With a singular purpose I observed batting practice at Safeco Field one recent weeknight while a few thousand fans waited beyond the outfield for practice-swing home runs to come near them. My purpose was to get a sense of just how difficult it really is to figure the home-run-hitting quotient of this (or any) big-league ball park.
My conclusion: It’s really pretty darned hard. That night a procession of average professional hitters, effortlessly, it seemed, repeatedly sent well-used baseballs delivered by half-speed pitches over the left- and right-field walls. But if it’s really so easy, why is Safeco considered by many to be death for home-run hitters?
The challenge arose when, a few weeks ago, a reader e-mailed me asking if I would “do a piece on the (as I see it) myth that Safeco Field isn’t conducive to the long ball."
"Although this group of M’s isn’t particularly well-endowed, it seems to me that they’ve been hitting ‘em out at a respectable clip as the team and season have warmed up,” wrote Seattle fan Robert Moore. “It has always bothered me to hear sluggers (especially the long-departed A-Rod) disparage the ballpark as especially unfriendly to home-run hitters. I don’t actually know what the long-term statistics are (and in fact they could be ‘negative,’ given that the Mariners haven’t had bona fide long-ball hitters, for the most part, and the ones they’ve brought in haven’t performed well on any hitting scale), but it seems that recent evidence shows that the layout isn’t a detriment in that department.”
So I decided to wait until midseason to see how major-league-baseball stats were shaking out. Through Saturday (June 25) the M’s had 49 long balls, more than just six other big-league teams. The Yankees led with 108; the Oakland A’s were last with 41.
As for ranking ballparks for the number of home runs they yield, the process seems to have become something a national pastime unto itself. In March Twins fan Mark Miller posted at bleacherreport.com an objective analysis, concluding that the new Yankee Stadium is easiest to get a dinger and Oakland-Alameda Coliseum is hardest. Safeco Field? It’s fourth hardest, according to Miller. In a similar post a year earlier the Safe was said to be 10th hardest, with Petco in San Diego the most challenging and Yankee Stadium easiest.
From 10th-hardest to fourth in a matter of months? Yeah, because that can happen from year to year if all you consider is the number of home runs recorded at each of the big-league facilities. The problem of gauging home-run-hitting difficulty involves a lot more than mere objective quantification.
The objective part is easiest because ballpark dimensions and conditions are known. Conditions include weather, altitude, etc. Raw home-run numbers, though, don’t make as simple an indicator as it may seem. Such stats don’t take into account, say, total swings per season at Safeco and the other stadiums.
Looking at the matter subjectively is much more complex than merely toting up annual home-run numbers. Did the dingers come from “better” long-ball teams? Is Yankee Stadium “easiest,” then, simply because the guys in the Bronx are indeed bombers?
Subjective consideration means in effect having to contemplate every at-bat by every player, factoring in prevailing conditions, and considering every pitch by everybody who’s been on the mound. Managing decisions also need to be factored. If Eric Wedge gives the bunt sign to Justin Smoak or Miguel Olivo (team leaders with a dozen dingers each), it obviously deprives them of chances to hit it out that at-bat.
Moreover, subjectivity also brings into play the qualitative analysis and quantification of every home run. If the ball bonks off the left-fielder’s head and over the fence for a 320-foot, wind-aided home run, does it make the stadium easier or harder to hit long balls? If a player launches a fair shot 500 feet, it tells us nothing about the stadium because such a poke would be a home run anywhere.
Such herculean shots, of course, seemed more frequent back when certain performance-enhancing substances were used. Think of the epic 1997 dinger Mark McGwire had off Randy Johnson that day in the Kingdome. Though it by far outdistanced Dan Wilson’s ’98 grand slam in the same stadium, the two pokes counted the same, even though Wilson’s wasn’t really a “slam” in that it was an inside-the-park four-bagger.
Which stadiums are easiest and hardest? Is Safeco too challenging or does it just seem so because of the M’s dearth of power-hitters during the past decade? Does it matter when a 300-foot sinking drive bending around Boston’s Pesky Pole is the statistical equivalent of a 500-foot poke out past Lansdowne Street?
Also lacking is a clear definition of what constitutes a “power” hitter. Observers frequently see line drives hit harder than certain home runs. Moreover, certain “small-ball” hitters, Ichiro, for example, are eminently capable of pulling home runs, though Ich has no dingers this season and just 90 during his decade-plus career.
Nor, of course, is long-ball hitting restricted to the big leagues. During the spring of 1965, back-to-back home runs (one to left, one to right) were blasted out of Portland’s Multnomah Stadium, but not by the triple-A Beavers. The feat was accomplished by seniors winning the state-championship game for my alma mater, Sunset High.
Do power-hitting considerations even matter as far as major-league team-building? Remember that, in ’97, the M’s set the big-league record for dingers in a season: 264. Ken Griffey Jr. had 56 of them and, despite his going on to win the league MVP award, the 90-72 first-place team won just a single post-season game.
In any case, local long-ball aficionados needn’t feel deprived of seeing plenty of home runs at Safeco. They need only, as I like to do, plan visits when teams will be taking batting practice and watch lots of balls fly, fly away.