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June 12, 2007

Wait 'Til Next Year

Hostile Environments

by Bryan Smith

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Since the Rockies began play in Denver in 1993, we have slowly trained our eyes and minds to grow accustomed to the statistical oddities that playing at altitude produces. Jason Jennings won a Rookie of the Year award in 2002 despite posting a 4.52 ERA--that number only told part of the story. Jennings was a better pitcher than that in 2002, just as Dante Bichette was a worse hitter than his .340/.364/.620 line from 1995 suggests. The point is, in 15 seasons, a 4.00 ERA in Coors Field doesn't seem like a 4.00 ERA; we've learned that it's better than that.

However, in professional baseball, Coors Field is just one of many drastic stadiums across America. Each Baseball Prospectus annual has provided multi-year park factors for every professional team, so I opened up my Baseball Prospectus 2007 and found the ten strangest stadiums from 2004-2006. These parks may lack the notoriety of Coors Field, so we'll use today to point out the extreme player seasons each of these stadiums might be helping to create.

Alburquerque Isotopes (Florida Marlins Triple-A affiliate)
Three-Year Park Factor: 1117.3

The Marlins have done a good job of recognizing the poor developmental value of their highest-level affiliate, so this season nary an important prospect has reached New Mexico as the organization seems to be steering their better players straight from Carolina to Miami. In case you were wondering, no, neither Chad Hermansen (.310/.378/.510) nor Reggie Abercrombie (.282/.353/.534) is suddenly coming to life. And if you need any proof that the Marlins needed to trade Josh Beckett, consider Robert Andino's hitting line in the United States' easiest offensive park: .264/.301/.373. On the mound, it's been predictably ugly. The ace of the staff, Chris George, is sporting a 5.08 ERA in 72 2/3 innings; he's inexplicably pitching better at home.

Asheville Tourists (Colorado Rockies Low-A affiliate)
Three-Year Park Factor: 1117

Low-A is a far more important stop on the developmental ladder than Triple-A, so the Rockies have been forced over the years to almost always send their top talents to northern North Carolina. Ian Stewart had a fantastic season in Asheville, if you recall. This season, the offense is down a bit, but the middle infield of Hector Gomez and Daniel Mayora have been Asheville beneficiaries, as seen by their respective road OPS figures of 683 and 696. The pitching staff has a gem in southpaw Keith Weiser, who has a 3.86 ERA at home thanks to fanastic command. Weiser's other rotation mates have not been as lucky, but look out for Aneury Rodriguez, who has 69 strikeouts in 65.2 innings but has struggled (5.59 ERA) in seven home starts. The context of his home park could be affecting Aneury's numbers negatively.

High Desert Mavericks (Seattle Mariners High-A affiliate)
Three-Year Park Factor: 1109.7

This affiliate has switched organizations frequently in recent years, as no organization can stand the problems the home stadium poses for their player development programs. The Brewers were forced to skip Prince Fielder a level because of High Desert, and Billy Butler's stay in the California League served little purpose. This season the Mariners have the affiliation, and predictably, Seattle has kept most of their prospects away. Last year's top pick Chris Tillman was moved up after blazing through the Midwest League, but the right-hander has been disastrous in four starts in the California League, including two in High Desert. The team has no great prospect after Tillman, and you certainly shouldn't believe what catcher Adam Moore's numbers (.284/.378/.590) are telling you.

San Jose Giants (San Francisco Giants High-A affiliate)
Three-Year Park Factor: 898.3

Let's stay in the California League for a second, but this time, we move to the country's most difficult park for hitters. The Giants are a natural affiliate for such an organization, as San Francisco rarely has good hitters to send to High-A, and their pitching prospects can always use the confidence boost. This season is a bit different, as the only two prospects on the team--Ben Copeland and Emmanuel Burriss--are hitters. Neither are power hitters, but while Copeland has not been affected by the stadium, Burriss had a 318 OPS in 19 games before being sent to Low-A. The pitching staff is also certainly getting numbers it doesn't deserve, because you certainly shouldn't believe that Dave McKae (1.93 ERA) or Paul Oseguera (3.05 ERA) are good prospects.

Lancaster Jethawks (Boston Red Sox High-A affiliate)
Three-Year Park Factor: 1092.3

Moving their top A-ball team to the California League is a decision the Red Sox have come to regret, as no organization has been more affected by a home stadium. The Red Sox have seen big numbers on both sides of the ball, not what they had in mind when assigning a number of top prospects to High-A. Daniel Bard quickly flamed out (10.13 ERA), and neither Kris Johnson (6.91 ERA) nor Justin Masterson (5.55 ERA) have been very good. If the Red Sox needed closure on their failed Mike Rozier signing, the lefty's 7.78 ERA in 11 starts has probably allowed Boston to rule the move a bust. Offensively, the talk has centered around Bubba Bell, but he, Zach Daeges and Aaron Bates all should not be taken seriously. Catcher Mark Wagner is the only decent prospect of the bunch, but his 724 road OPS suggests that even his season has been greatly inflated. In the end, look for the Red Sox to move out of California quickly.

