and "hgt.") These statistics, unless noted, are from the 2011-13 seasons combined.

Here is where we discover why Milwaukee's Miller Park has a reputation for being hitter-friendly, and this is the aspect of Houston's Minute Maid Park that explains why that venue has been so variable on our Park Factor page since their loaded-offense, "Killer B's" era. Miller's center-field fence resides just 400 feet away from home plate, fourth-shortest in baseball, while its outfield fence stands just eight feet high. And considering Carlos Gomez was covering that ground for the Milwaukee Brewers the past four seasons, it's telling that Miller's statistics to center field have been so generous.

Minute Maid, meanwhile, is an exceptional park for right-handed pull power -- see the left-field chart above -- while "Tal's Hill" represents one of the most spacious portions of any ballpark in baseball: 435 feet in distance! This is why pull-power right-handers, whether it's an Astro such as Chris Carter or a potential visitor, make such attractive options, either as draft-day candidates or as mix-and-match options in leagues that afford daily transactions. Couple the park's measurements with the team's lackluster pitching and you've got a virtual smorgasbord of right-handed options in games played in Houston. This is why it's wise to break down ballpark statistics by direction; it's a specific group that gains the advantage at Minute Maid.

As noted last year, take note of those higher BABIPs, which correlate with the teams with the deepest center-field measurements. The larger the outfield territory, especially from power alley to power alley, the greater the probability of doubles and triples dunking in; that's why Coors Field has the highest BABIP to center field (.335), thanks to the fifth-largest measurement to that spot (415).

Right field

Ballpark measurements are in the four columns to the right and include both distances to the right field (the measurement directly down the foul line) and right-center field fences (the spot measured can vary by venue), as well as the height of those fences. (Again identified as "dist." and "hgt.") These statistics, unless noted, are from the 2011-13 seasons combined.

Fantasy owners will first notice that the numbers to right field are considerably lower than those to left, despite the fact that the average ballpark measurement down the right-field line (328 feet) is four feet shorter than to left (332). As was also explained last season, that's partly a product of there being more right-handed batters in baseball -- 56 percent of the total plate appearances in the majors in 2013 were accrued by righties -- whose numbers on batted balls to left field were understandably greater than those averages, and therefore had a greater influence upon those averages. Consider this: Right-handed hitters put the ball in play to left field 30,356 times last season, while left-handed hitters put the ball in play to right field 23,573 times. And while righties enjoyed a 28.4 home run/fly ball percentage to left field, while lefties had a 29.9 percent rate to right field, that difference of 6,783 "pulled" batted balls by either side was more than enough to have a heftier influence upon the numbers to left.

The key takeaway is to never evaluate directional ballpark numbers in comparison to one another -- as in, comparing stats to left field to stats to center or right -- but rather measure them relative to their own league-average split to that direction of the field.

And, doing that, there's no shock here: Yankee Stadium is still the most power-friendly ballpark to right field, thanks to its short fence distances and heights. Yes, the New York Yankees' diminished 2013 offense helped lower the park's numbers -- the venue had a 24.6 home run/fly ball percentage and .351 isolated power to right field from 2010-12 -- but even still, the ballpark enjoyed 18.1 and .271 numbers to right in 2013 alone, which are well above the league averages.

It's for that reason that the Yankees' strategy to add left-handed punch to their lineup, in the persons of Jacoby Ellsbury, Carlos Beltran, Brian McCann and Kelly Johnson, made much strategic sense. Those who might question our McCann projection of 29 homers -- five more than his previous career best of 24 (set in 2006, repeated in 2011) -- might be more understanding to our rationale keeping that in mind. In addition, some might recall my tweet at the time of McCann's signing, referencing a ballpark overlay courtesy of ESPN's Hittrackeronline.com, which compared the right-field measurements of Atlanta's Turner Field to Yankee Stadium. (Side note: A similar point -- sans image -- was made when Ellsbury was signed.)

Most puzzling, however, is Progressive Field's appearance at No. 2 on the list in terms of home run/fly ball percentage and No. 6 in terms of isolated power. Granted, it ranked favorably last year, too, but bear in mind that the ballpark enjoyed a 19.5 home run/fly ball percentage and .250 isolated power to right field in 2013 alone. That's good news for fantasy owners banking upon a rebound from Nick Swisher, and it's something to consider when evaluating right-handed starters with a wide platoon split granting lefty hitters an advantage.

To repeat, be sure to consider personnel when reacting to the statistics above, as well as the fact that ballpark factors, on average, tend to average closer to a one to three home run rather than 10-plus homer swing per player. You need the right types of players to exploit a venue's favorable measurements, and you should never make your draft day or lineup decisions based primarily upon ballpark effects; consider them "tiebreaker" factors rather than decision-makers.