Thursday, June 21, 2012
All stadiums have their obstacles
By Doug Glanville
Go ahead, look it up. My lifetime batting average at Turner Field is a robust .188. This was against the team we were chasing when I was with the Phillies for six years. Being that most of those years I was a starter, that is a lot of games of offensive insignificance. Well, at least I caught the ball.
When you get in the thick of interleague play, you realize there are a lot of players adjusting to new environments. It is not just facing pitchers you don't see that often, it is that you are literally trying to figure out where you are playing. And this is where you can throw out the cliché "Well, it is all baseball."
It really isn't. When you go down the lifetime numbers of players by stadium, there will always be some very strange bumps or valleys in the stats that make someone look like Babe Ruth in one park, and Babe the Pig in another. Good luck trying to get me out at old Busch Stadium, where I had a career batting average of .366.
Sure, it could be a matchup thing. Some teams have staffs of pitchers that find the barrel of your bat every time. But you cannot dismiss the effect a stadium has on you.
So let's look at the factors that make or break you as a player based on a stadium:
1. The field: The second you put one foot in the batter's box, you know something. You know if the dirt/clay feels like you are hitting on magic pixie dust with hits in it or you are hitting in the Sahara desert and your batting average will sink out of sight. For pitchers, it could be the mound. Your spikes feel like they are cheering you on in Dodger Stadium, or is it like you are pitching on a water slide? It is different for every player. Foul ground? See Oakland.
2. The backdrop: This is mostly a hitter issue. When the Astrodome still hosted ballgames, I remember getting in the box and facing Mike Hampton and Randy Johnson. Besides the fact that they had their moments when they were unhittable, they also pitched where there was a very small batter's eye. So when they released the ball (for right-handed hitters, in my case), it looked like it was coming out of the crowd. That white T-shirt giveaway day was not your friend, ever.
3. The air: For pitchers, no one can possibly like pitching in Colorado. Curveballs flatten, fly balls carry. I even hit a home run to straightaway center at Coors Field, where had you not seen me trotting around the bases, you would have thought Carlos Gonzalez hit it. But it could be the hot summers of Texas and that short right-field porch, too. A fly ball pitcher? Not good.
4. The walls: As an outfielder, you have to know the walls like the back of your hand. How will the ball come off of the wall? What is the warning track like (still a waste of time in my book, but that is for another article)? Play in Minute Maid Park and you need to moonlight as a billiards player to figure out that when the ball hits the scoreboard it does this and when it hits the net it does that. Or when you have to climb the hill in center while dodging the flagpole, you just hope you don't break an ankle. You have to study before the game. For Fenway Park, you need to have a Ph.D.
In the end, no one will accept these factors as an excuse, even though it will have a different impact depending on the player. Ryan Howard has hit well in Atlanta at Turner Field (he has a career .293 batting average there) so it was just me. But there are parks that he hates. PNC Park is one of them (he has a career .193 batting average there).
People say baseball is a game of adjustments. And it is. But it is more than knowing how a pitcher is going to pitch to you the next time around or what a hitter was thinking the last time he faced you. You have to understand how to play in your environment, just as Adrian Gonzalez understood how to destroy the Fenway's Green Monster in 2011. Great players figure it out sooner than so-so players.
But it is very personal. When I got my head handed to me on my first visit to Fenway, I remember thinking that I felt like home plate was not in a straight line to the pitcher and second base. That is how it felt, even though it was probably not true by measurement. So I struggled, pulled off pitches and rolled over my swing. The next time, I angled my body at the plate and it helped a lot. The same was true for me when I played in the Marlins' old stadium (before the samba dancers).
Given a lot of chances to adjust, players will make the adjustment. I am sure if Turner Field was my home field and I had a chance to figure it out, I would have done something to improve, even if it was to bunt for a few weeks. I do know it got so bad that when I got a hit off of Jason Marquis during a night game, I got the game ball. When then-Braves first baseman B.J. Surhoff asked me, "Was that your 500th hit?" I said "No, I just got a hit here at night." I still have that ball.
It is another reason why baseball keeps us all guessing. It's why you can have a singles hitter, Joe McEwing, own a future Hall of Famer, Tom Glavine, with a couple of homers off of him, or why great pitchers are reduced to steak dinners when pitching in certain parks (Roy Halladay has a 6.14 ERA in Texas). Greatness adapts quickly, but every player has his Achilles' heel and it may not have anything to do with a hole in his swing. It may just be where he is playing that day.
People say baseball is a game of adjustments. And it is. But it is more than knowing how a pitcher is going to pitch to you the next time around or what a hitter was thinking the last time he faced you. You have to understand how to play in your environment.