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August 26, 2009

You Could Look It Up

Don't Fence Me In

by Steven Goldman

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Writing recently in Pinstriped Bible, I dismissed those who would condemn the offensive generosity of the new Yankee Stadium, saying:

Whether it's Coors Field and its altitude or the old Polo Grounds with its shortened foul lines which resulted in home runs which were criticized as cheap, or even Babe Ruth's porch at Yankee Stadium I, they're all legitimate versions of a playing field. The great thing about baseball there are no correct parks or incorrect parks. They just play the way they play. The Yankees have nothing to apologize for.

One of the aspects of the new park that is working very well for the Bombers is its favoritism towards left-handed hitters. Through Monday, all southpaws, Yankees and visitors alike, had hit 102 home runs in 2,138 at-bats as compared to 83 in 1,981 at-bats for right-handed hitters. As it turns out, the park is just good for home runs, regardless of which side of the plate you favor. Lefties have hit .284/.365/.521 at the new park, with one home run every 21 at-bats, while righties have batted .263/.354/.452 and hit one every 21. This works out to a difference of four homers over 600 at-bats. Yet, the park's reputation as a lefty-hitter's haven was sealed on April 17, the second home game of the season, when the Yankees hit five home runs into the right-field seats.

As is traditional for the Yankees, the park is more favorable if the ball is hit towards right, and both left-handers and those right-handers who, like Derek Jeter, can hit the ball in the air to the opposite field have both done very well. Here is how home runs hit in the park this year break down by direction:

Left field:   46
Left-center:  13
Center field:  9
Right-center: 33
Right field:  83

The park's image is partially the result of the Yankees fielding a lineup that is so well positioned to take advantage of its quirks. On most nights, the Yankees list four switch-hitters and three lefties, which means that they get to take shots at the right-field fence far more often than the opposition. They have sent lefty swingers to the plate 1,396 times, versus only 1,058 times for opponents. That works out to 60 percent of all plate appearances versus only 48 percent of all opponents' plate appearances. Reduce the Yankees to 48 percent by swapping out 260 plate appearances by left-handers and replacing them with your standard righties, and somewhere between five and ten home runs would likely disappear from the team's season total, and the new Stadium would not appear to be quite as much an unbalanced homer haven. It's the Yankees that are unbalanced, not the park.

One of the true crimes against baseball history is that the Dodgers couldn't take advantage of their 1958 home park the way the Yankees have theirs. They didn't have a true right-handed power hitter playing for them when they first moved into the Los Angeles Coliseum, a roughly oval track-and-field/football stadium in which they had to turn the baseball diamond sideways to fit it into the walls. As such, the left-field line was only 250 feet away from home plate, rapidly dropped away to 320, then further dropped to 425 in the alley. Center field was 425 feet away, and the right-field line was only 301, but right-center went out to the horizon line, vanishing in the hazy distance 440 feet away. This pretty much ended Duke Snider's career as a power hitter at 30; in 1957, his last season in Ebbets Field, he popped 40 home runs for the fifth consecutive season. He hit 15 the next year, six at home (where he hit .294/.335/.441), nine on the road (.331/.407/.573). Snider later told author Steve Delsohn that the first time Willie Mays played at the Coliseum he told the Dodgers' center fielder, "Duke, they killed you. Man, they took the bat right out of your hands."

The attempted solution to the problem was the addition of Green Monster West. A 40-foot screen was erected in left field so that mere pop-ups would not go for home runs. It didn't really work-that year, eight home runs were hit to right field, three to center, and 182 to left. The next season, they evened out the dimensions, raising the screen to 42 feet high (and subsequently 60) and cut off right-center field at 375 feet. Until then, they had to live with things the way they were.

Any right-handed power hitters the Dodgers did have were past their prime. When Walt Alston's refugees went Hollywood, Gil Hodges was 34 and Carl Furillo was 36. Roy Campanella's career had ended that offseason due to a crippling car accident. Hulking Frank Howard, who would go on to hit 382 home runs in the majors, was only 21 and didn't play much. Subsequently he would get in about a season and a half in the Coliseum and have trouble taking advantage of it. Howard had conflicts with the Dodgers about the kind of hitter he wanted to be-Dave Kingman, basically-and the kind of hitter they thought he could be, which was someone more in the Harmon Killebrew mold, powerful, but selective. This led to some arguments and disappointments, despite Howard winning the 1960 Rookie of the Year Award. Howard hit only .223/.274/.386 on the road that year, but .311/.363/.539 at home, with a home run every 16 at-bats in the Coliseum. The next year he dropped off to .310/.365/.484 with only four homers at home in 126 at-bats, and it seems likely that he was getting a lot of lectures about cutting down his swing. On the road, he hit .284/.331/.546, with a homer every 13 at-bats. It would take Ted Williams to get through to Howard about selectivity, but they wouldn't get together until 1969, when Howard's career was almost over. Nonetheless, he had his two best seasons for the Splinter in 1969 and 1970.