New Orleans Zephyrs (New York Mets Triple-A affiliate)
Three-Year Park Factor: 912

Both the Washington Nationals and Tulane Green Wave were excited to leave Zephyr Field after 2006, a stadium which had proved impossible for both team's hitters. The Mets have moved to the stadium and the results haven't been as drastic as past years. The pitching staff hasn't been very good, with Philip Humber's 4.50 ERA leading the pack. Jason Vargas is probably worse than his 4.80 ERA attests, but there's no explaining Adam Bostick's earned run average north of seven. Offensively, the team is between talented center fielders, as Carlos Gomez is in the major leagues and Lastings Milledge is injured. If Chip Ambres (.314/.397/.574) hasn't yet proved he deserves an extended chance at a major league starting job he probably never will, but his 850 OPS in the minors' second-hardest place to hit is another data point in his favor.

Salt Lake Bees (Los Angeles Angels Triple-A affliate)
Three-Year Park Factor: 1088

The Angels farm system is an odd one, with two difficult stadiums for hitters in Cedar Rapids and Arkansas in Low-A and Double-A, while the other two full-season affiliates providing easy offensive parks. While Brandon Wood was dominant in his first taste of an offense-friendly Angels affiliate in 2005, the power has not been present at Salt Lake this season. Wood has actually been worse at home than on the road, with far more of his 61 strikeouts coming in 27 games in Utah. The stadium may be playing more difficult this season, as neither Jeff Mathis or Kendry Morales are finding its confines friendly in the early going. However, don't tell Terry Evans the park factors are wrong--the outfielder is following up his breakout campaign nicely with a 944 home OPS. On the mound, Joe Saunders has pitched eight times, and the difference in hits per nine on the road (5.8) and home (12.9) testify to the difficulty Salt Lake's Franklin Covey Field poses for pitchers.

Norfolk Tides (Baltimore Orioles Triple-A affiliate)
Three-Year Park Factor: 915.3

Moving to New Orleans likely hasn't been too drastic a change for Mets Triple-A repeaters, as the team merely left one tough hitting environment for another. Now the Mets long-time Triple-A home is wreaking havoc on Oriole hatchlings. The team has no great prospects on the offensive side, but J.R. House has struggled with the difficulties of calling Norfolk home--after a 913 OPS in his 2006 comeback, House has slugged .323 in 26 games in Norfolk, with 80% of his extra-base hits on the season coming on the road. The team's best prospect, Garrett Olson, has done well at home, but has struggled with the long ball, allowing four home runs in five Norfolk starts. Once Olson gets that under control, he should begin to better enjoy that benefits of being a Tide.

Jupiter Hammerheads (Florida Marlins High-A affliate)
Three-Year Park Factor: 916.3

We all remember hearing praise for Miguel Cabrera during his minor-league seasons, and raves about his tools despite subpar numbers in Kane County and Jupiter; Cabrera's age and numbers were actually fantastic for his environment. This has been kept in mind ever since Cabrera left the Florida State League, and helped propel Jeremy Hermida to the top of prospect lists. The Marlins hoped the stadium would pay dividends by giving this year's talented rotation confidence, but instead it adds confusion, as it's hard to tell which Chris Volstad is the real one: the guy posting a 3.63 home ERA, or the one with the disastrous 7.39 ERA in five road starts? Aaron Thompson and Ryan Tucker have also been better at home, but neither has struggled away from Jupiter as much as Volstad has. The stadium's influence can also be seen on the hitters, particularly 2006 Sally League sluggers Gaby Sanchez and Kris Harvey. Sanchez is slugging .360 on the season, and Harvey has been worse, with his sub-500 OPS removing his name from anybody's prospects list.

Tacoma Rainiers (Seattle Mariners Triple-A)
Three-Year Park Factor: 919.3

Need proof that Adam Jones is ready for the majors? While Jones has been better on the road, his .291/.357/.504 line at home this season should indicate what he can do at Safeco Field. To think that Jones numbers have been depressed by one of the game's most difficult offensive environments makes me realize that the outfielder has probably become a top 20 prospect in the season's first half. He's been joined by two other sluggers in the Rainiers lineup this season, as both Wladimir Balentien (.311/.389/.540) and Jeff Clement (.251/.343/.483) are surviving the challenge of hitting in Cheney Stadium. The park probably isn't useful for how it may be supressing Jeremy Reed's trade value, as his numbers have been brought down by a 591 home OPS. The pitching staff has yet to take full advantage of its environment, although we can only imagine how bad Jake Woods' season might be if not for Tacoma, with a 4.82 home ERA versus 10.57 road ERA, with five starts apiece.

Bryan Smith is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Bryan's other articles. You can contact Bryan by clicking here

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