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April 11, 2003

Breaking Balls

Environmental Control

by Derek Zumsteg

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Some time ago, I wrote a column on a few of the new ballparks, and using the available evidence on their dimensions, speculated on how they'd play. In response to that column, I got a particularly cool question from a number of different readers. That is: "What would the best pitchers' park look like?"

I love the questions that stick in your craw. How far back do you push the fences before today's home runs and many line drives become inside-the-park four-sackers, for instance?

In order to answer this question, I took the liberty of persuing our list of historical park factors, and did some sorting, some grouping, and some determining of thresholds. Using this list of PFs, I tried to find huge pitchers' parks with a long history and short-term dominance in the field of run suppression. I have arbitrarily decided on these parks to examine:

  • Dodger Stadium, Los Angeles. Shows up with some of the best one- and five-year park factors throughout history. Here I'm going to look at 1963-1968 configuration; the years when Koufax and Drysdale were at their peak.
  • County Stadium, Milwaukee. Some of those factors in the '50s are huge.
  • Astrodome, Houston. The 1977-1979 version, and so on.
  • Jack Murphy Stadium, San Diego. Modern incarnations especially, when it...uh...wasn't called Jack Murphy Stadium, but was named for an exploitive intellectual property company.
  • Braves Field, Boston. Lot of different dimensions on this bad boy, but the late-1930s version is what I'm particularly interested in.

The cool thing here is, two of these--Dodger Stadium and Jack Murphy Stadium--are both still in play.

To the dimensions:


                              Left           Right
Park                  Left  Center  Center  Center  Right   Backstop
--------------------------------------------------------------------
Dodger Stadium         330     380     410     380    330         68
County Stadium         320     392     404     392    320         60
Astrodome              340     390     406     390    340         61
Jack Murphy Stadium    327     375     420     405    330         75
Braves Field           368     365     426     402    297         60

This info is courtesy of ballparks.com, which is a terribly cool site.

This is simplified, of course, beyond the rounding. Braves Field, had some strange dimensions--there was a flag pole out in center, and the fence there was 520 feet. The farthest point at right-of-center was 550.

I was surprised that only Braves Field was particularly deep on any foul line--I'd have expected these guys would have some extra space. The power alleys being around 380, though, that's interesting.

One characteristic that all these parks have in common is that they've all got a ton of foul territory behind the backstop. They all have dead-center distances of over 400 feet, and most have deep left-center fields. Where Enron Field (Whoops!) might have a left-center of about 360, its predecessor was much closer to 390.

In fact, check this out:


                            Left           Right
Park                Left  Center  Center  Center   Right   Backstop
-------------------------------------------------------------------
Astrodome            340     390     406     390     340         61
Minute Maid Park     315     362     435     373     326         49

That's the difference between a pitchers' favorite, and a park that would haunt their dreams if Coors Field wasn't on the same circuit. The differences, obviously, are that while center field is significantly deeper, the porches are way in, and that's where the balls are leaving the park.

Or, to look at this a little more deeply, compare these to other huge hitters parks:


                                  Left           Right
Park                      Left  Center  Center  Center  Right   Backstop
------------------------------------------------------------------------
Gestalt Pitcher Park       337    380      413     394    323         65
Coors Field                347    390      415     375    350         56
Baker Bowl, Philly         341             408     300    281         60
Wrigley Field, late-'70s   355    368      400            356         61
Fenway, late-'70s          310    379      390     380    302         60

Power alleys, that's where you get your best value. Fenway doesn't translate real well onto the table, like Braves Park before it. Fenway also has almost no foul ground at all (in fact, I was surprised to read that it was 60 feet from backstop to fence; I'd have sworn it was less than that).

Fence heights may also play a role: low fences will make for cheaper home runs, of course, while higher fences will turn them into doubles (which, if you listen to some players, are better because they keep the rally going).