Hodges was the Dodger who took best advantage of the new fence in the LA Coliseum, using the park to hide a steep decline. He hit .238/.323/.385 with nine home runs in 231 at-bats on the road, but .279/.337/.480 with 13 home runs in 244 at-bats at home. Furillo, in his last season as a regular, hit .274/.332/.438 with seven home runs in 201 road at-bats, but .305/.353/.524 with 11 home runs in 210 home at-bats. Second baseman Charlie Neal slugged .488 at home, .385 on the road, and the great Don Zimmer hit .299/.343/.493 at home, .232/.274/.354 on the road.

These, of course, were mere amateurs. What happened when real right-handed power hitters came to town? Frank Robinson was a career .297/.461/.601 hitter in 41 games at the Coliseum, with nine home runs in 138 at-bats. Ernie Banks hit .264/.370/.511 with 13 home runs in 178 at-bats in 44 games. Willie Mays also played 44 games in the park, and hit .367/.456/.695 with 12 home runs in 177 at-bats. His teammate, Orlando Cepeda hit .320/.355/.509 with seven home runs in 175 at-bats. Hank Aaron played 45 games and hit .306/.348/.511 with nine home runs in 186 at-bats. Pittsburgh's Frank Thomas (the cranky original, not the Big Hurt) hit .294/.345/.620 with 17 home runs in 163 at-bats. These numbers were compiled while having to hit off of good Dodgers pitching, a young and powerful rotation featuring Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Stan Williams, and Johnny Podres. Though these pitchers were not at their peak at the outset of the Coliseum period, they improved rapidly.

In December of 1958, the Dodgers would acquire outfielder Wally Moon, a left-handed hitter who learned to pop the ball to the opposite field, hitting many "Moon shots" over the wall. In three years at the Coliseum he would compile some terrific home-field numbers, batting .297/.397/.557 in 1959, .307/.379/.476 in 1960, and .382/.469/.635 in 1961. Snider, though beginning to slip physically, recovered some offense with the addition of the fairer right-field alley, hitting .342/.415/.574 at home. Perhaps not coincidentally, they rebounded from 71-83 and seventh place in 1958 to 88-68 and first place in 1959, and went on to defeat the White Sox in the World Series.

Despite this happy result, were the Dodgers more than transient residents of the Coliseum, planning to stay on instead of relocating to Chavez Ravine, an argument can be made that they were wrong to alter the dimensions in the same way the Yankees would be wrong to alter the dimensions of their new park. The Coliseum was unorthodox, awkward, and unsuited to baseball both from a player and fan perspective, but since baseball does not require uniform dimensions for ballparks, its real crime was that the Dodgers didn't have an Aaron, Mays, or Robinson who could pop balls over the wall. Had they remained in the Coliseum instead of moving out to Chavez Ravine, in time they could have acquired those kinds of players, and perhaps the Hollywood Wall would now be a part of baseball lore.

As for the Yankees, three-quarters of a season doesn't make for much more than circumstantial evidence, and they shouldn't overreact to one season of some cheap home runs to right field, especially when they've gotten so much more out of this quirk than have their opponents. This was a bit of good luck rather than planning; they didn't know how the new park would play, so they couldn't build for it. Should the park continue in a similar vein and not see its proclivities change for whatever reason (El Niño? Global warming?) they can plan the same kind of rosters that luck accomplished for them this year. Ideally, that will mean a new emphasis on building from within, given that you can't control how many left-handed hitters and pitchers are available on the free-agent market each year. Rather than throwing away picks on the likes of David Parrish or Andrew Brackman, they might think more carefully, because that "polished college" left-handed hitter or pitcher just might prove to be more valuable to them than to anybody else.

Or, then again, they could just change raise the height of the fences, negate their advantage, and not have to think as hard. With so many criticisms of the Stadium's generosity, they'll have an excuse. History, though, dictates they do the opposite. The Dodgers of the 1960s stumbled into the same situation as the Yankees in 1962, when Dodger Stadium proved to be a terrific pitcher's park, just the thing for their dominant staff. They then spent the next 30 years striving to maintain that advantage above all else. They could have lowered the mound and brought the fences in, but why would they have? Just because some newsman complained about the way the park played? The Yankees would be better off letting Wally Moon be their guide. There are no bad ballparks, only teams that fail to adapt to them.

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

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