Fence Height


                                Left           Right
Park                    Left  Center  Center  Center  Right
-----------------------------------------------------------
Dodger Stadium           4.0    10.0   10.0     10.0    4.0
County Stadium           8.0            8.0            10.0
Astrodome               10.0           10.0            10.0
Jack Murphy Stadium      8.5            8.5             8.5
Braves Field            30.0    10.0   10.0            10.0

Again, that's just what I got out of the site quickly. Nothing special. Braves Field had some bizarre fences, too--a massive Green Monster-style left field advertising "scoreboard." Looking through the different fence heights, I don't find them particularly instructive, so I'm going to move on.

Location of the park itself plays an important role, because it determines elevation.


Park            Altitude
------------------------
County Stadium       635
Dodger Stadium       340
Astrodome             40
Jack Murphy Stadium   20
Braves Field          21

Sea level, that's the way to go. There's some quality evidence for this today: Safeco Field's sea level, Pac Bell is sea level, and they're both huge pitchers' parks. Do the hitters' parks prove that the converse is true?


Park            Altitude
------------------------
Coors Field         5200
Wrigley Field        595
Baker Bowl           100
Fenway Park           20

Nope. Damn statistics, they never cooperate when you need them to. Coors Field alone should be a persuasive case. Home to arena baseball, it rightly dominates discussions as the greatest hitters' park of the modern era. But only in right-center does Coors have a dimension that wouldn't normally be considered extremely generous to pitchers.

And if we were to throw our net wider though, it becomes more clear that elevation drives much of park factors. For instance, minor league park factors at elevation (say, the Rockies' AAA affiliate in Colorado Springs) have much higher park factors than similarly-configured parks at sea level.

Here's what we can draw from the best pitchers' parks that have demonstrated sustained super-suppression. Big power alleys, about 380, center field about 400, and you can keep the foul lines around 330. Massive foul ground, which makes it harder to make the stadium fan-friendly, since fans want to be close to the action. Sea-level elevation.

That doesn't seem like enough. Where else can you go?

Build a dome. Pressurize the dome to the edge of habitability. Thin air makes the ball fly, huh? Let's see what happens at two, three atmospheres. One atmosphere is about 1000 millibars, and Denver's about 800 something, that's a 20% decrease in pressure to get a 115% park factor. Sooo cranking that up to 2000 millibars, follow the line slope... Hey, we've extinguished run scoring entirely! Nice.

Alternately, nitrogen makes up 78% of the atmosphere, and it's too light. Take that out, pump in huge amounts of heavy inert gasses to thicken it up further. Who needs nitrogen when you can use xenon? Or even argon is over twice as heavy--so run that up from 1% to replace nitrogen entirely. With some serious air locks, it wouldn't even require that much constant replenishment. However, I don't even want to think about what making the atmosphere that much heavier would do to the players' bodies.

From there, after building the fences out as far as you need, make them hellaciously high. Turn home runs into doubles or triples, and put another dent in run scoring.

Figure out if wet or dry air makes the ball go farther. Hire a bunch of scientists for some pure research, give them a lot of money to buy expensive hitting machines, and get a final definitive answer. Then install a huge battery of (de)humidifiers in the dome and get that humidity (up to/down to 90-95%/5-10%).

And moving to the not-really-legitimate, there's all kinds of things you can do. Players complain about hitting when the shadows run between home plate and the mound. Design a stadium so that for as much of game time as you can manage (and this'll depend on stadium latitude and good stuff like that), the pitch has to pass from light into shadow at least once. Hard to make excuses for that kind of pattern if you're in a dome, too. Mess with the batter's eye. Seat a lot of fans with blotchy white shirts out there and then treat them all to concessions when your team's up.

To answer the original question, the best pitchers' park you could build and not get into trouble over would probably look a lot like Dodger Stadium or Jack Murphy. It's amazing that today we can watch baseball played in some of the most extreme environments it's been played in. This is a unique quality of baseball, for in no other major sport is the playing field unique to every location, or does have so much impact on the way the game is played, and it's another reason why baseball, in its infinite variety, is the greatest sport we enjoy.

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